Anger is learned behavior; and so is hatred.
“Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” — James Baldwin. I am not Your Negro.
Anger is often nothing more than the external manifestation of our feelings of frustration projected towards others. If I’m angry, chances are I feel frustrated about something in my environment, something I can’t change. Instead of dealing with the root cause, I choose to unleash my frustration on someone else. The situation may not improve but it sure feels good to get the anger out of my system.
Of course, we’re all born with the physical ability to feel the chemical and hormonal changes that accompany anger (flushed face, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, etc.) but the emotion also needs a target, someone or something to be angry at. A newborn doesn’t even understand the concepts of self and other. It has no way of knowing what it means to be angry at someone. It has to learn that.
Early on in life, children observe situations in which anger is used by those around them as a seemingly reasonable and effective response. They learn, through observation, how and when it’s appropriate to use anger in stressful social situations. It’s only then that we start seeing children exhibit and express anger as an emotion.
Watch a baby carefully for the first few months of his or her development and this fact becomes obvious. Newborn babies exhibit very few recognizable human emotions other than crying due to physical discomfort. A baby screams her head off not because she’s “angry” but only because she’s frustrated and that response works well for her, bringing the adults to address the situation quickly and efficiently.
Sadly, this is also why you see those haunting videos of African children literally starving to death and obviously in physical discomfort, yet you never see them crying. They’re always staring blankly at the camera. Because screaming and crying use up a ton of energy — and, guess what, they never seem to work for them anyway.
Children are smart. Very quickly, within the first few weeks, they pick up visual cues from their parents about expressions of happiness and start smiling in response to positive experiences. Confusion, surprise, and joy are also common expressions as they encounter and understand new situations. I have videos of my grandson literally shaking and screaming in glee as he “gets” something for the first time.
You’ll never see an angry baby and there’s a good reason for that. Emotions such as anger, hatred, and fear, as experienced by adults, are more complex in that they require recognition of social constructs such as self and others. This is why young children seem fearless; they have no concept of self to be protective of. Similarly, you need to be angry at someone or at something, and it takes a few more months for children to develop a sense of individuals as durable entities with personalities that they can interact with. Even then, they don’t exhibit anger as an emotion.
They then learn over the next few months, through observation of those around them, what it means to be angry and how that emotion can be used as a tool in social situations. It’s then, and only then, that we start seeing children exhibit anger in their behavior. They watch mom or dad or the babysitter turn red with anger, yell and scream, and then calm down. The first few times they witness this, the look on their faces is one of confusion and incomprehension. They have no idea what they’re witnessing.
Wait, what is this? I don’t recognize this behavior. Why is (s)he getting all worked up and screaming? This doesn’t make any sense. What objective does that achieve? I’m so confused.
[A few weeks later…] Ah, I see now. It’s a legitimate form of behavior in social situations when you’re frustrated about something and seems to always result in the person feeling better immediately afterwards — regardless of whether the situation actually changed or not.
I can either pick up these toys my brother left here or I can yell at him for being inconsiderate and lazy. Wow, that does make me feel good. Lesson learned.
The concepts of anger and hatred require an understanding of the social concepts that a newborn baby clearly does not possess: you, me, mom, dad, brother, dog. None of these mean anything to a newborn. Frustration, by necessity, must come first as an emotion, just as we solidify the concept of self. I can’t control or change X, therefore I feel frustrated about the situation. To be angry, by comparison, requires not just an understanding of a given situation and my inability to change it, but also the concept of an “other” who could be blamed for the situation as a proxy for my frustration.
They only learn that this is a valid (and often successful) emotional response through observing those around them over repeated episodes of adults throwing temper tantrums at each other and sometimes, oddly and inexplicably, even at inanimate objects: the damn car, the stupid computer, the f’ing microwave oven!
But, you’ll say, anger and aggression have been seen in many other species as well. Just look at the apes. It’s in our genes.
There’s a difference between aggression and anger. The former is a biological formula programmed into us by evolution. The latter is, by necessity, a social construct. The lion is never really angry at the gazelle he’s chasing. That’s just dinner. He may show tons of aggression to get the desired goal (food) but I doubt you’ll detect any anger towards the gazelle. He will only get angry (at himself) if and when he becomes frustrated in his attempts, when he stumbles or misses the mark repeatedly. He also gets angry at his mates or his cubs or his wife. Those are all social constructs with plenty of opportunity for learned behavior and for frustrating social situations.
Similarly, hate, as an emotion, requires an understanding not just of all the above social concepts but also of entities as diverse as celery (my personal nemesis) and celebrity (who doesn’t hate Justin Bieber?), as irrelevant as religion, and as opaque as race. There seems to be no shortage of things to hate in the universe — and the list is ever growing. Bieber just happens to be at the center of the Venn diagram of all sets of things hateable.
One thing most “haters” have in common is that they know very little about the thing they profess to hate — it’s just a convenient target for their own frustrations. Most people who absolutely hate a given group don’t actually know anyone belonging to those groups; they just grew up hating them. And they learned it from those around them and mimicking what they saw. Seldom do they slow down long enough later in life to question those beliefs.
It will take the child years to understand what it means to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, a Mexican or a negro or a homosexual — take your pick. But, by then, he has perfected his anger skills. And it takes the same amount of effort to be angry at your sister at age three as it does to claim you hate Muslims or gays or blacks at age twelve — in both cases barely understanding what the object of your hatred, your anger, really means.
Anger is learned behavior. Frustration is a slow burn while anger is the volcano that releases pressure. And anger begets hate. Hate is just frustration and anger projected to a group or category instead of an individual.
So, what’s the answer? First, be aware of your actions — at all times — around children. That’s the best advice I can give people who are around babies— parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings, babysitters, teachers, mentors, older cousins, daycare workers, therapists, priests, and any others who interact regularly with children and influence them during their most formative years.
You’re being watched non-stop by a supercomputer with legs and arms, one that can learn multiple languages simultaneously and effortlessly, one that teaches itself to speak fluently and with no accent and in a grammatically correct manner — just by watching you and mimicking you. Do you really think (s)he won’t similarly learn by watching your behavior when you’re angry?
Children are much smarter than we realize. They learn so much so quickly, often without us even understanding that they’re doing so. Meanwhile, a temper tantrum over a frustrating situation is almost a daily event for us adults: be it caused by a traffic jam or a fight over money with our spouse or a stupid boss at work.
It’s so common to be frustrated as an adult that we almost don’t think about it. And we effortlessly turn our frustration into anger. We yell at the stupid car door and slam it, we stomp our foot and demand an apology from the hapless cashier, we yell at our kids for not doing their homework. We’ve become immune to it; it’s routine for us and it sure does feel good to blow off some steam. But every one of those events is a revelation to a child, a lesson.
The next step is to understand that anger and hatred are just outward projections of frustration with a situation in your social environment. You’re not really angry at your spouse or your kid, you’re really frustrated about something else. What is it?
Ask yourself in the middle of your anger episode, your hate rant, or afterwards once you’ve cooled down: What am I really angry about? Not who or what am I yelling at, but rather: Why am I angry? What do I really feel frustrated and hopeless about that I wish I could change?
Chances are you’ll recognize the source of your frustration instantly. Simply flipping the question and seeing the root cause clearly will make the anger and hatred melt away: “Well, duh! Yelling isn’t going to solve that!” Then and only then can you take responsibility for your emotions and act in a constructive manner, attacking the root cause, instead of blaming others.
As for the child, every minute spent in an angry environment is a minute bereft of positive learning opportunities, every brain cell used in anger is a brain cell wasted. Yes, it’s a supercomputer growing up right in front of you but even it has limits. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to just get out of the way and let the child loose; the worst thing you can do is eat up his or her CPU cycles on the negative lessons in life.
Whether you’re the teacher, the parent, the priest, the babysitter, or the high school soccer coach, here’s a challenge for you: Name one situation, in all of human history, when anger was the right answer, the one option out of all others that led to the best outcome for all involved. Name just one such occasion. I bet you can’t.
Anger may get the matter resolved quickly in the short term but it leaves behind far more negative results in the long term, no matter the scenario. It teaches the child that this is indeed an acceptable response in a given situation: at home, at school, with friends, and with strangers. Even if the child is not the target of the anger, if she’s just watching the teacher yell at a classmate or a parent spank a sibling, the lesson is learned: this is acceptable.
You would think that result alone would disqualify anger as an acceptable social behavior in any environment. But instead, we insist on teaching this behavior to our kids on a daily basis! And then we have the audacity to grow indignant when the next generation proves to be more violent, more depressed, more suicidal, more angry in turn! Smartest species, indeed!