Can an emotion be wrong?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 31, 2000

Joe has to go to bed by 9 p.m. every day, without fail. His parents have explained to him how his health will soon suffer if he doesn’t go to bed early, and how he will be cranky and useless on the following day. He has accepted that he wants to do whatever is necessary to be healthy, wealthy and wise. Yet nevertheless, most evenings, he begs to stay up just a little longer.

One day Joe makes friends with another boy, Pat. When he visits Pat’s house, he finds that Pat is not subject to any such rule, and often goes to bed well after midnight. Joe is surprised that this is allowed. He asks Pat’s mother about it and is even more surprised to learn that she thinks that it is best to go to bed when one wants to. One day, Joe stays the night – and doesn’t go to bed at all. He is relieved, but also disturbed, to find that he feels no ill-effects at all next day. No one complains that he is ‘cranky’ (as his parents invariably do if he ever stays up even an hour later than usual),
and he has just as nice a time playing with Pat as he ever did. It also worries him that Pat, who very rarely goes “early to bed and early to rise”, enjoys robust good health. And that Pat’s parents, who sleep very little and obey no bedtime rule either, run a profitable business and are the wisest people Joe knows.

Joe can’t help thinking about this striking difference between the two regimes that he and his friend live under. What is the reason for the difference? His family and Pat’s are so alike in other ways. He and Pat are the same age and lead similar lives. How can it be that lack of sleep is no problem for Pat, and yet (he has it on his parents’ earnest authority) would wreak untold harm on Joe?

For Joe, a lot hangs on this question. It always hurts him to have to go to bed when he wants to do something else. He finds it frustrating and psychologically debilitating. He knows that anything he starts in the evening must be finished by bedtime or be arbitrarily interrupted. He might, if he begs, be permitted to finish the chapter of his book (though only if it is short), but certainly not to finish the whole book, as he sometimes wants to. He can’t get so absorbed in an exciting book that he would feel driven to read it in one sitting, because unless it can be finished before 9 o’clock, he knows he would be torn away from it. This “horizon effect” often makes him unable even to start things. He knows that no matter how important it is to him to continue what he is engaged in, his parents will, at 9 o’clock, issue the bedtime command and bring the whole soaring edifice crashing to the ground. So almost every evening, as bedtime approaches, Joe feels a sort of grief. Sometimes, if his engagement has been especially deep and rewarding, he cries at the thought of what he is losing.

And all that was before he discovered that there is another family, just like his except that none of that painful bedtime stuff ever happens – and they seem none the worse for it.

Joe tries to talk to his parents about how he feels. He tries to explain what he has been thinking, and asks his parents to explain how what he has seen of Pat’s family fits in with what they have always told him. He is polite and tries to be tactful, but even so, his parents become angry. They won’t give him a lift to Pat’s place any more. Why should they? Being angry with Joe makes them not want to do things for him.

This punishment is cruel and its justification outrageous, of course, and for all the usual reasons. But let us step back and consider a prior issue: why does his expression of distress about his parents’ regime make them angry? He has done nothing wrong. So aren’t they wrong to be angry with him? Most people would say no, they have done no wrong by becoming angry, even for no defensible reason, because there doesn’t have to be a defensible reason for feelings, only for actions. Feelings are always valid.

This is a serious mistake, one which, alone, can put a spanner in the works of any aspiring consensual relationship.

Now, of course, feelings are ‘valid’ in the sense that

  • One cannot usually alter one’s feelings by a mere act of will. 
  • One’s feelings sometimes express unconscious knowledge which is truer, or better, than the best conscious theory that one could articulate about a given issue. 
  • It is usually morally wrong and harmful, as well as factually false, to deny that another person has the feelings they claim to have.

But for someone to take their adverse emotions towards another person as given, especially when those emotions stem from no justifiable grievance, and most especially when that person is a child for whom one is responsible, is a most craven betrayal. In that sense, which is the relevant sense here, these emotions are not valid.

If one has such emotions (as we all do in some situations), we can add to the above list 

  • It is wrong and potentially harmful to hide them.

But that does not mean that one should act out the impulse to blame, hurt or threaten the other person, which always accompanies anger. One should, rather, admit to the child that one is angry and try to make sure that the child knows that this is a fault in oneself and not in him. Joe’s parents are doing the opposite of that. They are striving to make Joe feel responsible for their anger. They feel justified in “not doing anything for” Joe because they are angry, and they are forcing Joe to keep his distress to himself, for fear that their anger might be expressed even more hurtfully if he dares to mention it again. Clearly, Joe’s submission to his parents’ threat is likely to cause something quite twisted to happen to his emotions. Perhaps that’s how this meme gets replicated.

All this reminds me of a childhood memory of mine. I was eight years old and at a friend’s house for dinner. Just before dinner, my friend, Susan, commented (accurately, I fear) that the dinner smelt disgusting. I think it was the over-boiled cabbage… Her mother was clearly not amused by the comment and said something like, “I’m not going to serve dinner to someone who won’t keep a civil tongue in her head. Now go to your room”. I sat there, at the table, Susan having been banished, and could hardly eat a thing. The meat was tough and gristly, and I felt compelled to eat it even though I didn’t want to. As for the cabbage… well…

Suppose for a moment that we were talking about an adult child. A white woman who wanted to marry a black man, say. She brings him to dinner at her parents’ house, and during the meal she asks her father to pass her the salt. Her father refuses. “I don’t do things for people who bring Negroes into the house. It makes me angry, and I don’t want to do anything for them,” he calmly explains.

Few people reading this would hesitate for a moment to say that (1) he shouldn’t behave like that even if he is angry; but also (2) he has no right to be angry in this situation. No one would bother to defend him with the tired equivocation that “even a parent’s feelings are valid.” (They are, by the way, in the senses I gave above. My standards are not ageist.)

No one would hesitate to say that that parent is behaving very badly (despite having ‘valid’ feelings). But if I said that about a father who was angry and refused to serve food to his eight-year-old daughter, or parents who refused to drive their six-year-old son to visit his friend, because these children expressed dissatisfaction and distress with some aspect of how they are being treated, people see it differently.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2000, ‘Can an emotion be wrong?’, Taking Children Seriously 31, ISSN 1351-5381, p. 4, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/can-an-emotion-be-wrong/