Last week, as I stood outside my 4-year-old son’s room holding the door shut while he flung himself at it, screaming hysterically, I wallowed in as deep a fury as I’ve ever known. What had he done? Slugged his sister, I suspect, refused to go to his room, talked back — all of the above, as I recall, and all at a moment when I’d spent the entire morning on nothing but them — feeding them, tending them, getting them ready to go to a friend’s house. My resentment boiled over, and as reasonable as my punishing Wyatt was, there’s no doubt that I did it in anger — and if I hadn’t been holding that door shut, I’d have needed some other outlet for my emotions.
Doesn’t that sound nice and clinical? At these moments, I know how parents who strike their children feel. The thing is, as long as we stop short of the slapping hand, I think we can make the rage thing work. There is no anger like that between a child and her parents — and maybe there is no more useful tool.
For Babble, Liane Carter wrote that she did not want her son to remember a mother who seemed forever angry. But when her son grinds neon-green Play-doh into the carpet, and she feels guilty not being able to offer the trendy, non-judgmental response that feels like what’s expected of today’s uber-mother: — “Let’s grind the Play-doh somewhere else!” (sung out in a merry, Miss-Kitty-the-schoolteacher kind of voice) — I imagine what my own mother (a real teacher) would have said if she’d found me even using Play-doh anywhere near her carpets. I can still feel the fear, not because my mother’s anger was abusive, just because it was justified. She’d worked hard to have carpet. Even at 3, I knew better than to do anything to ruin it. I would no sooner have ground Play-doh into our rugs than I would have eaten in the living room, and I know I didn’t follow those rules because my parents sat me down and gently explained them and then created a sticker chart for me on the fridge in order to reward my rule-following with a trip for ice cream. I followed them because if I didn’t, my mother would be angry. I loved my mother. I feared her anger; I wanted her approval, and I did not grind Play-doh into her rug.
Later, for similar reasons, I did not allow friends to have parties in my house in my parents’ absence. I did not raid their liquor cabinet. I did not (often) miss curfew. Those things had consequences, and I knew about consequences. I broke a few rules, but I never once doubted that both the anger and the punishment would follow. As Stanford University psychologist James J. Gross told the New York Times, “One reason we’re so attuned to others’ emotions is that, when it’s a real emotion, it tells us something important about what matters to that person.” I knew that the rules my parents set mattered, and the strength of their belief in the importance of those rules stayed with me.
When I lost it with my 4-year-old son last week, even as I stood there, clutching his door handle and shaking with anger, I was flashing back on a similar scene. Five years ago. I remember standing outside Wyatt’s older brother’s room and listening to Sam, who’s nine now, throw things at the door as his own rage overtook him. I don’t remember the reasons for his disappointment or punishment either, but I do know that Sam’s grown into one of the nicest possible nine-year-olds, with a healthy respect for the rules of our house. I know he saw me angry plenty of times. It doesn’t seem to have hurt. Not only that, I’m convinced that it helped.
It’s hard to raise kids. There you are, an adult who’s learned, with difficulty, that the world does not revolve around you, and into your life plummet these small versions of yourself who’ve never absorbed that lesson—who disregard all niceties, who open their mouths and allow cereal and warm milk to dribble out all over the clean floor on purpose. Rage at that kind of behavior—not at a 6-month-old, but certainly at a three-year-old who’s been warned before — is one of our strongest tools for conveying how important it is to us (and to the entire rest of the world) that he just not do that. That he not ram his mini shopping cart into the backs of the legs of other shoppers or see what happens if he sticks a popsicle into the fan.
I wouldn’t want my kids to remember me as forever angry, either. But when they stand in a friend’s formal living room, I do want them to remember how I’ll react if they open that Play-doh can. Later, when a fellow student extends a hand with a joint in it, I want them to imagine how I’ll react if they come home smelling of Mary Jane. I want them to feel a healthy fear of me and my rage. So yes, I get angry, probably too angry, once in a while. Who hasn’t felt an incoherent rage bubbling up within them over something stupid, like a kid who won’t eat blueberries today, when yesterday he ate so many that you went out and bought more? I do try to put a lid on that.
But usually, I let them see my anger. And if I feel bad about it later (and I often do), I at least remind myself that they’ll know I really care. And then I go offer an couple of extra hugs, and sometimes (if it’s warranted) even an explanation: Sometimes people get mad, and then they get over it, and then life goes on. I figure that’s a useful lesson, too. I just hope they manage to remember both.
Image from Areko on fotopedia via Creative Commons license.