Cake or Death?

Good comedy makes me happy. In one of my favourite comedy sketches, Eddie Izzard takes on the role of the Grim Reaper, offering a series of unwitting participants the choice of “cake or death”. It’s not too difficult to make a decision here…just as long as there is enough cake to go around!

I Zoomed-in to speak to my children last night. They are currently snowed in at home because the Netherlands is experiencing its first snowstorms in over a decade; whilst I am 10,000 km away in a Singapore hotel completing two weeks of quarantine. I don’t like being away from them, and at some point in the conversation I inevitably found myself asking the big question:

“Are you happy?”

I ask the question because I know the children miss school, miss their friends, miss doing things that they used to enjoy. I also know, because the internet tells me, that many children affecting by COVID are experiencing higher anxiety levels, are less motivated, and are less happy than before COVID. So I need to ask the question because I want to be a good dad. They must be suffering some form of happiness-deficit and my job right now is to ask about it and fix it if I can:

Child 1:
Dad: “Are you happy?”
Child 1: “Yes, very happy thanks”.
Dad: “Great to hear”

Child 2:
Dad: “Are you happy?”
Child 2: “I think so, what do you mean?”
Dad: “Are you happy?”
Child 2: “I’m fine”
Dad: “OK. How can we make you happier?”
Child 2: “But I am fine, I am not unhappy”
Dad: “But you are not happy?”
Interlude …five minutes later…
Child 2: “I am absolutely fine, Dad. I’m OK. I just miss you.”

I am no child psychologist, but it does not take much to see what is going on here. Child 1 knows how to play this game. He wants the happy question to go away as quickly as possible so he can get back to reading his book. But Child 2 has reminded me before I had the chance to stop myself, that life, our emotions, and problems…are so complex that they do not translate well in the binary terms of black or white, good or bad, happy or unhappy. Not for the first time, I have fallen to what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (2004) described as the ‘tyranny of the discontinuous mind’. Dawkins argues that humans often seek the reassurance of an either-or classification. Likewise, computer scientist and philosopher Kees van Deemter (2010) refers to the ‘false clarity’ of a definite decision or classification that humans clutch at, even when the situation is uncertain.

So, at least I can understand why I defaulted to dichotomous thinking in this situation: what parent would not want their children to be happy? Indeed, Dr. Robin Berman (2019) says that it is both human and typical of how we parent today — we want to rush in and fix things. The problem, however, Berman argues is that our desire to fix things (acting as a soother) for our children can have far-reaching consequences such as: preventing the growth of agency, the inability to regulate emotions…and so on. Instead of trying to protect our children, we might be better served trying to teach them how to tolerate being unhappy.

Again, I am no expert, but I have long agreed with this sentiment. So tomorrow I might start with “how are you feeling?” and take it from there.

In the context of my own children, here is what I need to get better at:

  1. Tolerate their feelings without trying to rush in and fix them. Give space to work it and take a coaching approach.
  2. Don’t treat them as if they are fragile. Otherwise, they will become fragile.
  3. Be more self-reflective. This is the only way to improve at anything. Parenting included.
  4. Emphasize their feelings. Don’t deny them.

The punchline?

Eddie Izzard offers ‘cake or death’. But life does not dole out such simple choices. And in the case of my own children, and in life in general, I think it’s fine to turn down the either/or option.

Dawkins, R. (2004). The ancestor’s tale: A pilgrimage to the dawn of life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

van Deemter, K. (2010). Not exactly: In praise of vagueness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berman, Robin (2019) Unhappiness: The Key to Raising Happy Kids.

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