"Can you settle an argument?"
One day, after a Playful Parenting event in a bookstore, two employees in the children's section asked if I would be willing to quickly read a book “to settle an argument.”
This was intriguing. I was happy to oblige.
The book was Smile a Lot by Nancy Carlson, a picture book featuring a frog with a giant grin. The text advises children to smile heartily in response to life's difficulties, large and small, from being served ''oatmeal with prunes'' for breakfast to being taunted by bullies. The frog's big smiles are offered as a great improvement over whining, complaining, giving up, or falling apart.
On the one hand, but on the other hand.
As I flipped through the book, it was easy to guess the nature of the controversy between the two co-workers. From one angle, the book was full of encouraging advice to look on the bright side, to have a positive attitude, and to think about ways in which a smile might actually get you what you want–whereas a meltdown or a tantrum might just dig you in deeper. That's useful and helpful advice for anyone of any age.
We all know people who seem to choose to be miserable or who make an art of whining and complaining. As a parent, I leaned a little toward that side. Sometimes even a forced smile can be a self-fulfilling prophecy since it reinforces a sense of control over our emotions.
From a different angle, the book could be read as advocating an unhealthy repression of feelings, faking a smile while squelching the real emotions underneath. From this perspective, the advice is not so useful, especially in the long run, since repressed emotions build up inside a person.
What about speaking up for yourself? As a therapist, I leaned a little towards rejecting the advice in the book because of my experience with clients who had plastered-on fake smiles and were completely out of touch with their emotions and those who eventually exploded with rage or imploded with depression once their feelings couldn’t be repressed anymore. Some people already smile too much when they don’t really feel like smiling. ''Where are the tears?'' I often ask when I hear a sad story of loss or pain told with a smile or in a monotone.
Later, I found two reviews of Carlson’s book that echoed the controversy between the two people at the bookstore and the controversy in my own head. Publisher's Weekly found the book to offer an ''encouraging lesson'' and ''a glimpse of karmic justice: In exchange for his upbeat attitude, the frog is justly rewarded.'' By contrast, the School Library Journal found the book to offer ''a touchy message'' because ''smiling and being positive in sticky situations'' may not be enough. In the end, I agreed with the second reviewer’s suggestion that it may be best for adults and children to discuss the pros and cons of this kind of smile together.
Grin versus no grin is not just a choice for children.
I tried to imagine the discussion that would have ensued had I handed this book to a couple I saw in therapy years ago. I imagine the wife would have said to her husband, ''This is what I've been telling you, dear. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you would just smile and have a good attitude, you wouldn't be so miserable.'' He, in turn, would have read the book and said, ''Great, another nail from the repressive society onto the coffin lid of free expression. Don't cry, don't complain, don't tell the truth, pretend everything is fine.''
In the end, I told the feuding bookstore salespeople that smiling a lot can be great advice, as long as you also get a chance in life to truly express angry, sad, or hurt feelings to someone who listens and cares.
After this carefully diplomatic reply, the two employees turned to each other, and both said, ''See, I told you so!''
What could I do?
I just smiled.