Our anger bellows in a voice so loud and persistent it drowns out logic and reasoning, and sends our self-control scurrying. A fit of rage can be similar to drunkenness, scary and yet thrilling, a neurochemical roller coaster ride. Like a good cry, screaming and yelling and cursing leaves me pleasantly emptied of emotion, wrung out. Unlike sorrow, though, giving into anger also brings the shame and embarrassment of having gone too far, which is why, as Wendy Bradford’s powerful essay on The Huffington Post makes clear, anger is an aspect of raising kids that parents rarely share with one another.
Bradford writes, “Rage in parenting is not something we talk about. It does not garner the empathy that sadness or apathy does. It is not passive, and it has innocent targets.”
I struggled with anger during my first year as a teacher, when I taught at an under-performing public school in an impoverished area of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. I had only a few weeks experience in a classroom prior to meeting my fifth grade class and spent most of my nights as a student myself, in graduate school. Like a new parent, I was perpetually tired, overwhelmed, and had the sense of being behind the curve, not hip to some secret other teachers either knew or somehow intuited. I looked down the hall and saw colleagues who weren’t hollering at their students to stay in their seats, who didn’t seem to be walking on eggshells about to cry at the drop of a hat, or struggling with deep rooted feelings of failure and ineffectiveness, or suffering from insomnia and nightmares. Though I approached my classroom with good intentions and interesting lesson plans, I had no idea what to do when students began brawling on the classroom floor and school security wouldn’t answer the phone, or when the principal told me to stop sending that loudmouthed smart aleck to her office as punishment, and parents asked me to not call them about their child’s behavior and instead step up and run the class myself. It was disheartening, and the anger that grew inside me was something I had never experienced before that.
I recognize now that I was responding to feelings of being out of control. Part of the myth of parenting (and teaching) is that you can control your kids, that you can somehow wave a magic wand, or that you can, by force of will, exert your authority and your children will respond. Parents use punishments and rewards to manage their children’s behavior, but those systems are only effective if the children buy into them. When you have a child who is so defiant that he says, “I don’t care,” when you punish him, then you have a problem on your hand that seems unsolvable.
When I would tell people about my son’s behavior issues as a toddler they would ask, “Have you tried time outs?” Of course I did! I’d have to stand guard in front of his door as he banged on it so hard with his little fist that he’d hurt his hand and lean into it with all my weight as he braced himself against his bed and pushed on it with his legs, and try to ignore — and hope my neighbors would ignore— his incessant shrill screams. “Just keep at it,” I heard. If a three minute time out doesn’t work, maybe he needs five to calm down. But what happens when the child is, like mine, so strong willed that he would come spitting, clawing, and punching out of the room no matter how long you left him in there to “calm down?” Punishments only served to intensify, rather than correct, my son’s bad behavior.
As the situation escalated, I’d lock myself in the bathroom against his barrages, or curl inward to protect myself from getting head-butted in the crotch, and sometimes something in me would snap. The social order was being turned on its head, reversed — he should fear and respect me, I shouldn’t be scared of him!
It was at these times that, I’ll admit, I gave in to my anger. Sometimes, in a gut reaction to him hurting me or drawing blood, I slapped his cheek. For a brief period, at the advice of other, more experienced parents, I tried spanking. Always, I yelled at the top of my lungs. We’d both be storming around the kitchen, our home a war zone, with opposing soldiers facing one another in brutal, animalistic conflict.
My rage did not change my son’s behavior. Nor did it make me feel better. Quite the opposite: I felt deep shame and upset, and deeply disappointment in myself. And so, I never talked much about it with anyone. As Bradford writes, we don’t discuss our resentment and loss of control, no matter how normal these experiences are for most parents. “It’s too ugly, and the risks are enormous. What will my friends think if they know what I’m really like when I’m angry? If I talk to someone, they may take my kids away.”
The situation around our house these days is a lot more peaceable. We’ve come to understand that our little guy has a low frustration tolerance, a great defiance toward authority, and the tendency to express himself physically rather than with words. He can react without thinking, and respond to confusion and disappointment with aggression. My wife and I meeting his fire with fire of our own does no good — we would burn the whole house down. Still, deep breaths and positive thinking have their limits, and there are times, especially on weekends when we’re all together for extended periods, where blazes occur.
These happen. It’s normal, whether you are the parent of a challenging kid like mine, or even the parent of the sweetest child in the world. All kids push us to and sometimes beyond our limits, and all of them, not knowing how they fit in the world, challenge us as they try to figure it out. It’s ok to talk about it. Pretending that anger is not a part of the parenting experience only adds a heap of guilt to the conflagration.