As a younger man I thought anger was a really effective tool for working with kids. I thought it worked because when I got angry I yelled, when I yelled my voice changed from monotone kindness to something that sounded like a growl from hell. When my voice changed to this scary growl from hell kids listened. In my mind this worked. I would ignore frustrations, hurts, or annoyances until I could ignore no more, then I would explode with a scary tone. Once I had exploded I felt a lot better, my feelings had been expressed and the people around me seemed to “understand.”
I have two vivid memories of discovering that my explosive anger was not helping people to understand me but to fear me.
I was working as a direct care staff at a residential facility for teens. These were normal kids who had struggled at home; they came to us to heal their family relationships. I was very young myself but had been charged with the task of “parenting” and leading these teens. One day toward the end of my yearlong commitment of service, I had asked a young man to complete his chore by taking out the trash. A few minutes later I peeked out the door to check on him and realized he had been distracted while “sword fighting” with a broom. I felt the anger well up inside of me, whipped open the door and growled, “Stop screwing around and get to work!”
Just then a new staff member appeared around the corner. (Literally having arrived the day before) I had this instant feeling of being caught. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I also felt powerful because of how quickly that boy jumped to attention and finished his chore.
A couple years later while working as a youth pastor, I taught a 7th grade Sunday school class. This class was challenging for me; there was a difficult mixture of the “popular” kids and those that were “annoying”. One Sunday was filled with especially snotty remarks and I could take it no longer. I laid into them with talk of kindness, respect, and love all in my characteristic growl of anger. The room grew silent and I could see their faces fill with what I thought was remorse.
Shortly after arriving home from that Sunday school class I received a phone call from a concerned parent. Her daughter who tended to be pretty sensitive and was not involved in the snotty remarks had returned home in tears. The parent asked what had occurred and if I could speak with her daughter.
As I began to mature and gain some much needed self-reflection skills these two incidents stuck in my mind. What was this experience that simultaneously produced feelings of guilt, shame, and power? Was this technique that seemed to produce such a swift response in people really working?
More growth and first time fatherhood brought about increased pressure and self-reflection. The most profound realization of my need to change came one night as I was attempting to console my newborn baby. He had been crying for what seemed like hours and we had tried everything we knew to soothe him. I held him close to me as he screamed and writhed in my arms. The thought that kept coming to mind was, “STOP BEING SUCH A BABY” I wanted to yell it at the top of my lungs. I felt the anger welling up and had nothing but a worthless growl voice to rely on.
That is the moment I realized that anger is a primitive and under developed parenting skill. My growl was useless in the face of my son’s tears. Actually, if I had used my go to skill it would have only made the situation worse and created fear rather than love. My growl of anger had evoked action in the teens I worked with but only out of fear. All these years when I thought I was effectively motivating, I was really fearfully motivating. If I was to become the parent my son needed I would be required to find new ways of managing my emotions and responses.
In the years since that night in the nursery, I am thankful to have gotten a handle on my anger. I have learned to express frustration and discontent in the moment rather than allowing it to build up. I have developed a better sense of personal boundaries in relation to work, family, and friends. I have learned that an out of control parent is very scary for a child. When children are scared of their parents they miss out on the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes.
There are still moments when my anger builds inside of me. I feel warm and become tempted to motivate with fear. There are also moments when I slip back to using my primitive and underdeveloped skill of anger. I am hopeful that as I continue to grow and reflect these moments will become less intense and less regular. May you experience the same joy of self-control.
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