Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Value of Not Getting Mad

It feels good to get mad.  I will admit that freely.  The energy that accompanies anger is exciting and there is nothing like a good vent, a well timed swear word, or the feeling of chucking something across a room.  I think many of us live in such orderly, civilized little worlds that there isn't enough opportunity to let loose and expend a lot of the energy we have pent up, and when the opportunity strikes and we feel justified by unfairness or frustration to lash out, it's hard to resist.

I confess that on more than one occasion when my kids' rooms have become such horrible, ankle-deep messes and it takes me hours to dig through it and sort it out, that I have yelled and screamed and thrown things against a wall.  And then I feel terrible and stupid and not at all like the grown up I am supposed to be.  It's just hard to not be listened to over and over and over, and sometimes it's too much.  The repetition of pointless feeling tasks when there is so much I'd rather do tries my patience like nothing else and at certain moments I lose it.  I tell my kids (by which I really just mean Aden, who is now 10 and is at least improving in this area) that if they just do what I ask when I ask I would not be driven to yell.

I've never lost it to the point where I've directed any physical anger on anyone--just at some unfortunate legos or pieces of a train set--but the yelling still isn't good.  And except in rare circumstances it doesn't really help.  (For those times it does?  I've stopped feeling guilty about those.)

During Ian's deployments, when I had to do everything alone and the lack of sleep combined with stress was taking a dangerous toll, I flew off the handle more frequently.  Small infractions felt intolerable.  Now that Ian's home and I'm able to not only share the chores but retreat to my store regularly, I feel much more sane.  A break, some help, a little distance from the constant neediness, makes it possible for me to pause and think instead of simply reacting too quickly.  I'm a better parent when I have the space to consider what I'm doing instead of getting mad.  That's an obvious statement, which I suppose is why I feel so guilty when I yell.  Because I know better.  But knowing and being able to do are sometimes very different things.

So I was pleased at the cottage recently to have a rare parenting moment where I got to see the value of not getting mad.  It made enough of an impression on me that I am going to try to keep the experience toward the front of my mind for the next time things get to be too much and I'm tempted to lose my cool.

Aden is a very sweet and sensitive person.  She hates to disappoint me.  Her biggest flaw is her penchant for being distracted (meaning I can send her into the next room for something and she ends up playing with the dog or watching TV and I have to call for her to get back on task).  She doesn't always tell the truth and she hides evidence of small transgressions, but she's better than I was at her age so I don't worry about it.  Overall she's incredibly responsible, a good big sister, and a sweetheart.

But when you put people with their peers they can change.  I know I still get to be one version of myself with my high school friends that isn't exactly who I am normally.  There is a freedom that comes with that context.  So I understand that when I see it in my kids.  It would be odd if they interacted with their friends the same way they did with me.  When I see Aden take on a different laugh or a new cadence to her voice to entertain someone she's hanging out with for the afternoon, it's okay.  But I always pay attention because sometimes we can be inspired to change too far.

Aden has a friend who lives about 90 minutes from our cottage.  They don't get to see each other often, but when they get together they have a great time.  On the last day of our spring break we invited Aden's friend to come up for a sleepover.  For the most part it was fine.  But something about Aden's friend being a little older and bit more cavalier I think caused her to make questionable choices.  Aden was caught in a state of wanting to impress and please her friend, and I didn't like what she was up to.

The details aren't important.  Suffice it to say Aden took something I told her not to, and when she feared being caught, hid it.  I knew she'd done it.  I was angry, but the cottage just isn't a place that fosters anger and I dialed it down to annoyance.  I decided it wasn't worth discussing while we had a guest, and I let her think I didn't know.  The kids played while I made dinner, and I left them to eat while I took a break to read in my bedroom.  Then Aden knocked on my door.

She came and sat next to me on the bed, had trouble looking me in the eye, and said she wanted to tell me something even though she was afraid I might get mad.  I promised her I would not get mad.  I told her I might be unhappy about whatever she had to say, but I would not get mad.  I gave her time to get the words out.  She started and stopped a few times.  Her eyes filled with tears.

Eventually Aden confessed to what she'd done.  She was ashamed.  She wasn't sure why she'd done it, and when I suggested that maybe it just felt exciting to be in cahoots with a friend she agreed that sounded reasonable.  And I didn't get mad.

In fact, I was able to tell Aden, truthfully, that her being brave enough to come to me and confess made me very proud.  All of us screw up.  All of us do things we regret.  And it's easier to mask those moments with misdirected anger or other complications than it is to be vulnerable and come clean.  It's hard to expose ourselves as less than perfect to the people we care about most.  It's hard to really say you're sorry.  And Aden was sorry.

I hugged her hard.  I told her calmly what she already knew about why what she did was wrong, and then I focused again on the bravery it took to tell me about it.  I made her promise to remember in the future when she worries about telling me something that I did not get mad.  All she ever has to do is to remind me up front to not get mad and she shouldn't be afraid to tell me anything.

I told Aden that one of my biggest concerns as a parent is my children not being able to tell me something important.  They should be able to tell me anything.  They can only do that if they feel safe.  Getting mad, yelling, the harm in those things is they create fear.  I want my children's respect, but I never want their fear.  I want to be the safest spot in the world for them.  And in that moment at the cottage I was that for Aden, and I felt like the kind of mom I aspire to be.

I will probably yell again.  I won't pretend I'm better than that because I'm human and life is rough sometimes.  But it means a lot to me that Aden and I had a moment where we got to work through a situation as our best selves.  It was a good lesson for both of us.  Which is what the best parenting moments are really about.


  1. If you come up with a good solution for not yelling please share :) space away from the crew usually helps too but with our schedule that' s often hard to find.

    1. Sometimes I remind myself the sun is going to explode and none of it matters. That's the best I've got.

  2. Curiously, I don't have the need or desire to yell or physically damage something, nor do I find relief from doing so. I don't know if I ever have. I wonder if this would change with having children. I know that you, Kory, have been under some extreme stresses and everything can change under the right/wrong conditions.

    Being a scientist, I see the power of conducting a rational discussion based on the strength of ideas; how raising one's voice can degrade one's position. Reminds me of the story of the Manhattan Project discussions as written about by Richard Feynman-- how nothing was repeated and no voice was raised. Feynman was impressed and that has stuck with me.

    1. @pupating: That's interesting, Barrett. I can't picture you getting really mad at all, so maybe we're wired differently.

      But yes, I think there is a stress unique to raising children that maybe drives people to yell. Parents you would never suspect of it tell me about losing it with their kids.

      Parenting is so relentless and intense and frustrating some days, and things like time are a factor. If I tell Aden literally ten times in a row to get dressed because we're leaving, ideally I could stand over her and gently prod until she does it, but I also have other kids to tend to, breakfast to make, backpacks to check.... And there are books and experts who say, "They will learn when they see the consequences!" but no! Sometimes they don't! (Look at any of my children dressed in shorts on a snowy day who still complain of the cold.) It's like dealing with small crazy people sometimes. And then we're going to be late. "ADEN JUST GET DRESSED NOW!!!" and then she moves. It's the last resort but the thing that works. (But that would never work with either Mona--who does what I ask when I ask anyway, so it doesn't apply--or Quinn, who would burst into tears if I yelled at him, thus taking up even more time so it would backfire.)

      Chucking legos at the wall? You play soccer and get out more than I do. Maybe I'm just more confined, and if I had time for things like archery or even a good game of catch now and then I wouldn't feel the urge.

      When I'm my best self I'm able to make the time to deal with everything with patience and humor, and I'm proud of myself on those days. But that just doesn't happen all the time. I wish it did. I try! And again, with Ian home it's not all me every minute of every day without a break and little sleep, so it's better. When he was gone it was unusual to have a day where I didn't raise my voice. Now it's unusual when I do.

  3. I think there is something about "up north" that allows us all to be our "best selves." There are, for the most part, no schedules to be dealt with and we do things when we want. Hungry? eat. Not Hungry? Don't eat. Shower? whatever. Classes? Nope. Being allowed to not rush around from place to place and commitment to commitment gives us a freedom we don't get in "real life." Three Cheers for VACATION!

    1. I completely agree. That lack of pressure can make all the difference.

  4. Fantastic! I had a yelling moment when my little guy was only 8 months old and I was a new mom. I got so angry that my son cried, not because he was regularly crying, but because he was afraid of what his mom had turned into and probably was really freaking out. I remember hearing that sound, that terrible cry, and told myself I don't want to ever do that again, where my son is afraid of his mom.

    So far that memory is ingrained in me that I've yet to yell at him. I've definitely gotten frustrated, snapped at him and what have you, but never to the point where he was afraid.

  5. Amazing. I am sending this to my brother, who is teaching his son that he can only receive affection if he (the 2 yr old little boy) is calm, and not upset. Watching them causes me so much heartache. I've only got a one year old right now, and I can already see how this sweet fun time is going to become more challenging and soon, but I hope I can keep it all in perspective.

    Thank you!