Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Parental Anger

Jillian over at Petite Gamine wrote a really great post yesterday about her father's, um, disciplinary tactics; I am not going to give it all away, but will encourage you all to head on over there and read it. And this is why: because the point wasn't a "poor me" post about how she was raised, but how it affected her as a parent, and I though it was a very powerful piece. It resonated with me on several different levels, which inspired me to post about my own thoughts and feelings and how my parenting skills have been influenced by my own parents.

See, I made a vow when I had kids that I would never do the things my parents did. I would never expect them to be perfect in all things, or ground them for 9 weeks if there was anything less than an A on their report cards. I would never treat them as my personal slaves, expecting them to have dinner on the table and the house spotless when I get home from work. I would never manufacture work (not chores, but WORK) for them to do the exert my control over them. I would never make them pull down their pants and spank them with a belt. I would never force them to eat their dinner warmed up three days in a row because they didn't finish it the first night. I would never....you get the hint. Some examples: we used to have a fireplace, and we had a huge stack of wood. One memorable summer, my sisters and I had to move the stack four times. Not for any reason, not because it was not in the right place, but because my parents could make us. My stepfather was in the Air Force, and we were in charge of ironing his shirts. If he pulled one out of the closet and it was wrinkled, he pulled every item out of the closet-hundreds of items-and make us iron them all again. I clearly remember being in first grade, standing on a chair and crying while I ironed-because I knew that no matter how carefully I did it, the shirts would wrinkle as soon as they were hung back up. One of many lessons in futility I learned at an early age.

I could go on and on about the travesty which was my childhood, but one thing I have learned as an adult is that you make whatever peace with it you can, and move on. Part of moving on has been, for me, therapy at different times in the past, my recovery from alcoholism, and my firm desire to raise happier, healthier kids than I was. The problem as I see it is not that I want better for them, but that I don't always know how to go about doing things differently. I was raised to believe that The Adults were always right, even when common sense dictated otherwise; how do I encourage my own children to question me when there is a legitimate reason for doing so? And how do I effectively say, "This is non-negotiable and I don't need to give you my reasons," without having it be heard as "Because I am the boss?" How do I tell them it is okay to question some things I do or say without also giving them permission to run amok and not have respect for me? I was also raised to handle anger by watching my sisters and I become the whipping post for very adult fears and frustrations and angers; how do I handle my own feelings of anger and rage and inadequacy and hopelessness without my kids bearing the brunt of it? Because God knows that in MY house, it was "Hit first, ask questions later," only later never came. Of course we got the lecture "This hurts me as much as it does you," or worse still, "Why are you such a fucking baby? I will GIVE you something to cry about!" All of this and more, disguised as discipline or teaching respect or whatever euphemism came to mind first.

There are things I have learned over the years that work, though. One of them-maybe the biggest one-is that when I am genuinely angry, I do NOT touch my kids. Period. If I have to spank-and I have-I reserve it for the times when they were doing something clearly unsafe about which they had previously been warned. Like running out into the street (ahem, and sticking the their tongue out at me). I have popped all three of the bigger kids on the mouth one time each, all three for letting some unspeakable obscenity come out of their mouths at very young ages (and despite my language elsewhere, at home? We don't say bad words much.). But if I get furious enough to really spank, I know that if I touch them, I might hurt them.

I also believe in time-outs. Not for the kids, but for ME. I refuse to pretend to my kids that I don't ever get angry; I refuse to tell them they can't get angry. But they have to have an opportunity to see an adult handle anger before they know how to, so I think it is important to verbalize: "I am so angry right now that I need to take a time out." Screaming into a pillow, or hitting a punching bag, or taking a run-I think they work, thought some may not agree; in fact, one of the comments on Jillian's post likened such behaviors to an adult temper tantrum. I respectfully disagree; because anger is a human emotion, it SHOULD be felt and dealt with, and whatever it takes for each of us to deal without hurting ourselves or someone else is okay in my book. Because I learned well how to hide what I was feeling and thinking and going through, until I thought maybe drinking and fucking strangers obsessively would somehow mask those feelings. Not so, my friend, not so.

And it helps to have people to talk to; people who can say "I have been there!" It helps to admit that we have those feelings of anger and also the desire to act on them. It helps to be in a place where we can say, "I just can't do this and I need some help," and then take it one step further and listen to the advice. I mean, we don't like to admit we are anything less than perfect, so our first reaction tends to be, what? Anger? Defensiveness? "How DARE you tell me what I am doing wrong!" But, well, isn't that why we say we need help? So for me, I have to not only swallow my pride and admit that I am fucking up, and then I have to really humble myself and listen to some solutions. Maybe, if ten people tell me something, I might get one good nugget out of it, and that one bit might make a huge difference in how I do things.

I also have people I look to for help; friends, other people's families, books-not just about how to deal with my own anger and how it affects my kids, but other things, too. I look to my friend Janet for strategies that allow my kids to express their individuality (blue hair? It's just hair; it grows back. Tattoos? Not while you are in my house, it's permanent) without my own perceptions and judgements getting in the way. I look at the woman in my office who has excellent relationship with both her grown children, and I ask her what worked for them and I listen. I have learned how to give a genuine apology when I have been wrong, because that is another thing I have learned from another friend who is a really great parent.

Another thing that has worked for me is to use the tone of voice I use in public; pretend that someone is listening and watching me interact with my children. I would no more yell or chastise or scream at my kids in public than I would pick my nose and eat it. We all know the voices we use around teachers or in bookstores, where other more progressive, more gentle, calmer mothers hang out with their literary kids; I talk to my kids so far as is possible the same way I speak to them there. For one thing, if I talk quietly, even when I am reprimanding, the kids respond a lot better, and also, I never want the kids to see the same kind of hypocrisy that I saw-presenting one face to the public and unleashing the monster behind our closed doors.

And I cannot demand respect from my kids if I don't respect them. I can't expect them to behave like normal productive human beings if I can't show them how to do with that. I can't expect them to learn how to deal with negative emotions if I don't know how to do it myself. I fail-often. I sometimes say things to my kids that I can't believe, and I yell so loud at times that my throat hurts. I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and just can't stand what I see, because for however brief a moment, I was my mother. It is so hard sometimes to be a parent, and it seems to me there is a lot of the "one step forward, two steps back" going on.

Still, I know that as long as I am aware of what I am doing and how I am feeling, as long as I keep making an honest effort, we will be okay. In the dark of night, I question my abilities as a parent and worry that I am harming them irreparably, but somehow I get up in the morning and start again. I also think that is an important lesson the kids can learn from me; that we make mistakes, we react badly, we say things we don't mean, but we keep trying. We try every day to make the world a better place, to walk in peace and calm. When we are around people who genuinely love us, we want to do better and be better, and this is what I strive for. Not perfection-I would be crazy if I thought I would NEVER YELL again, never say something that hurt someone. But it is progress, and that makes all the difference.





14 comments:

Kristin H. said...

That was a very powerful post and one I needed to read today. My kids are getting to the age where they can communicate clearly and there are times when I find my buttons pushed. I, too, vowed to overcome some patterns from my childhood.

Great post Kori.

jt said...

Kori, raising kids is hard. I don't know how other people do it, I don't even know how I do it most of the time. And at that, I have wildly different ways of being raised to compare to. The times I lived with my Aunts, it was pretty much the way you talk about being raised. When I was with my mom, totally different story, totally opposite. Trying to find a middle ground, impossible. I just really hope that someday when my kids are grown, they have full appreciation for the effort I put in, trying to be a good parent.

April said...

You already know I totally agree with this!

Dingo said...

What a fantastic post. Some of the things you mentioned are so familiar. I don't have any kids but one of the things that I said I would never do to any child was to discount his/her feelings. Children can be angry, disappointed, upset, sad, happy, etc. and it's up to us to show them appropriate ways to express those feelings.

FreedomFirst said...

Wow, Reading this has made me appreciate my own parents all over again. And I actually needed to read this right now, because I'm having a stupid tiff with my mom over something I feel she did wrong, that's too late for her to undo anyway. And it seems so petty next to what you've been through; I'm embarrassed.

I think the best way to allow your kids to question you, while still maintaining authority, is exactly what you are doing; not striking out at them in anger. As long as they aren't afraid of you, they will be able to speak out when they really feel wronged, even if they know you are upset. And that's better than another woman I know, who manipulates her nearly-grown girls by acting the drama queen, crying and sobbing, and telling them how ,much they must hate her to even dream of going against her will, when all she wants is to protect them, blah blah. It literally makes me sick; that is such a screwed up thing to teach your kids, that whining is the way to enforce your wishes. Ugh!

I have gained a new respect for you today. I don't think I would be able to raise my kids halfway decent if I had been through all that as a child. You really are an amazing woman.

THopgood said...

I'm so sorry for your childhood.

But what an incredible and intelligent woman you are for having learned from that and your life story to change the pattern.

Your kids are lucky to have you.

BusyDad said...

Wow. Very well thought out. I really admire your ability to step back and critique yourself like that. You have my total admiration as a parent who UNDERSTANDS the why behind parenting. Way to go Kori!

Immoral Matriarch said...

I am a completely different person than those who raised me. I'm not sure if that's bad or good. But you - you are fucking amazing.

Anna-borderline-bonkers-banana :) said...

Oh Kori!! You are amazing. Realizing and making the effort to me something else is so huge!
I too am trying to but find it so easy to slip into the same mistakes and grooves that my parents did because that is what I know. Making the effort to be different is so hard but I truly believe it is for the better.

Meg said...

I agree that letting kids see anger (and appropriate ways to deal with it) is a good thing. I'm all for "time-outs" for myself, too.

Melissa said...

As long as you are aware of yourself, you are way ahead of the game. So in that, you are doing great!

In my house, I only let the kids disagree with me if they can do it in a rational tone (no whining), and can think through why I might be wrong. So it is more of a debate than a disagreement. So far, so good. :)

LaskiGal said...

Kori . . . you are a good mother. You THINK about what you do, about the impact it will have on your children. You clearly understand you are human, you'll make mistakes, and that you can ask for help.

Most of all, you respect your children as actual human beings . . . so many parents forget this. They are just children . . . their children.

You are giving them such a wonderful gift by just being you.

Seriously, inspiring . . . thank you.

Rachael said...

This is a great post, and I love hearing stories of people breaking the cycle of what might not be healthy ways of disciplining children. Your techniques sound great - I like the one about talking like someone is listening. Just the fact that you care about your kids enough to write this all down like this and think about it so much is a huge sign that you're doing things right! Thanks for sharing.

zoeyjane said...

This post was great. It could have come directly from my own brain, except for the well-thought-outedness. And the fact that it flowed so well.

It's pretty rare that I read something about how someone intends/does parent and completely agree, so um, a gold star is what you get?