Kathleen E. Frey
In My Heart by Jo Witek illustrated by Christine Roussey
Feelings. Holy Moly. It all started with a piece of fruit. I’m not talking about Adam, Eve, and the apple, even though there’s some truth to that. I’m talking about an orange and a 2-year-old.
“Momma. Me have a orange pwease?”
I’m distracted, scrubbing a skillet from (yesterday’s) breakfast. I start peeling and ask, “Where’s your orange bowl?”
Eli opens the cupboard, pulls out too many dishes and sighs. “Me not know momma.”
He has a habit of trailing food through the house. I assume he’s being his usual stubborn self and answer, “You know where the bowls are. You need to get an orange bowl before I give you an orange.”
Boom. Bang. Pow. Communication Fail. The fire colors his cheeks, the lip quivers, the brow furrows, but he’s holding back. You see, the color orange bowls were all dirty. So, when I insisted Eli grab an orange bowl (meaning a bowl for his orange), and he could only find green and blue bowls…cue ”loud feelings”!
“Momma! Listen at me!” This is important. I stop peeling. Make eye contact. Kneel down to his level. Listen.
He stomps his tiny foot and takes a deep breath. “ME…AM…FWUSTWATED!” (Translation: frustrated)
It takes me a good five minutes to figure out where I went wrong and mend the error of my ways. I say I’m sorry I misunderstood, that I meant he needed a bowl for his orange and any color was fine. He picks green, his favorite. When he finally settles, he says, “It be okay momma. It be okay. Me calm now. You be on my team. I yike you.”
To some, this scene may sound like a typical toddler tantrum that I solved. On the contrary, he was justified in his frustration. He resolved the situation—not me. This was a small child learning emotional intelligence. He was processing his feelings, not stifling them. He was naming his feelings rather than just screaming or whining. I’m certain Eli’s ability to communicate his emotions in real-time was influenced by In My Heart and the conversations we’ve had while reading it again and again.
Sometimes books with bells and whistles turn out to be only bells and whistles—little to no substance. This is no such book. I was first attracted by its bright colors and cut-out features. Each page opens to a heart from within a larger heart—a nesting doll feel. A heart shape is placed in an image symbolizing the feeling. For example, the “mad” page features a bomb exploding, “yelling, hot and loud.” The artistic quality is beautiful and intentional, and I don’t think all children’s books are totally successful with the combination.
It’s a full pallet of color and emotions—happy, calm, mad, shy, brave, and broken to name a few. The descriptions of positive feelings are poetic and beautiful. But, I most adore the gentle attention paid to feelings often characterized as “negative”. To feel mad, sad, or afraid without judgement—kids need this. Adults need this. The world needs this. My children ask for this book at least once a week, and its lessons never run dry…kind of like tears in our house. And that’s why it’s a “must have” for little kids with big feelings (a.k.a. all kids). And, it couldn’t hurt us parents either.
The truth is, we live in a culture deprived of emotional intelligence. “Guidance” used to be an actual class when I was in elementary school and now there’s no such thing. I was even in an organized group for children of divorced parents. I was fortunate to have this environment, and a very open mother, to teach me how to share my feelings. What, do children suddenly have no emotional issues? No problems at home? No experiences with bullies? No peer pressure? No low self-esteem? What are we teaching children about mental health when we don’t teach them about mental health? We’re sending a message: “don’t talk about your feelings unless they are content feelings.”
Many adults try to distract a child from negative feelings (“Here, do you want a cookie/ candy/ new toy/ screen-time/ whatever-to-make-you-happy-RIGHT- NOW?”). I’ve done this out of desperation. In our defense, moms are pretty much programmed to soothe baby cries (no matter how old they are). It’s hard to know where their feelings end and our’s begin. Good intentions aside, we react this way because the child’s negative feelings make us feel uncomfortable—it has very little to do with the child. It’s because maybe we haven’t really learned how to accept emotions for what they are and experience them fully. We haven’t learned what’s healthy. Healthy is not the norm—especially for boys. In My Heart normalizes the very things that make us human.
The closed-off mindset doesn’t work for our family. Of course we hope our children feel joy and peace, but to only acknowledge positive feelings is both unrealistic and unfair. It only needlessly manifests a very harmful feeling—shame—when they inevitably have to experience the hard emotions. Feelings are not shameful. You feel what you feel, ya feel me?
We want our sons to learn how to wrestle with discomfort. We won’t always be there to offer a piece of candy and “make it all better” by having them stuff it all down. I appreciate the language of this book for this very reason. These are delicate ideas for delicate hearts, described with great care. Having books like this on our favorite shelf is planting a seed. I believe our boys will continue to be honest about their feelings and be attuned to the feelings of others. They’ll do this because early on, we gave them language to use and permission to use it. I hope they trust us to always be there, listening without judgment.
This book has inspired a phrase now common in our home. When someone’s having a hard time, we say, “You’re having some big feelings right now. How can I help?” At any given moment of the day, someone is laughing while another is crying and still another is yelling. Sometimes, it’s a lot. Okay, most times it’s a lot. But, at the end of the day, this is what we want for our family because this is what we want for society. We want to normalize talking about the whole spectrum of feelings: good to not-so-good to worse.
Anger is not a sin. Sadness is valid and important to acknowledge. Joy and excitement are worth celebrating. And shyness—this is a big one for my oldest son, and for many children. I feel actual fury when I see my son’s sweet face turn red with embarrassment for being called “shy” again. Literally, the worst thing you can say to a shy kid is that they are “shy”. He knows, trust me. He’s even been called “unfriendly,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. Thank you In My Heart for telling my son: if he feels the need to “hide [his] heart away where no one can see, like [his] own small treasure,” that is completely okay. It’s his heart—no one else’s. We want our kids to feel comfortable in their own skin, or rather, comfortable with the chemical reactions their brain is creating in any given situation. This book wants this for them as well.
I owe my children books with altruistic goals. I owe society the reading of such books to my children. In My Heart is one of a series on emotional intelligence. Each book is on my list to add to our library. My kids have them on their Christmas lists, and that makes me proud. The young hearts are wishing for something truly good—something far beyond the book’s pages.
P.S. Below are a few toys our family enjoys. They’re stress relievers, a fun way to talk about feelings, and in the end everyone feels happy about doing so. Also, you’ll find a link to the book.