Invisible Harm – Say “I Love You”

I’ve posted before about the invisible harm that can be done by popular decorations. I often refer to it as “fridge magnet wisdom” – the kind of statement that some people rush to buy and stick in their homes so they can pretend they’re deeply intellectual, or happy, or fun-loving. Last time I talked about “Family Rules” posters, and specifically about messages like “be happy” and “laugh out loud”.

This week it’s about another Family Rule that pops up on those posters.

Say “I Love You”

What kind of rule is that? It reminds me strongly of the sense of entitlement parents often feel when it comes to their children. Entitled to love and affection, even if they haven’t done anything to deserve it. Very literal, very sensitive kids will read this and think that they are expected to feel things that they might not always feel. Just like instructions to laugh and be happy, this is harmful in that it pushes our children to express emotions in a performative rather than a natural manner. I strongly believe that this damages their ability to feel the emotions genuinely. It’s another one of those dangerous little subliminal messages that results in kids leaping to feel whatever you want them to feel about a topic.

So there’s this risk of reducing the child’s experience of genuine emotions, and of stressing them out with messages about how they should be feeling. This is even more concerning when we remember that many autistic children have alexithymia – difficulty labelling their emotions. It’s just an extra complication for kids who are probably already struggling with their understanding of emotions and how to express them appropriately. The most frightening thing about this is that, with an emotional understanding directed entirely by these toxic messages, our kids are growing up not really knowing what they’re feeling and what they want because they’re trying so hard to feel and want whatever will please us.

This obsessive focus on positivity-at-all-costs takes away from important learning experiences involving negative emotions. How do we talk about anger, or sadness, or frustration in any kind of meaningful way with the spectre of a grinning emoji looming over us? How do we develop healthy coping strategies for managing our feelings? It’s like the Facebook persona, the one that’s all happy families and success, only it’s invaded the home. It squats there on the mantelpiece, frowning disapprovingly at anything that wouldn’t look good on Instagram.

Have you ever been stopped in the street by a stranger and told to smile? Or perhaps by relatives? You know how, once you’ve been told to look happy, even if you were feeling happy before, it’s now turned your mood sour? It’s the same with all these little messages. You can paint instructions to tell your children to express love to you in six-foot-tall letters on the side of the house if you like, but it won’t make them love you more. It might make them tell you that they love you, whether they’re feeling it at that moment or not. It’ll also probably make them wonder why on Earth that would need writing down as a rule, and what kind of desperate parent would demand love like that.

At this point, I’d expect someone to pop in with “But those assertions are ridiculous, the sign/magnet/cushion/throw doesn’t mean it like that…” To them I’d answer that it’s not about the intent of the item (which is almost certainly primarily to make money for whoever designed it), it’s about how our naive, literal-minded and often quite imaginative kids can interpret or misinterpret it and how that can hurt them. What started with the traditional “Home Sweet Home” embroidery sample hung on the wall has mutated into an entire market for printing saccharine sentiments on housewares to try and hypnotise ourselves and our guests into thinking that home life is all butterflies and sunshine.

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