“Smile!” “Smile for the camera!” “Oh, be happy. Your aunt gave you this NICE gift.” “Don’t be a sour face. There are starving kids in Africa.” “Don’t cry.” “When grown-ups ask you how you are, just say ‘fine. Thank you.'”
We teach kids to smile to make people happy, not to express that they’re happy.
That there are a right emotion and wrong emotion – they are supposed to feel happy when someone gives them a gift even though they may be absolutely devastated that they didn’t get what they wanted.
Look at instagram. Unlike the film camera that takes 1.5 seconds from inspiration to the shutter, it takes a dozen seconds to take a cell phone photo. Do you think a child holds a smile that long? No. Almost all of the smiles you see on social media are forced and “ordered” by the authority figure or by someone who’s necessary for survival.
Almost all of the smiles on social media are “ordered.”
I want to say “This child will smile when she wants to. She will cry if she is sad, and no one will tell her not to be upset when she is in fact upset.” I don’t. The wrath of challenging a parent is too great.
It’s far greater than the expression though.
Emotions are only the second thing to pooping a human being has an autonomy over. A 6-month-old baby, still not even crawling and has no control over anything, experiences emotions. Their own unique emotions.
And we take it away.
“Don’t be sad.”
Shaking toys in their face for an instagram moment.
“LET’S GO PLAY!!” when the child is already contently playing with a string.
Insist that the infant like the adult and greet her cheerfuly because that adult is an aunt.
Expect a toddler to scream and run up when an uncle enters the door but play quietly not even a minute later because “the adults are talking.”
I was one of those kids who were inadvertently taught my smile existed to make others happy, not to express that I am happy. I was 28 when I fell apart after a few dysfunctional relationships and 33 when I realized that I had the right to and autonomy over my own emotions.
There were positive sides to this. My life was never about emotions, frustrations, or desires. So I excelled in piano, ranked 99th percentile in school grades, and won many art and writing contests. I trained dawn to dark to go from the slowest runner in school to the 3rd in the region within 12 months.
Everyone around me – my parents, my friends’ parents, my friends, my teachers – were convinced that I was the happiest, most well-adjusted child because I was so pleasant and so positive all the time. Or maybe because it was convenient.
I will not teach a child that their expression of intimacy and trust must be given away upon demand.
I do have a sense it might be convenience. When I did go to them for help, the reactions from adults were very interesting. Think about this… if a child who’s never asked for help comes to you that one time, you’d think “She doesn’t cry wolf. There must be something wrong,” right? This is not how they reacted.
“There is nothing wrong. Just go on. You’ll feel better in a few days.”
Adding to everything that had happened, there was probably no better way to emphasize lack of autonomy over my emotions.
I was experiencing gas-lighting. Maybe I’m not being bullied and ostracized at school, physically and emotionally abused at home, I believed.
Reading this, you might be thinking “Oh, that’s just a worst-case scenario.” I assure you this is an extremely common theme I see in adults. They’d do anything, including throwing their loved ones under the bus, in order to be perceived “nice” and “pleasant.”
Coming from this background and through self-reflection, I have made those commitments.
1. I do not force an emotion/expression on a child.
2. I do not deny a child of an emotion (frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger) and instead help them find the healthy ways to express them.
3. I do not demand an expression of intimacy, e.g. hugging, smiling, standing very close.
4. And, if I ever accidentally or inevitably do one of the above, I will not teach the child that it made me happy. I will not teach a child that sacrificing their sense of self leads to approval and popularity. I will not teach a child that their expression of intimacy and trust must be given away upon demand.