She sits at the table, rotating her paper in loops and swirls as she colors. A peacock is taking shape in bold crayon strokes: a much more colorful example than nature can provide. It will be a masterpiece.
With her mouth propped open as an infallible aide to perfection, my daughter puts the finishing touches on her peacock. Her pride billows up, making her stand straight and tall: she is an artist.
She retrieves the scissors and carefully begins cutting. As a budding artist, she’s very new at the practice of cutting shapes from paper. She is slow and precise and imperfect in her skill. Soon, scraps of paper are falling away from the peacock, freeing the bird from its white cage.
But tragedy strikes: some misapplied pressure (or maybe a feisty pair of blunt-nosed scissors, bent on wreaking havoc) makes a dangerous cut. The peacock’s rainbowed neck is severed, lopped off almost entirely.
The artist wails. She is enraged. She drops the entire endeavor in a pile on the floor, and smashes her fists against her eyes. The peacock is lost. Her hard work, for naught.
It is my sudden instinct to quell the outburst. My adult mind recoils from such dramatic tears over an inconsequential mistake. It seems obvious to me that the project can be salvaged with a bit of tape or glue, and the peacock would go on to a long and happy life.
I step forward to shush her irrational outburst. Make her stop crying. Force her to see reason. Which will probably only encourage more anger.
Instead, I pause to remember a different route. One that will affirm her emotion while offering consolation for her sadness. A wave of understanding washes over me as I consider her effort: the time and care she put into her paper peacock, and her pride in her work. Haven’t I been angry when a recipe was ruined by overbaking? Haven’t I roared in frustration when my homemade Halloween costume came out too small for its intended wearer?
Instead of correcting her anger, I offer something else instead. Something intended to show her that her emotion is valid and understandable, while leading her to discover a solution.
“You seem very angry about your peacock. I’m sorry, sweetie. It’s frustrating when things go wrong.”
She peels her chin off of her chest and sniffs in my direction. I take this as a cue that she’s listening. “I saw how hard you were working on it, and I wonder…do you think there’s any way we can fix it?”
She shakes her head and sobs again, negativity rolling off her shoulders in waves.
I rub her back and tell her a story about a time I accidentally ripped right through the page of a library book, how mad I was, and how I carefully taped it back together. “It wasn’t perfect,” I admit, “but it was still pretty.”
My four-year-old wipes her face. She walks to the junk drawer and digs around for a roll of clear tape. Then, we fix the peacock’s broken neck while salvaging a little girl’s broken heart.
Now she knows that anger and frustration have names and that they can sometimes be overcome with a bit of thought. She knows that her emotions aren’t only worthy of being shushed and stoppered.
And she knows that emotions aren’t the end of the story: there can still be beauty after we’re done feeling angry.