Lynne and I blew it a lot. We had a lot of great moments as a young family, but we also had a lot of bad moments – the kind of stuff that over time can lead to growing disconnection between parents and kids. We yelled. We said and did ugly things. We exerted our power in order to control. Did we mention condescension, micro-managing, and nagging? Much of this we did in the name of “being the parents” or “tough love.” We learned to be quite effective at disguising our selfish, sinful motives behind masks of authority, logic and even “spiritual” guidance. We found that in spite of the most wonderful of intentions, sin still does easily entangle.
As a result, on numerous occasions we simply did not obey the first part of the instructions to parents found in Colossians 3:21 and Ephesians 6:4a. In the name of “being the parent,” we provoked our kids to anger, embittered them, and downright exasperated them.
In spite of our fairly common displays of ugly parenting, we got past all this and found our way into rich connection and influence with our children. You can too. How?
When kids act up, it’s a parent’s job to guide them through the difficulty. But kids’ trouble often pushes parents’ buttons. Need for control? Push. Desire for quick fixes? Push. Anxiety about what’s gonna happen with this demanding kid? Push. Inconvenient timing? Push.
The kids get treated as if they’re the only ones in trouble — but in fact, their parents are in trouble too. It’s a different kind of trouble. Harder to solve. But trouble nonetheless.
We meet or talk nearly every day with parents. Most of them contact us because they need help. After hearing bits of their story, we usually ask, “What are your goals as parents?” In their answers we learn much about what we think is the big problem with parenting. While every story and response is unique, a common theme shows up in the answer. It can be summed up this way: “Our goal is well-behaved kids.”
There is nothing wrong with wanting well behaved kids. But as a first priority it pits parents against kids in power struggles of all sorts. Or — and we think this is even worse — it produces compliant kids who do right things, but have empty hearts.
I just read another decent parenting book by a well-known author. It’s got some good ideas in it about how to manage kids’ misbehavior. But like so many of the parenting books I read, it is laced with what I think is a subtle but huge parenting mistake: Arrogance.
Anger is tough to understand. Most parents, in the name of getting their kids’ anger in check, tend to act quickly and without much thought to the deeper layers of what’s going on in both the child and the parent. We have come to firmly believe that if parents are to deal constructively with their kids’ anger, they must first look more closely at their own anger.
This is hard. It is unnatural, especially at first. It takes new ideas and new attitudes. It’s more normal and natural to greet kids’ anger with anger, frustration, commands to stop, punishment, or some combination of these. These approaches may or may not get kids to behave, but for sure they do nothing to teach kids new skills for constructively managing their anger. So over the next weeks, we’re going to share some basic ideas that can help.
“Are you going to help me or not?” I snapped at Daniel, our fifteen year-old-son. He’d been asking for the past hour to go to a friend’s house. I kept dodging his request while also badgering him to enlist his help in a backyard project I had planned.
“Dad, you’re annoying!” he snapped back. “You keep ignoring me. Get off my back!” I was a bit stunned by his sharp tone. He waited briefly for a response. When none came he folded his arms and announced, “I’m leaving.”
I saw her coming, eyes flashing and surveying the crowded checkout lines. Her cart was full. Mine was too. I shifted my gaze to the lines as well. It was time to go and there was no way I was going to let her find the shortest line first. I was going to win!
The desire to be victorious, to be superior, resides in all of us. This desire takes many forms. At shopping centers we rush to snatch up parking spots, limited-supply free samples (I really love the prime beef at Costco!), and the shortest checkout lines. When in conflict we do what we need to do to win. Some of us get loud. Some of us get quiet. Some of us get mean. We all want to win.
We do it with our kids, too. We put our hands on our hips and raise our voices. We do what’s needed to command respect, but it often creates fear in our children. We “win” when they comply. In subtle but powerful ways they learn that winning is what matters. This is how our children get drawn into the world of winners and losers – the world of bullying. A world where no one really wins.
What if just today we engaged our kids, our colleagues, our spouses and our fellow humans with no need to win? What if we treated them like teammates, not opponents? What if today we decided to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” but “rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”? (Phil 2:3-4)
Check out part one and part two in our series on bullying if you missed them!
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As parents who care for our children’s spiritual well-being, we try to teach them right and wrong and help them tackle whatever spiritual problems they encounter.
However, other than the fact that they’re born into sin, it may well be that a child’s biggest spiritual problem is that the grace they hear about in the gospel story is not what they experience in their closest relationships. The same parents who send them to Sunday School fight in the car on the way home from church and don’t resolve well. Or they yell at their kids impatiently. Or they complain openly about other people. Or they insist on being right. Or they discipline angrily and without grace. The list goes on.
We may think our kids won’t notice these behavioral contradictions, but increasingly they do notice and feel embittered (Col. 3:21) or exasperated (Eph. 6:4).
We parents sometimes get it backwards.
Our kid acts up and we get angry. We then tend to justify our anger saying, “I wouldn’t be angry if you didn’t act up.” This means that we’ve let our child be in charge of our emotions. Then we angrily confront our child and the child gets angry in return. The child’s expression of anger is less controlled than ours.
Finally, we punish the child for his misbehavior, and we get away with ours. What’s worse is we don’t even notice ours.
Maybe we have it backwards.
Maybe the reason kids get so angry when we discipline them is that they are simply following our example. Instead of giving them a time-out, maybe we need one first.
Some parents have figured out that it’s their job to stay calm and graceful when their kids act up. They learn to stay humble and gentle in their use of authority. That’s how we best help our kids learn good lessons – including how to stay calm when they’re upset.
Which way will you choose?
Download our FREE in-depth ebook Helping Kids With Anger. It will provide thoughtful insights and creative ideas to help your struggling child.