The Frowny Face Button

By Greg Baer M.D.

September 14, 2018

Raising Children   

My eight-year-old granddaughter, Megan, is an irrepressible fountain of energy and intelligence, often expressed with a need to challenge everything. It's actually a delightful combination of traits, but on occasion some people do find her endless vitality somewhat less charming than I do.

The other day I received an email from my daughter, Rachel, who is Megan's mother. Her message to me constitutes the remainder of this blog.

Recently at the dinner table Megan was getting increasingly upset at Brad (her brother, age ten). She was not getting her way, so she started yelling to be heard over him--because if you're louder, you're right, right?. I asked her if she was happy.

"No," she said, "because Brad's making me angry."

We've talked about this subject roughly a million times before, but it was obvious that another repetition was required.,

"Really?" I asked. "Brad MAKES you angry?"


"So Brad controls you? He has the power to MAKE you feel any way he pleases?"

She nodded her head emphatically, so I reached over and gave Brad a high-five and said, "Congratulations on controlling Megan. How does it feel to be that powerful?"

"Feels great, actually," Brad said. "I like it."

Megan was not at all happy about this, but she didn't know how to respond, so she remained quiet, and I continued a conversation with Brad. After a minute Megan asked me how many of her vegetables she had to eat.

Ask Brad." I said.

"What?!" she blurted.

"Ask Brad. Apparently he's in charge of you, so just ask him."

She did NOT like this answer and burst into tears, which she does almost never. Jim (Rachel's husband) picked her up, carried her over to the couch and put her on his lap. I joined them, and we talked for a little bit about how no one has the power to MAKE us feel anything. Ever. We get to choose how we feel, every minute of every day. No matter what is going on around us, we can choose to be happy.

But Megan wasn't quite finished with her objections. "What if someone says, 'You suck!'?" she asked. "That makes me feel bad."

"Just because someone says you suck, doesn't make it true. Your dad and I love you more than we could possibly describe."

Jim added his agreement, and I continued. "You are AWESOME. No matter what. That can never change. Just because someone says 'You suck,' what changed? You're not awesome one minute and then you suck the next. Nope. You're always awesome. No matter what. Just for being YOU."

Megan began to smile, and I added, "You like choices, right?"

She nodded eagerly.

"All your dad and I are trying to do," I said, "is to give you more options, so you can make happy choices if you want to."

She thought for several moments and said, "So it's like there's a frowny face button and I keep pushing the frowny face over and over. Every time I push it, it will always be a frowny face choice."

"Exactly. Brilliant. And all dad and I are trying to do is give you other buttons you can push instead of the frowny face. Some of the buttons will be really happy options and others will be not as happy, but they are ALL better than pushing the frowny face button every time."

She looked at me and said, "Have you ever done what I'm doing right now?" She was referring to her crying and making the choice to be unhappy.

I smiled and said, "Yep. Dad and I have tried all the ways. That's why we know which ones work and which ones don't. We're just trying to give YOU the choice. You never have to pick the happy ways, but we want you to know what they are so you can choose them if you want to. We just want you to be happy. We love you tons. More than anything."

Sharing Childhood Stories of Being Raised

Then I felt inspired to tell her a story from my childhood. I'm sure you remember this one (remember that Rachel is writing this to me, her father). I was fifteen or sixteen. I was out weeding my patch of the garden one day and suddenly I decided I'd had enough. My friends didn't have to work all the time like we did. So I took off my gloves, and took off to a girlfriend's house–Karen was her name. Her parents were gone, so I just stayed there all day. I didn't tell anyone where I went. I just left.

You came looking for me a little while later, but I told Karen to lie and say I wasn't there. Finally, late that night, you came back to her house and said you knew I was there and that if I didn't come out you were going to call the cops. Karen had some guys there with us, and they were real felons who didn't want the cops coming over, so she made me give myself up.

When I got home, I found that you had cleaned out my room. Everything. My bed was gone, my dresser, everything off the walls, everything. It was just walls and carpet. I spent the rest of the night in there on the floor. In the morning, we had a family meeting. I was talking about how sick I was of everything, and you said, "Sick of what? Sick of me providing for you? Sick of me feeding you? Sick of me giving you an awesome place to live? Sick of what exactly?"

After some more complaining, I remember finally saying, "I'm not trying to be bad! I don't want to be bad!" I started crying–bawling actually. That was a huge deal for me, because I made it a point to NEVER cry, so that I wouldn't look weak to my brothers.

You looked at me and said with soft reassurance, "I know," and then you came over and sat next to me and held me. I couldn't believe it. I was supposed to be in trouble, but instead you were holding me and telling me it was ok. For the first time I could remember I felt that you really did love me no matter what–mistakes and all. It was pretty awesome. Everyone left the family room, but you stayed there and just hugged me while I cried.

That day changed my life forever. I didn't want to be an ungrateful punk anymore. So I told Megan this story. It was amazing. Halfway through the story she had moved from Jim's lap to mine. I was cradling her in my arms, and we were face to face, only inches apart. When I got to the part where you said to me, "I know," I started tearing up. So did she. It was quite touching. I didn't realize this story was still so tender to me.

It was a pretty amazing moment for both of us. She had a different look in her eye. She was soaking it all in. Jim and I could hardly believe it. She usually just glazes over when we start to talk to her. Or she tries to be right. But not tonight. She was totally listening and feeling. She could feel that we love her and want her to be happy.

The inspiration kept rolling. I thought it would be great to make this moment something she would remember and could refer back to. So I said, "Let's celebrate! This is so awesome. YOU are awesome. Look at you! It took me until I was sixteen to realize this stuff. You're eight and already get it! You're amazing."

Megan said, "Do you think that someday I'll have a daughter, and I'll tell her my story from tonight, just like you told me your story about you and Grandpa?"

Tears were flowing. She and I went to the store to celebrate by getting some special desserts that we then took home to Jim and Brad. Megan was really into the feeling of the moment. These are huge life lessons, and I don't think we rejoice enough in them.

At the store, I had another idea. We found a necklace with a cute little yellow smiley face charm. I can't tell you how much it has meant to her these past few days to wear that necklace. Every time she sees it, she remembers what she learned and how she felt. She looks at it all the time.

(Parenthetical note from me: Raising children takes enormous courage and persistence. We have a power we can scarcely imagine. Miracles happen when we use it well.)

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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