It’s OK to Get Upset

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As long as I have been a part of the early childhood education world, the following phrase has been a part of it: You get what you get, and you don’t get upset. 

I don’t know when parents and educators started using this phrase, but can we please stop?

Not only is it dismissive to the child aka you’re feelings don’t matter but more and more research indicates the importance of teaching children how to express and handle their emotions. When we teach children about their emotions, we give them the power of expression and self, and we start letting them know their mental health and well-being are just as important as their physical well-being.

I understand what the phrase is trying to do; it’s saying, whatever happens, it’s going to be ok, but to blatantly and repeatedly tell children they cannot get upset is ridiculous; it’s also not human.

We get upset. I get upset. One day years ago, when I was teaching four-and-five-year-olds, it was my day to be at the school early and open the classroom. On these days, I made a special stop at Starbucks and bought an expensive splurge drink. A parent who was in a rush asked if they could leave their child with me.  Even though I wasn’t clocked in yet and not even in my classroom, I was in the kitchen of the school enjoying my last moments of quiet before the crazy day began; I said yes. 

While in my hazy, still sleepy, somewhat-annoyed-that-the-parent-had-just-done-this-state, and trying to keep an eye on the kid while I got what I needed for the classroom snack that morning, I set my coffee down on an uneven surface and the entirety of my specialty, splurge coffee spilled on the floor. 

It wasn’t even 7 A.M. My once-a-week splurge lay on the floor (and I now had to clean it up). And I had a 4-year-old standing next to me. I vividly remember telling myself silently, “Don’t cry. Do not let this child see you cry over a spilled coffee.” Honestly I wanted to have a tantrum.

So why didn’t I have a tantrum? Well, I came close, but I didn’t because I had learned how to process and handle strong emotions. We need to teach our children that it is OK to be upset when something negative happens, but how you respond that matters.

When I was teaching and passing things out, I would always shorten it to “You get what you get.” There was always at least one child in the class who would then say, “and you don’t get upset.” When that happened, I would look at them and say, “It’s ok to be upset when you don’t get what you want; what’s important is how you handle it.” Pay attention to that second part – it is OK to get upset when you don’t get what you want.

I have been performing in theater and music nearly my entire life, which means there are countless times I didn’t get the part or the solo I auditioned for and wanted. Do you know how many times I was upset I didn’t get the part I wanted? EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Of course I was upset! But here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go on social media and bash everyone involved with the show. I didn’t scream and throw things. I didn’t swear off doing theater ever again. 

I talked to a friend or my mom. I went and did something I enjoyed like reading a book.  I took a walk and listened to music. I enjoyed a glass (or two) of wine. I took a bubble bath. The point is I found ways to work through my disappointment and move on. These are the skills we need to be teaching our kids. Go ahead and have your disappointment, but let’s figure out the best way to handle it.

There are times I cried and times I didn’t. There are times it took me a few weeks to get over the disappointment and times it only took a few hours, but I was still upset every single time; because I’m human. 

Is it appropriate for a ten-year-old to cry because their sibling got the last green Jolly Rancher?  In most cases, no; but they are allowed to be bummed out about it. Is it appropriate for a five-year-old to have a tantrum because their best friend got the sticker they wanted at circle time? Probably not, but if they do, we can use it as a teaching opportunity to find other ways to express disappointment.

It is rarely a healthy option to tell kids “Don’t cry” because it is another way of telling them their emotions are not valid, but sometimes it can be hard not to roll our adult eyes and think, “Really? He’s crying because Godzilla is no longer on Amazon Prime?” (And yes, my son did this. So what I like to do instead is say, “It is ok to be upset, but Is this situation worth your tears?” Phrasing things in this way makes children slow down and evaluate their responses.

We can help our children process big emotions and disappointments by using phrases like:

  • I see you’re really upset right now. Would you like some space?
  • This seems to be making you sad. Do you want to talk about it?
  • It is ok to be angry, but it is not OK to hurt people or things.
  • You seem worried. Would you like me to sit with you?
  • I am not sure what is bothering you, but I am here if you want to talk.

The more we as adults recognize and discuss emotions, the more our children will understand them. Like language and social interactions, children learn about handling emotions from the adults surrounding them.

If a child grows up in a house where anger is considered “bad,” they may have trouble processing feelings of anger because they believe it makes them bad. We must also avoid assigning emotions to genders. For example, if children hear that crying and whining is what girls do and boys should be strong and fearless, then we are assigning weakness as feminine, but we are telling our boys that they have to be brave all the time. 

Fear is another normal and completely biological response in many situations; fear is what kept our early ancestors alive. They needed to know when to run, when to fight, and when to hide too, survive. 

Emotions need just to be emotions—all normal and all OK.

Children should be learning self-awareness and understanding of their own emotions, regulating and controlling those emotions, learning to understand what is essential and what is not (AKA is this situation worth your tears?), and reading and understanding emotions in others. 

We do this when we allow children to see our emotions and emotional process and demonstrate how to handle disappointing and upsetting situations. Teaching emotional intelligence puts our children in the driver’s seat of their mental well-being and teaches them how to problem-solve and self-soothe. 

So, teach your kids you get what you get, and you CAN get upset. But also teach them that a tantrum over a Jolly Rancher probably isn’t worth the energy spent, and if you take the red one, at least you still got candy! More importantly, you’re helping them process their emotions and how to handle things independently so that when they are thrity they don’t have a melt down over spilled coffee.

Humanity for our Teachers

I want to give a shout-out to all the educators who have been working tirelessly since last spring to ensure our children had a safe place to learn, whether virtually or in the building.

While my situation allowed me to leave the classroom and stay home with my children, I realize that is not the case for many, and I understand how fortunate I am.  I spent a mere two weeks teaching and trying to juggle childcare for my children before I was furloughed and then eventually decided to stay home.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot put myself in the shoes of anyone out there still navigating the work and childcare battle, but I know it is hard. I spent years struggling with finding subs when my kids were sick, and I had no one to watch them because their father was a full-time student.

I spent years being the one who missed work because it cost less for me to stay home than it did their father.  I’ve felt the unsurmountable stress of finding a babysitter for the weekend or evening school event.  And, I’ve been home, extremely ill with two small children because I didn’t have anyone to drop them off or pick them up, or when I lived in Chicago, the drive was too far.  

Since I switched to writing full time, I have had my calls interrupted by my kids.  I have had my work stopped because there was a nerf battle going on in the basement, or someone fell outside during recess and was injured.  I have had days where I’ve been interrupted so many times to help with school work I eventually gave up on what I was writing for the day.

I have cried in frustration too.

I understand the plight of the working parent.  But I also understand what our educators have been going through.  And many of these educators are also working parents.

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People are constantly worried about kids falling behind; I admit I have had my moments too, but then I stopped and asked myself, “What are we so afraid of them falling behind?” 

Math scores?  Reading tests? Arbitrary numbers and statistics that we are told our children need to meet to be the best.  We’re continually telling ourselves and our children that they have to be the best.  And again I questioned, the best at what?

I want my children to be the best at being human, being kind, empathetic, helpful, compassionate, and understanding, and that starts at home with parents and caregivers.  

We can start by showing educators compassion and understanding.  

I believe my son’s 1st-grade teacher is a saint as I watch and listen to her daily try to wrangle 17 first graders to pay attention to a screen, to help them one at a time to navigate through which button to push or link to click and she never sounds impatient or mad. 

Do I think most children would do better in a physical classroom? Of course. My son with severe ADHD would benefit significantly from being hands-on in a school, but it has not been an option where I live nor for many around the country. 

As an educational advocate, I also understand that the playing field isn’t equal, and virtual schools make it even less so for some.  My heart aches daily for the children going hungry or being abused and who lack the school building’s safety to come to for eight hours a day and may miss getting a warm meal, or any meal at all.

I feel for the children with shaky or no internet access, whose parents can’t or won’t help them with their work, or who are struggling without the aid of tutors, mentors, and that special human touch of an in-person caring teacher.

But much of this is out of my control. And every teacher I know who is virtual is aching to be with their kids again; they just want to ensure it is safe both for them and their students.  So what is this country doing yet again to its teachers?  We are throwing them under the bus.   

I know personally, first hand more teachers than I could count, I’ve listened to their stories, I heard their fears and concerns, I watched them struggle as they too learn new technology, new ways to create and present lessons, new ways to engage children over a screen, new ways to teach.

How often in your career have to been asked to throw away 85% of what you know and, in a few short months, been told, figure out a new way? Oh, and it better be perfect because if not, we’re judging you and then going to bully you?  I hazard to guess you’ve expected to do that zero times.

But somehow, it has become ok to bully teachers because they are not perfect.  Somehow, once again, it is the teacher’s fault that our child is not “the best.”  Somehow we are again blaming schools and educators for everything wrong with society.

And people wonder why there is a teacher shortage.

I get sick to my stomach when I see comments like “go back to work,” “stop being lazy,” “you need to do your job.”

If you think teaching 20 kids over a screen while simultaneously not losing your cool, trying to offer individualized instruction, and trying to make sure something you are presenting sticks, then please, by all means, try it.

Oh, and add to that the hours you spend off-screen planning lessons, adapting them for online and hybrid learning, grading and assessing work, answering parent emails and phone calls, and attending meetings on how to continually better the system that has been evolving day after day.

My older son’s third-grade teacher is buying science experiment supplies, driving around to each child in her class’s home this weekend, and delivering the materials so every child in her class can participate.  She also dropped off goodie bags and supplies before the school year began and before winter break.

Teachers.  I applaud you.  I support you.  I respect you.

The thing that really gets me, though, is that my kids HAVE learned this past year.  They have advanced academically and picked up skills they didn’t have a year ago, and I would assume that my kids aren’t the only two who have learned new information and skills.

So what exactly is there to be angry at teachers about?

They have also learned adaptability, flexibility, problem-solving, computer skills, creativity, resourcefulness, how to think outside the box, patience, acceptance, and that life doesn’t always go as one would like.

In my opinion, valuable skills.

The truth of COVID life is, many careers have had to switch to a virtual setting, but I don’t notice anyone giving other professions a hard time or calling them lazy as they perform their work from home.

Yes, children need socialization, we all do, and this has been extremely challenging; I miss my friends and all the things I used to do too, but why does society think that everyone gets a free pass except the teachers?

Why and when have we, as a country, stopped valuing what they do?  

Why are we supporting hundreds of other industries that have been effected, but the industry that produces our most valuable resource has been vilified?

Frustration is high, but people are also scared, and the last time I checked, people have a right to feel that way.  This has been a scary and unprecedented time in our history.

It seems insane to me that a medical condition has become political, that so many refuse to believe what science says. Still, this is new and scary, and information comes from a thousand different places, so maybe I do get it.  You have people who still believe vaccines cause autism.  They don’t.

I do not claim to have the answers, but I know that being kind goes a long way.  Perhaps in place of fear and blame, we could try compassion and support because, in the end, above all else, that is what I hope my children learn from this experience; not multiplication or that the first word of the sentence needs to be capitalized but to rally in a time of confusion and fear instead of tearing one another down.

I hope they learn how to be human.