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The Audacity of Acting Out: What Our Kids Can Teach Us

In a society where we are taught not to call out absurdity where we see it, how can we learn to speak up?

girl with pigtails photo by Kelly Taylor

We discipline our children to behave appropriately—but maybe their expressive impulses have something to teach us.

Photo by Kelly Taylor.

Saoirse and Ula are three years apart. Saoirse, 8, is unusually tall, slender, well-spoken, and comes across to grown-ups as particularly well-behaved and extraordinarily poised.

Ula isn’t any of those things. At 5, she’s about a foot shorter than her sister, demonstrates an ability to move exceptionally heavy objects for a child of her proportions, has a wandering eye, wears glasses, and acts on impulse. I have been mulling over how I am supposed to help her work with that last attribute.

A few days ago, Ula and her best friend Katharine were having a tea party in the living room. Saoirse, who can’t help but be admired, adored, and obeyed by all younger children (except her sister), interrupted the tea party with a sing-song announcement: “It’s puzzle hour, kids!  Now we’re all going to put puzzles together!” She proceeded to open up a series of jigsaw puzzles and push aside the tea party. Ula didn’t warm to the idea. She began pitching cardboard puzzle pieces at her sister. Katharine joined her.

As a homeschooling mom, I occasionally envy non-homeschooling parents who have the luxury of blaming outside influences for their children’s shortcomings ... Bob and I have none of those excuses.

Saoirse stormed off in frustration, seeking adult intervention. Bob and I didn’t yell at anyone. We just helped Saoirse find a quiet space where she could have some alone time free from non-compliant five-year-olds.

Later on, after Katharine went home and we were sitting quietly together with Ula, Bob opened the conversation, suggesting that throwing puzzle pieces at her sister wasn’t an appropriate response to the situation, no matter how bossy her sister was being.

He looked to me for back-up commentary. I avoided his eyes and tried not to laugh. “That’s right, Daddy,” I tried to muster. I covered my mouth so Ula wouldn’t see it twitch. But Daddy saw it. And he couldn’t control it either. We both burst into laughter. Ula patiently waited for her scolding to resume. 

We tried a second time with a few weak platitudes, like “throwing things is never appropriate.” Trouble was, Bob and I both agreed that it would be very hard for either of us to resist hurling puzzle pieces in a similar situation. And Ula knew it. “Look,” Bob finally said. “We’re not really angry with you; but you need to find different ways to express your frustration, ok?” Ula agreed.

Deep down, I feel one of the biggest problems with our culture is that we don’t act out.

So yesterday, Ula and her friend Katharine were playing with a kitchen set out on the porch at the farm. They had a bowl of water for soup stock. Saoirse entered to join the fun, and proceeded to direct the girls as to what they could and could not do with the water.

Ignoring her, Ula picked up a spoon and sipped her broth, then picked up the bowl and had a more satisfying drink. Saoirse proceeded to reprimand her. Ula quietly obliged and put the spoon down. She disappeared for a few moments. Saoirse and Katharine thought nothing of it and resumed play. Without a word, Ula returned to the porch a few minutes later and joined the fun.

But three hours later, Saoirse pushed her digital camera in front of my face. “Look!”  She exclaimed.

Apparently, Ula had obeyed Bob’s suggestion that she find a different way to express her frustration. This time, she drew upon her artistic sensibilities. She’d taken her sister’s camera, deleted some of the images, then used the freed-up space to photograph her naked hiney. The image she’d captured was a close up of her personal vertical smile. Saoirse was only half- heartedly trying to rat out her sister. Mostly, all she could do was laugh and recount exactly how she’d managed to incite the crime.

As a homeschooling mom, I occasionally envy non-homeschooling parents who have the luxury of blaming outside influences for their children’s shortcomings. Bad behavior or academic failure can conveniently be the fault of the school bus, other school children, negligent teachers, misspent school resources, misguided school boards, or pinched school budgets. Bob and I have none of those excuses. If our children don’t learn successfully or behave badly, the blame falls squarely on our shoulders.

Here was absurdity. A perfect justification for acting out. Not one person did. Instead, when he finished, he was given a round of applause.

Thus, Ula’s behavior falls back on Bob and me. And I am of two minds about how to address it. I suppose I should play the part of “good mom” and have a serious talk with her about appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with frustration. I should explain just what I learned in school: it is not appropriate to act out.

But I can’t quite bring myself to do this. Deep down, I feel one of the biggest problems with our culture is that we don’t act out. We’ve been so conditioned to “behave appropriately” that many of us have lost the instinct to identify and point out absurdity when it transpires before our eyes.

Here's an example: I delivered a keynote presentation at an organic farming conference this past winter. Before I took the podium, the state secretary of agriculture gave the opening address. In it, he stood before an auditorium packed with organic farmers and told them that if they wanted to have success with their conference that day, and with their businesses in the future, then the first thing they needed to learn was that they should never speak ill of or publicly criticize the conventional food system.

Palestinian child photo courtesy of ZakiraThe Refugee Child Photographers
How photography training and disposable cameras are giving young Palestinian refugees something new—a voice.

Here was absurdity. A perfect justification for acting out. Not one person did. Instead, when he finished, he was given a round of applause. I regret that I didn’t have the gumption to take the podium and directly call attention to the balderdash we had just been fed. I was too polite. After all, I was raised to not act out. My skills at calling attention to absurdity are above average, but nowhere near as honed as I’d like them to be.

Ula demonstrates what developmental specialists would probably identify as typical impulse control issues of a five-year-old. I can’t help but consider it a gift. Maybe throwing cardboard puzzle pieces or mooning a camera are considered inappropriate responses in an adult world. But I think they were relatively reasonable choices for a five-year-old. Ula is learning to identify absurdity. Saoirse is learning to negotiate her power as a result. As the parent, I choose to step back and let them play it out, and I accept full accountability for this choice.


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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