At one time or another, parents, teachers, and other caregivers encounter the wrath of the young children in their charge. Temper tantrums, testing limits, and refusing to cooperate are inevitable and developmentally appropriate as young children assert their independence. But little ones’ anger can test the limits of their grownups’ patience and equanimity. If it comes to a power struggle, I always bet on the kid to win. Kids are smaller and less powerful, so they have a lot more at stake, and they tend to keep on until the adult gives in or loses their cool.
Kids with cancer have a lot to be mad about. They have gotten a raw deal. They have to go through a lot of awful stuff for no discernible reason, and their parents and caregivers have to insist that they take medicines, get checkups and infusions, and keep on plugging away for a very long time. But kids tend to be amazingly resilient—they might be enraged and pouty and silly and relaxed all in the span of the same half-hour. Keeping up with all that requires a lot of emotional intelligence from grownups.
Stories from children’s literature can be a great resource in articulating the emotional life of children and helping both children and adults develop resilience and coping. One of my all-time favorite kids’ stories is “The Tale of Two Bad Mice,” by Beatrix Potter. Miss Potter is best known for “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” but the story of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca, the mice who lived in the nursery, offers wonderful insights into what makes kids tick.
The two mice see that the nursery is empty, so they go exploring in the dollhouse. A beautiful feast is laid out upon the dining table—ham, fish, lobster, pudding, fruit—but they soon discover that it is all fake—made of plaster. Potter writes “there was no end to the rage and disappointment of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca.” It is important to note that they are not just angry, they are disappointed—they have been duped! Appearing foolish is especially difficult for young children to tolerate. They have limited knowledge, but they want to be competent, so it is terribly painful to be shown to be wrong!
The mice proceed to wreck the doll’s house, destroying everything in their path—but then Hunca Munca realizes that she would like to have some of the things they are destroying. They take a feather bed and a cradle, among other things, to outfit their mouse hole, as Hunca Munca is about to have babies herself! The dolls return, and the people with them to find the dolls’ house wrecked. The little girl stations a policeman doll outside the house to guard it, and the nanny sets a mouse-trap.
The mice are too clever for the trap, and they return—but they do not destroy things again. They find a sixpence under the rug and leave it in the dolls’ Christmas stocking to pay for what they have destroyed, and Hunca Munca comes early every morning to sweep the dolls’ house. The mice have gone from being angry and out of control to being responsible, cooperative citizens of the nursery–showing young children the pathway back from a scary, angry place to one of fairness and self-control.