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Chris Rock and Will Smith can afford selective outrage. The rest of us can’t.
By Sandra M. Chafouleas, Ph.D,
Chris Rock is taking full advantage of Will Smith’s inability to cope with his emotions, demonstrated when he slapped Rock during last year’s Oscars event. Almost a year later, Rock used the incident to both open and close his recent Netflix stand-up special , for which he was reportedly paid 40 million .
There were moments of different comedic threads woven throughout the special, but a central focus was on that slap. Will Smith’s mistake may have made him the brunt of a lot of jokes and decreased his popularity in the short-term. This A-list actor, however, is not going to be canceled for life based on his lapse in effective emotion-coping.
All may end well for mega-stars like Rock and Smith, but that is certainly not the case for the majority of people.
Incidents like this could be dire, with legal consequences from assault and battery charges leading to arrest, fines, or even prison. Personal consequences would be even more likely, like loss of job, family stress, and social exclusion.
Throughout his special, Rock poignantly reminds us that these consequences ring particularly true for non-white people. Such consequences make debates such as whether Smith should be banned for life from the Oscars seem pretty trivial in comparison. The debates get in the way of important discussion, such as what Smith might have used as a more appropriate coping strategy. An even better discussion might be around how we can collectively cope with frayed emotions.
Emotion-focused coping involves skills that help you recognize, express, and manage your own self as well as appropriately interact with others. If Smith had recognized that his emotions were escalating, he might have then identified ways to help himself catch or calm himself, or connect with someone else. He could have tried simple strategies to settle his body, like belly breathing or squeezing and releasing to relax muscles.
Another option could have been to shift his thoughts, like taking the perspective that Rock was just performing a comedian’s job and it would be more exciting to focus on his own Oscar nomination. Smith also could have refocused his attention on something else. Any of these strategies could be done without an audience. No one had to watch Smith put a coping strategy in place, although it certainly would have been great if he had modeled one for others to see.
Adults need emotion-focused coping skills to successfully navigate life circumstances, and outcomes are even better when learned as kids. We know that, like Smith in that moment, our kids are struggling. Over the past decade, increasing trends of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors have been reported for nearly all groups of youth.
Data released last summer by the Institute of Education Science’s School Pulse Panel paint a broad picture of what’s happening right now. More than eight in 10 public schools have seen stunted student behavioral and socioemotional development, and over 70% reported an increase in students seeking mental health services.
Seemingly minor stuff, like tardiness and classroom disruptions, are the most frequently reported behavior issues. These behaviors could be brushed off as problems that are not important or will resolve as time ticks forward. Cumulatively, however, such behaviors can add up to a big slap broadcast around the world.
For some, it’s easy to devise disagreements around who is responsible and how best to support our kids as they develop into adults. But such divisions mask the important point that very few of us would state they want their kid to face legal or social consequences of ineffective coping. According to a 2021 survey from the Fordham Institute, parents across party lines agreed that families and schools need to collaborate on teaching kids life skills such as coping with emotions. Parents were almost unanimous in supporting that schools have a role in helping kids learn how to set goals, navigate challenges, and believe in themselves.
Rock and Smith have given us some sensational conversation starters about emotional actions, but it’s not reality. Regular people, including kids, don’t get to use selective outrage without consequences. This is particularly true for Black kids who are living in a world where they are viewed more harshly for their actions. We can’t afford to sit back and watch kids experience consequences because they don’t have the skills that we believe are important. As the adults, both regular and superstar, we have to show up for our kids so that, together, we can learn and practice simple ways to cope with our emotions.