Raising Gentle Angry People

By Alicia Stoller

In 1968, as anger and division over our most fundamental cultural values and rights spilled into violence in many corners of our country, Fred Rogers sang this question to children: “What do you do with the mad that you feel, when you feel so mad you could bite? When the whole wide world seems oh, so wrong, and nothing you do seems very right?”

Children have powerful feelings, and learning to handle these feelings and channel them into productive rather than destructive action is one of the fundamental tasks of childhood. The lesson we try to instill is not to eliminate feelings, but to make them, in Mr. Rogers’ words, “mentionable and manageable.” We try to help children learn that it is possible to feel the world deeply, even negatively at times, and still care for the world.

We have found our way again into a period of deep cultural anger and violence. We are struggling to contain our rage and our fear in a world that seems constantly at a boiling point. We wonder how we will manage our own reactions, let alone explain this world to our children. These challenges can seem intractable in weeks like the one we’ve just come through, which began with bomb threats and ended as gunfire pierced the prayers of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. What do we, as adults, do with the anger, fear, and sadness we feel, when the world seems so wrong and broken?

Perhaps our task, even in these most wrenching times, is simply to listen to the lessons we try to instill in our children and learn from them ourselves. All of the greatest advocates for peace have spoken of moments when anger, fear, and heartbreak threatened to consume them. They struggled, as we do today, to resist descending into the very hatred they denounced, while at the same time rising above the temptation of indifference that often comes with feeling overwhelmed.

Though we think often about how to protect our children, one of the great opportunities of both teaching and parenting lies in the lessons we can learn from our children as they rise to meet their own challenges and respond to moments of hurt with gestures of repair. As a two-year-old contemplates, with wide eyes, how he will soothe the friend he just hurt and earnestly asks, “I say sorry and I kiss her?,” wanting to know if that will be enough to ease her tears, we can all learn a lesson about responsibility, remorse, and forgiveness. As a seven-year-old realizes that perhaps the friend who never wants him to play with anyone else is just afraid of being left alone, we can all learn a lesson in empathy. And as teenagers rally through their own anger, fear, and grief to make their schools safe from violence, we can all learn a lesson in courage and resilience.

I had the privilege this summer of interviewing Francesca Komar, one of our own JCP Preschool graduates, who is now in high school and active in the NYC Says Enough response to gun violence. In the course of this work, she has met survivors of mass shootings across the country, and she noted, “The most striking thing about meeting survivors of school shootings is that they’re normal kids. I am always left in awe at their composition while talking about the tragic events they’ve witnessed.” I was similarly struck by Francesca’s own composition, as she responded openly about feeling unsafe in school and in day to day life in our country, while thoughtfully describing the changes she and her friends are working to see enacted and their commitment to making their own voices heard, even as adults around them may feel paralyzed.

Elie Wiesel reminds us that, “Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice one witnesses.” Each day we teach our children to name their feelings and then to redirect them into positive action, and we encourage them to remain open, curious, and kind even in moments of distress. Perhaps this is the message we need to tell ourselves as well, if we are to heal our own hearts enough to be able to do the work of healing the world.

As Herbert Kohl writes, “We must remember and affirm what we often tell our students: that we can become the people we would like to be, that it is necessary to live with hope, and that it is possible to create a decent life and a decent world.”

Picture Books to Read Together

When Sophie Gets Angry, Really Really Angry, by Molly Bang
Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, by Rachel Vail
The Chocolate Covered Cookie Tantrum, by Deborah Blumenthal
The Feelings Book, by Todd Parr
I’m Sorry, by Sam McBratney
The Hug, by Geraldine Wolters
How to Heal a Broken Wing, by Bob Graham
Love, by Matt de la Pena
The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld

Alicia Stoller is early childhood director of the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan.