Bottling Up Your Emotions, Children Edition

Have a look at this FAQ from a quiverfull blogger:

How do you deal with (1) whining/complaining, (2) arguing with parental directions, (3) poor attitudes (sulking, etc.) in response to chores, food, parental decisions, etc., (4) tantrums.

All of the above are a lot easier to avoid, than to deal with. We do not permit whining, complaining, arguing, sulking, tantrums, sibling fighting, rudeness, etc. We avoid them by teaching why such attitudes and behaviors are wrong, and then punishing them if they occur. As a result, these episodes are few and far between, to the betterment of every member of the family.

Notice that the blogger says she teaches her children that bad attitudes and complaining are wrong, and then weeds them out by punishing every instance. She probably thinks she’s teaching her children how to handle their feelings with maturity. Not so—she is teaching them to smother their feelings, and that their feelings do not matter. I grew up in a family liked this. Complaining and bad attitudes were not allowed. We children were very aware that being sulky could get you spanked or sent to your bed. Even a disconsolate face could get you a time out, or assigned sentences to write out over and over. As a result, bad attitudes and complaining were rare (relatively speaking)—at least on the outside.

I don’t understand how parents don’t realize that teaching children to bottle up their feelings is a bad idea. Children should be taught to explore and understand their feelings, and how to properly handle and work through them. Just this evening Sally was trying to put a puzzle away, and for some reason the box wasn’t working, and she suddenly burst out with “I am getting SO ANGRY with this!!!” I was on the other side of the kitchen and hadn’t noticed her struggle. I empathized with her frustration and then advised her to either take a deep breath and think about the problem and try again or ask for help. Other feelings are often similar.

How do I deal with whining, tantrums, bad attitudes, or complaining? I listen to Sally and take her needs and feelings into account, I encourage her to be introspective and to think about how she feels and why, I offer advice on how to work through what she is feeling, and, if needed, I remove myself or her from the situation until she cools down (for instance, in the case of the very rare really bad tantrum). I make it clear what she may not do—hit someone, break something in anger, etc.—and why, but I never, ever question her feelings or tell her she shouldn’t or can’t feel the way she does.

Do I like it when Sally whines? Of course not. And when it happens, it’s not uncommon for me to ask her to take a deep breath and ask again without whining. I also try to see tantrums in advance and short circuit them, sometimes by suggesting to Sally that it might help if she lay on the couch to calm down (something she now thinks of herself when she can feel herself getting worked up). And I’m not saying that parents should encourage surly behavior. What I’m saying is that suppressing your child’s emotions and feelings is never a good idea, and punishing your child for having feelings is an even worse idea. Instead, the parent’s focus should be on helping children understand and come to terms with their feelings, and on teaching children how to handle their feelings without hurting others or causing others to disassociate from them.

Of course, the idea that children’s feelings should be suppressed is more widespread than just this one blogger or my parents. Rather, these ideas are quite common in the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist homeschool community within which I grew up. Let me illustrate this with some quotes from To Train Up A Child:

Sulking, pouting, whining, complaining, begging and the like, should become an eradicated disease.

To allow a child to whine and disobey is to mold a personality and character that you will eventually find hard to like. By taking control and teaching them to control their emotions and to instantly obey, the child will be cheerful and pleasant.

Just think! A child who never begs, whines or cries for anything! We have raised five whineless children. Think of the convenience of being able to lay your children down and say, “Nap time,” and then lie down yourself, knowing that they will all still be quietly in bed when you wake.

If you are faithful to guard against and reward every infraction, whether in attitude or action, in just a few days you will have a perfectly obedient and cheerful child.

To be honest, the idea that bad attitudes are rebellion to be punished and that feelings other than “happy” are things to be eliminated is fraught through the Pearls’ work—and not just their work on child training.

Of course, I’m aware that the Pearls are not all that much heard of or followed outside of the world of Christian homeschooling. But it’s not like these ideas stop there. Have a look at how Focus on the Family suggests parents respond to whining and tantrums. Are the suggestions as extreme? No, and it’s true that Focus on the Family can be quite moderate compared to the Pearls and other denizens of the Christian homeschooling world (for instance, Focus on the Family actually acknowledges that teenagers exist and that masturbation is natural and not a sin)—but if you look, the idea that whining or a tantrum is to be met with punishment is still there.

I can’t say just how widespread the idea that children’s emotions are to be bottled up rather than expressed worked through is, but I suspect these ideas extend beyond evangelicalism. I suspect that it’s not uncommon for whining or tantrums or bad attitudes to be viewed as things to eliminate rather than things to work through. It’s a symptom of seeing children as beings that should accommodate to adult desires rather than as little people who need preparation for the world of adulthood. If we can stop seeing whining or bad attitudes as simply annoying and instead approach them as moments when feelings can be accepted as okay and guidance and direction can be offered, children will be better for it.

Let me finish with one last quote from To Train Up A Child:

Don’t think of the rod as a weapon of defense or a show of force; think of the rod as a “magic wand.” The first time parents see its restorative powers they are amazed. Picture a child of any age who is miserable, complaining, a bully to the other kids. When you look at him, all you can see is the inside of a bottom lip. Every device has failed to bring relief. The kid feels that he is living in foreign, occupied territory. He is obviously plotting the day of throwing off the yoke. Bribed, threatened or swatted, he only gets worse. Fail to use the rod on this child, and you are creating a ‘”Nazi.” I still marvel at the power of the little rod. After a short explanation about bad attitudes and the need to love, patiently and calmly apply the rod to his back-side. Somehow, after eight or ten licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment. The world becomes a beautiful place. A brand new child emerges. It makes an adult stare at the rod in wonder, trying to see what magic is contained therein.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.