"If You're Happy And You Know It" Draws Ire of Child Psychologist

"Some children are not happy, and others don't want to show it," writes Wilhelm Friedel, in an article attacking the famous nursery rhyme set to be published in the August issue of The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The Yale University professor, who is in the process of writing a book about the history of parenting, says he was compelled to research the rhyme after memories from his own childhood were stirred up when he tried to perform the song with his grandson.

"I opened up a book of songs for children that my wife had purchased, and when I saw the words to If You're Happy and You Know It my longterm memory suddenly came to life, and I found myself remembering experiences from my youth that I hadn't thought about in ages. Several days later, I decided to start research on the effects that rhymes such as this one had on emotionally developing children. It was only when I found the effects so far-reaching and serious that I decided to publish my findings."

Among the aspects of the rhyme criticized in Friedel's article is the notion that smiling is a natural consequence of being happy.

"This is simply not true," Friedel writes, "If you're happy, your face does not have to surely show it. Happiness is absolutely possible without smiling. Requiring that a child smile if he or she is happy is akin to requiring someone to ring a bell when they're hungry. It can indicate the assumed feeling, but it does not have to. Not to say anything about the relationship between happiness and clapping one's hands or stomping one's feet."

"Still," continues Friedel, "it is the inverse assumption about smiling that is the more dangerous: that a smile indicates happiness."

"Smiling is a learned behaviour. If a child makes the observation that when he or she smiles he or she extracts a more favourable disposition from a parent or guardian, then it is likely he or she will continue to smile, even if he or she is not truly feeling happy. This is what I have termed the smiling fallacy."

Friedel later points out that even the underlying basis for the popular song, that children recognize when they're experiencing happiness, or any other emotion, is fundamentally flawed.

"I'm 57 and I still have trouble recognizing and sorting my emotions," he writes, "To assume that a child, therefore, would succeed in doing this on a regular basis is absurd. Emotions are often tangled and unclear. Happiness does not exist in a vacuum."

The primary question being asked by the nursery rhyme, worries Friedel, is likewise simplistic and unclear.

"It's a vague question: are you happy? Is the hand-clapping and feet-stomping meant to indicate happiness at a particular moment, within the last few days, or a general sense of happiness accumulated throughout one's lifetime? If it is the latter, for example, one could theoretically clap one's hands even while feeling sad, if one had led an otherwise happy life up to that point."

Speculating on the reason for the popularity of If You're Happy And You Know It, Friedel states that the nursery rhyme most likely became popular in schools and among parents because it reinforces beliefs about being kind and caring.

"If we love our children, we want them to be happy. This is natural. But, because happiness is difficult for us to measure, we have resorted to a simple solution: let our children tell us if they're happy—while stacking the odds heavily in our favour. That we're actually deceiving ourselves by pressuring our children into answering in the positive has escaped us for the understandable reason that we enjoy our children showing us that they are, indeed, happy. It confirms us in the desired role as the good parent."

Friedel says he based his conclusion on the observation that when one of a group of children participating in the singing of the nursery rhyme refrains from demonstrating his or her happiness, adults seldom take notice.

"If we were actually concerned with our children's emotional well-being, we would surely use the few potential benefits from a rhyme like If You're Happy And You Know It. And yet, we don't. Instead of speaking to the non-participating child and attempting to discover a potential emotional problem, we simply encourage the child to clap his or her hands along with the others. In essence, we are teaching this child to hide his or her feelings if they do not conform to the feelings of others."

Although Friedel's article, which the researcher says is only a preliminary glance at an important topic, is a sustained critcism of the nursery rhyme and its uses, Friedel does offer an alternative. In a short paragraph near the end of his article, Friedel suggests a way in which to allow children to express themselves artistically without the pressure that is implicit in rhymes like If You're Happy And You Know It.

"Most important is not to force a specific emotion from your child," writes Friedel, "Hence, do not ask your child if he or she is happy; rather, ask your child what he or she feels, and let them explore why. Then, suggest that your child sing a song or draw a picture about those feelings. This gives your child freedom of emotion and freedom of expression. And remember, do not scold your child for expressing how he or she feels, unless the expression displays racist, sexist, or otherwise prejudiced thoughts. If this happens, then explain to your child why their feelings are wrong, and encourage them to try again."

Friedel finishes his piece with a simple declaration of hope that damaging nursery rhymes will eventually be phased out of both education and parenting.

"Songs like If You're Happy And You Know It are deceptive to adults and damaging to children," concludes Friedel, "As a society, we would do well to outgrow them all."

1 comment:

Chance said...

Friedel needs to loosen the eff up. Seriously. In fact, he needs a good ol' fashioned spanking.