I recently taught my kindergartners a lesson about emotions. It’s part of a larger unit on the brain that I have been developing for years. The goal is to give the students the tool of self-awareness to help them gain self-control. The more we understand about how something works, the more we can control it. Understanding requires awareness. I particularly want to help them learn to control their feelings of anger. A few of my students have very short tempers and are alienating other students. They’ll scream in each other’s faces and it even becomes violent at times. Instead of just telling them these behaviors are wrong, I want to give them tools for identifying and managing anger.
So, how do I start this discussion? I believe any new topic should start with some fundamental questions:
- What is it? (classification)
- How does it work? (causes)
- What is it for? (consequences)
- What is my connection to this topic?
In this post I want to focus on the third question, “What is it for?” because I recently read something that changed my thinking about anger altogether. I already held the notion that emotions are used as labels to manage and organize our memories. We use these labels particularly in decision making. In this way, emotions are motivators. If something makes you happy, you’ll try to get more of it. If something disgusts you, you’ll try to avoid it. But what about anger?
If we look at our own and others’ behavior, we can easily see that anger motivates us to hurt others. But I propose that there is another, more useful way to interpret our anger: not as a call to action, but rather as an indicator of wrong behavior. i.e. If someone hits you, you should read the resulting anger in yourself as a label warning against, not the person, but the behavior. The realization in that moment should be, “Hitting is wrong” and not, “That guy is bad.”
This idea fits nicely with everyone’s favorite aphorism, known commonly as The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So, if something makes you angry, it’s a good idea to assume that if you do it to someone else, it will make them angry too. And here’s where empathy comes into play. Sometimes children want to make others angry, and awareness of their ability to do so only makes them more effective. We need empathy in the mix to stop ourselves from using our powers in the wrong way.
Empathy tells us that everyone’s feelings are connected. If I hurt someone, I am really hurting myself. Their pain is my pain. If I don’t like being angry, then I should avoid doing things to make others angry.
So, when my students are angry, what are they supposed to do? It’s unrealistic to expect them to push their anger to the side, and furthermore, that may be an unhealthy strategy. Instead, I try to teach them to turn their anger into empathy as often as possible. Here’s the idea: When someone hurts you, it’s a safe bet that that person is in pain. People usually don’t hurt each other on purpose unless they’re feeling bad themselves. With this knowledge, it makes far more sense to respond with compassion and kindness when someone hurts you. It’s hard to be angry at and compassionate toward someone at the same time. You have to understand that the other person is in pain and feel their pain and use that to motivate your actions, rather than anger.