Angry Fish, Happy Fish

June 4, 2014  |  parenting

Angry FishRecently I overheard an interesting conversation at the fish tank in the children’s play area at our local mall. It was between a mother and daughter (I would guess approximately 2 years old) as follows:

Mother: See the fish?

Daughter: Angry fish.

Mother: No, happy fish.

Daughter: Angry fish.

Mother: Happy fish.

Daughter: Happy fish?

Mother: Happy fish.

Daughter: Happy fish.

The mother, satisfied, escorts her daughter away.

To many, this may seem like an innocuous conversation. Before I became a parent, I may have not thought twice about what I observed, or perhaps thought that the mother was trying to instill some kind of benevolence into her child.

It’s difficult to guess what the mother’s objective actually was. Perhaps it was her own insecurity with not being able to deal with negative emotions. Perhaps it was her desire to project a benevolent, happy universe. Perhaps the fish really did look happy and not angry, and she was correcting her daughter and wanted her to make the “right” observation.

It wasn’t until I discovered Magda Gerber’s books (Your Self-Confident Baby, Dear Parent) and learned about her RIE philosophy that I even considered looking at the situation from the child’s point of view. What is the girl thinking when her mother insists that the fish is happy? And what message are we sending a child when we feel the need to constantly correct or instill the right answers in them? Let’s replay the conversations and the possible implications and interpretations that the child might have about it:

Mother: See the fish?
(Child’s point of view: Mommy sets the agenda, I am not the director of my own mind).

Daughter: Angry fish.
(The fish is angry!!)

Mother: No, happy fish.
(Mommy is saying the fish is happy. I guess I got it wrong. Is the fish happy? It looks angry to me. Why does mommy think the fish is happy? Clearly it is not!)

Daughter: Angry fish.
(I will tell her again what I see. I see that the fish is angry. It is clearly angry!)

Mother: Happy fish.
(Mommy is insisting the fish is happy. This is really important because she is squeezing my hand when she says it. I better get the right answer to please mommy, but the fish really does still look angry!)

Daughter: Happy fish?
(I’m not sure about this. The fish really doesn’t look happy but mommy thinks it’s happy and this is important to her. I really hope this is the right answer to give her.)

Mother: Happy fish.
(I guess I didn’t say it right. It’s very important to mommy that I say that the fish is happy. I guess what I think doesn’t matter very much. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the fish really is happy. Mommy knows a lot more than I do, I need to trust her judgement and not my own.)

Daughter: Happy fish.
(I guess the fish really is happy. I can’t really trust my own judgment. My mind is not capable of observing reality properly or drawing it’s own conclusions. I need mommy to tell me what to think of what I see, and it is very important to get the right answers. Who am I to know, anyway?)

The mother, satisfied, escorts her daughter away.
(I guess that was the right answer. Mommy really doesn’t like unhappy things. It’s very important everything is happy all the time. Being angry is bad. If I feel angry then I am bad. I shouldn’t feel angry. I need to put on a show for mommy. Always be happy and always give the right answers.)

That’s a lot if pressure on anyone, let alone a two year old. The encounter instills the very opposite of what was likely intended by the mother.

Some of these thoughts may be open to interpretation. One encounter like this, for example, is not going to convince the child that his mind is incapable of dealing with reality — but repeated encounters like this from parents and primary caretakers throughout the child’s upbringing definitely can.

One of the best books I have read on these matters is How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, And Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The book discusses in detail encounters like these, the unintended consequences of traditional ways of interacting with our children and how to interact with your child in a way that fosters independence, self-esteem and authenticity.

So how might we better approach a simple encounter like this? Here is one such possibility:

Mother and daughter walk by the fish tank. The mother does not direct the child to the tank, but rather waits to see where her interests are directed.

Daughter (pointing): Angry fish.
(I see a fish in the tank. It looks angry!)

Mother: You’re pointing to the fish and saying angry fish.
(Mommy noticed what I did. The fish really looks angry, I need to tell mommy!)

Daughter: Angry fish.
(Mommy is listening attentively. What I think is important to her. She wants to know more about me and how I feel.)

Mother: Why do you think the fish is angry?

Here, the conversation could go in any number of directions depending on the scenario. Perhaps the child thinks the fish is angry because it’s mouth looks like it’s in a frowning position, or maybe it’s darting through the water very quickly. Perhaps the child is projecting her own anger about something else onto the fish and this is her way of expressing it.

There could be any number of reasons why the child thinks the fish is angry. But we would never know what those reasons are unless we let go of our own agendas and listen instead.

Listening, observing, and validating what the child is saying (and perhaps asking a question or two) sends the child the message that what she thinks is important, that her mind is capable of drawing its own conclusions, that it’s okay to be angry, happy, sad, or otherwise express one’s emotions.

So try to look at your interactions with your child from his or her point of view. How might what you say or do be interpreted by the child? This is a hard paradigm shift to internalize at first, but after a week or two of seeing things at their level it becomes second nature.

Projecting a benevolent view of the universe does not mean you have to be happy all the time. It means, to paraphrase Fred Rogers, that you are accepted and valued for just the way you are.

  • Diane Rubio

    Unless it’s something particularly horrible I tend to offer encouragement toward whatever the child is doing or saying or feeling. If we were walking by a particularly ugly fish, and Keoni said “Angry fish!” I would probably have laughed and said something along the lines of “Jeezus Christ! He does look angry!” There is of course nothing inherently wrong with being angry. Comical observation when it’s a characteristic of a fish. In general I have a rule to talk to children, adolescents, adults, and elderly the exact same way. I don’t coddle children anymore than I do adults. I give a standard respect toward all people, ages, races, etc. I look adults and kids straight in the eye and level when I speak to them. I just have a standard method of listening and courtesy and I think everyone deserves fair treatment. It’s something that children pick up on right away and appreciate. I have a really enjoyable relationship with my 8-year-old son whom I’ve never baby-talked or treated like a manipulable idiot (as some parents, teachers & authorities do, taking advantage of their young age).

  • drop of inkling

    Cup… too often as parents we try to pressure children into doing/ accepting what we want….. this only makes the child loose her confidence and throws her off balance. Thanx for the good read :-)