It was April 1985 and we were in the car driving through our tiny town. As we passed the bank, the light-up sign in front of it flashed “Happy Birthday”. “Joe!” we exclaimed, “Look at the sign.” He looked and saw the words “Happy Birthday” lit up. He gasped with a disbelieving smile beginning to spread over his face. His eyes were wide, then suddenly filled with tears. The sign’s next flash of wording, “Joe Jackson”. “It’s wrong” he wailed, “I’m not Joe Jackson! Why does it say Joe Jackson?”
Understandably a five year old turning six, excited about their own birthday, might not fully grasp coincidence. On top of that, once my older brother and I saw our younger brother’s reaction, we burst into laughter. Our parents did try to explain to Joe that someone else named Joe was also celebrating their birthday, but the damage had been done.
What an emotional roller coaster he must have been on. First, being excited about his birthday and all that comes with it, cake, presents, balloons. Second, on top of the excitement his mind was blown at trying to comprehend a message just for him on a light-up sign (electric signs were not common where we lived), and just as it was sinking in and his euphoria blooming…Third, the crush of confusion at his name being wrong on the sign. How could a five year old turning six even be expected to understand on top of all the intense feelings? Fourth, the teasing laughter he received from his siblings at a time he needed comfort.
Certainly no harm was intended, it rarely is. Children don’t get sarcasm and much of teasing is that. Children need their parents and caregivers to teach them about the emotions they feel and express. When someone teases or uses sarcasm to communicate it confuses a child’s understanding of how the world works. Additionally, when a child falls or runs into something and another person laughs (think funny home videos) signals are mixed- ‘I’m in pain and they are smiling and laughing’. Does this mean we need to or should shelter children from all of these experiences? No, because it is a part of how the world works. What we can do for children during situations that might be confusing for them is recognize their confusion. We can empathize with a child by expressing to them the feelings they may be having and then explain what is happening in their surroundings. Be careful not to invalidate a child’s feelings by telling them not to feel a certain way, to stop crying, or “It’s ok”.
Not all children express, react, or understand the same way so they should not all be treated the same way.