Last week we talked about yelling and what pulls us back into that habit, even when we don't want to go there again. I promised we'd talk more about real strategies for handling the anger. Here's the first one.
Adjust your expectations.
Expectations vs. Reality
Anger happens when there's a disconnect between our expectations and our reality. It happens when we feel that we aren't getting what we deserve. I know this feeling all too well.
I began my parenting journey with a factory model of child rearing. You have kids. You follow procedures. They turn out a certain way. Except it didn't seem like it was working.
Even though I wouldn't have expressed it this way, I regularly lived under a cloud of "this isn't fair," sort of an "I'm not getting what I paid for" mentality. I really believed that, for the amount of effort I was putting in, I deserved to have better-behaved children.
And then I had my first experience of postpartum depression.
I didn't realize it at first, but in retrospect, I can tell you that I was angry at God. I mean, here I was caring for five children, one of them a big, ravenous newborn, and I had to deal with crippling fatigue.
I spent a lot of time laying on the floor by the door of our schoolroom (den) so that I could keep the kids contained in one room while I rested. I can still vividly see in my mind's eye the air vent on the floor that I stared at as I lay there and fumed.
I distinctly remember saying to God in my heart, "I am still making bricks, but you are not giving me any straw."
We Don't Get What We Pay For
Without realizing it, I had inadvertently slipped into the Job mentality. The Book of Job in the Bible tells about a man who endures great suffering. During this time of anguish, his friends stop by and say, essentially, "Well, Job, if you're suffering, you must have done something wrong. Better find out what it is so you can change and fix your life."
Job felt the injustice of this, but his response was actually just the reverse of their message. He said, "No, I haven't done anything wrong, so I shouldn't be suffering."
Adam Andrews of The Center for Lit would call this the "lever pulling philosophy". Both Job and his friends thought of life and God as a collection of levers. Put all the levers in the right position and good things will drop out. If bad things are dropping out, one of your levers must be in the wrong place.
Job was sure the system must be malfunctioning, because he'd correctly positioned the levers, yet he was dealing with tough stuff. God was about to free Job from a lifetime of lever-pulling.
God is not a machine. We can't control him by our choices and actions. Our behaviors don't constrict him to do certain things for us. Parenting is not simply a cosmic transaction where we get out what we put in.
We don't get what we pay for. We get something better.
Prying My Fingers from the Steering Wheel
One of the hardest things about postpartum depression (for me) was the extreme fatigue. It meant that my usual go-to methods of problem solving were no longer at my disposal.
Make a better schedule. Crack down on order and discipline. Improve household systems. But not from my position on the floor of the school room.
As useful as order and routine are, God stripped them away temporarily for my good. It was as if he pried my fingers, one white knuckle at a time, from the steering wheel of life so that I could see that he had been the driver all along, not me.
Even as my role as a mother was reduced to that of a guard dog laying on the floor to watch the children, I saw beautiful things happening in their lives.
I watched them growing in love and care for each other. I watched them explore and learn. And I watched the Lord produce the fruits of the Spirit in their lives. And I was left with no other option than to conclude it was from him. I certainly wasn't the cause.
The Multiplying Effect
My mother likes to say that parenting is like offering your five loaves and two fish to the Lord. On their own, they are never enough.
But the Lord doesn't brush aside our work and do his own instead. Rather, he delights to take our very efforts, our very offering of faithful love and miraculously use it to feed the five thousand needs of our children.
I believed I wasn't getting out what I put in to parenting. Turns out I was right. I was getting more.
I've stopped demanding that my children reflect, one-for-one, the parenting that I put into them. I really believe that if God gave me exactly what my parenting "deserved" my children would be worse off, not better.
I yell at my children, and yet, they love me anyway. They feel safe with me and they forgive me again and again when I confess.
I look back on those early days of parenting and I see how much damage could have been done (and in some ways was done) by the factory model of parenting. And yet, the Lord has been so merciful and patient, giving me good in return for my weak and faltering efforts.
My husband prays a prayer that has left an eternal impression on my heart and one that I have taken up as my own.
"Lord, mitigate the effects of the things we are doing wrong and multiply the effects of the things we are doing right."
These are Not Ideal Children
See, the factory model of parenting assumes that you're starting with identical raw material and that the goal is to produce a consistent, identical product. I can see now how silly and destructive that mindset is.
When my parenting approaches weren't "working" as I expected, I thought maybe the problem was with the kids. Turns out, the problem was with my expectations.
I'm a grown-up and I'm not perfect (not by a long stretch). Yet somehow I imagined that methods and approaches would eradicate imperfection from my children. Though I never would have stated it that way, that was certainly the expectation at the foundation of the "I'm not getting what I paid for" mentality.
We aren't parenting "ideal" children. We are parenting real, live, gloriously unique, individual human beings. They don't all come with the same gifts, learn at the same pace, or respond the same to our interactions with them.
They are messy, complicated, complex, in-process, and beautiful. Just like us.
I can't tell you how many times I thought (or even said) some variation of "Shouldn't an X year old be able to ___ ??"
"Shouldn't a six year old be able to go up to his room and put away his socks and underwear without being reminded a hundred times??"
"Shouldn't a ten year old and an eight year old be able to play a board game without screaming at each other??"
"Shouldn't a four year old be able to sit still on his bottom for three minutes at one time??"
The answer is, "Maybe". But that would depend largely on the particular 4, 6, 8, or 10 year old in question.
If you set your expectations based on your concept of the "ideal" child, you will find yourself often confused, disappointed, and frustrated. (Ask me how I know.)
Here's another one that will set you up for defeat. "Shouldn't a X year old woman be able to go a whole day without losing her temper and yelling at her own, dear, precious children?"
Lowering Our Standards?
I know this may sound counter-intuitive to good, wholesome parenting, but you're going to need to adjust your expectations of your children. You're going to need to expect them to sin. Every day. A lot.
Maybe you're thinking, "So we just pretend like it's OK? We just act like God's laws don't matter?"
Lying is still wrong. Hitting is still wrong. Yelling is still wrong.
But when your feet hit the floor in the morning, please don't tell yourself, "Today will be the day of no lying, no hitting, and no yelling if it's the last thing I do!"
Instead, say, "Today, there will be lying. Today, there will be hitting. Today, there will be yelling. And we will have plenty of opportunities to practice looking to the cross of Christ for forgiveness and asking it of each other as well. Lord, help us to learn to be quick to confess. Start with me, Lord."
Instead of basing your expectations on the "ideal" base them on the reality of the actual children you have in front of you. If he was highly distractable yesterday, he will be highly distractable today. If she was quick-tempered yesterday, she will be quick-tempered today.
Yes, we have goals in mind for our children (and for ourselves). Yes, we offer guidance, training, and encouragement to work towards those goals.
But in any given day, we don't expect to fully reach those goals. We expect that we will make one day's worth of progress towards that end. Our goals are more of a direction in which we are facing, rather than a destination we expect to reach.