Curtailing anger

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

In a discussion about anger in children and how to stop them from raging, striking out, hitting back and growing up angry, ticked off, ready to hurt themselves or others, I learned how the Inuit* do it. Over millennia they have taught their toddlers, through playacting, to deal with the inborn frustration of being human.

Their pre-school training, which is when it needs to happen, works.

Psychological anthropologist Jean L. Briggs lived with the Inuit for a year and a half in the 1960s and observed their taming of the toddler in the family. In a village above Hudson Bay, Canada, Briggs watched a young Inuit mother as her little boy threw a rock in anger. Briggs was astonished when the mother handed him another rock and said, “Hit me with your rock.”

The child did so. The mom reacted in a mild way, not in anger, saying in surprise and calmness, “Ow! You hurt me. Why do you want to hurt your mama?”

She had begun her reenactment of a story in which his angry behavior was repeated in a playful way, as if it were a game but with a consequence: the consequence being that he would hurt someone if he threw rocks at them. When the kid finally got it – the moral of the story – he refused to throw the rock at her when she urged, “Why won’t you hit me?” With earnest sincerity he answered her. “Because I love you, Mama.”

The replay of the story altered the gray matter of the little guy’s brain. He had been coaxed into tolerable behavior. He was beginning to learn how to behave like an Inuit. Over the years, he would be part of other stories about himself, and he would grow up to respond naturally in even-handed kindness with loving reciprocity. He would learn how to be strong emotionally; in other words, in charge of his emotions and operating with self-control. The adult Inuit is expected to act like an adult, with emotional intelligence; not like a 3-year-old who by the nature of his immaturity acts on emotion alone.

Briggs wrote the book about it – Never in Anger – published in 1970.

With a tad of promotion for the book, we might have learned a saving behavior that could have altered the trajectory of the past four decades. Too bad it didn’t become a best seller so that more of us moms and dads might have been exposed to its wisdom. It might have been included in the curricula of teaching degrees so it could be practiced in schools. Now that I think of it, I bet Mr. Rogers read the book.

I’ve often wondered why we haven’t trained more scientists to research the vital mystery of human behavior instead of inventing a new kind of toothpaste. After learning about Jean Briggs and her important body of work (besides Never in Anger, she wrote, Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three-Year-Old, plus scholarly papers as well as a dictionary of the Inuit language), I figured we have plenty of researchers delving into the dilemma of being human and what we can do to temper it; we simply don’t know about them or their work because their PR is not hooked up with the Madison Avenue blitzkrieg style of teaching the public what to buy.

We need to dig for information that can help us beyond what’s thrown at us by most media as we are influenced to buy things that aren’t really important.

When I was rearing my children during the Sixties and Seventies, I read plenty of books on how to. I never happened on Never in Anger, which might have stalled a couple of temper tantrums of my own. If I’d learned then how the Briggs’ story-telling, play-acting practice might have rewired my brain to put the anger/attack emotion on hold so I could behave like the adult I was, rearing my dear ones might have been a lot more fun for the entire household.

We could try it as a nation. The anger in this country is on high right now, and it is untamed, quick and often verging on purposefully mean, even lethal, as we have seen so often in recent history.

*[Inuit means people and is the preferred word to reference natives of northeastern Russia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland. These indigenous were dubbed Eskimos by white colonizers, but this term has gone out of fashion since the invention of the food group Eskimo Pie.]

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