“The angry man should make himself like a deaf person who does not hear, and like a mute person who does not talk. If he must speak, it should be in a low voice and with words of reconciliation. Even if his heart is burning like fire, and his rage flames within him, he is capable of controlling his words.” (by Rabbi Eliezer Papo from his essay entitled "Anger")
This passage, which hit me like a ton of bricks, was part of my assigned reading for a Mussar study group I recently joined (“The goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul.” - The Mussar Institute). It forced me to reflect on how I often jump to anger when parenting my children, causing me to act from a position of reactivity=weakness, rather than from a position of proactivity=strength.
As I try to incorporate the Mussar principles into my life and find a more peaceful way to parent, I am committing myself to reducing the amount of time I spend feeling and/or acting angry.
When my teenager talks disrespectfully to me, my former reactive response looked something like this:
a) Quickly becoming angry, raising my voice, and telling him how disappointed I am in his behavior,
b) taking his behavior personally,
c) feeling like I have done something catastrophically wrong in parenting him,
d) feeling like I must CHANGE him immediately or he is going to disrespect his teachers and coaches, and will grow up to be a disrespectful adult.
(Note: b, c and d all exacerbate the anger.)
It has taken me only 19 years of parenting to realize that I rarely, if ever, feel good about myself when I slip into the pattern above. Even when I achieved my desired outcome, I felt a certain amount of shame whenever I acted in anger.
As I work to take a much more proactive, positive approach when facing a potentially upsetting scenario with my children, spouse or anyone I encounter, I need to embrace this idea: Anger is a choice. Perhaps I won't always be able to control the angry feelings that arise within, however, I can make the choice to not let them control me. I can choose to move away from anger, and toward something more productive.
In reference to the above-mentioned issue with my son, my new “working toward” pattern includes:
a) an understanding that his behavior is not about me—something could be bothering him (he had a bad day at school, at baseball practice, he lost in fantasy football or is nervous about his upcoming chemistry test).
b) trusting myself that I have indeed taught him the difference between respectful and disrespectful behavior, and that even with that knowledge, he is going to slip up sometimes.
c) accepting and loving him for who he is and knowing that he is a good person who is acting negatively at that moment.
d) talking to him calmly and telling him that I know he probably does not intend to talk to me disrespectfully but his tone sounds that way, and that I would like him to realize how it is unnecessary and inappropriate for him to speak disrespectfully to his mother, and there will be consequences for doing so.
The ultimate test for me is when my peaceful, anger-free approach toward him does not curb his level of disrespect but triggers more. This would be a good time to borrow from the Rabbi and “make myself like a deaf person who does not hear,” or literally walk away in an effort to thwart any rising anger that would cause me to be reactive.
It’s also important to realize that diffusing one’s own anger is the best way for a parent to teach children how to diffuse theirs.
The Beads Spilling Test
Last week, my 9-year-old daughter was frantically getting ready for school, as she had come downstairs later than our agreed upon time. She hastily put her coat on and in the process knocked over a huge bucket of beads, turning our mudroom floor into a sea of sparkly beads.
All three of my kids stopped in their tracks and six eyes were upon me.
a) Yell at Jo, causing her to burst into tears,
b) make her pick up every last bead and cause all three of my kids to be late for school,
c) feel terrible for the whole day.
My new reality, which actually surprised me almost as much as it surprised the kids:
a) I took a deep breath and said, “You guys need to go. You are going to be late. Jo, I know this was an accident. Please come down stairs earlier next time so you don’t have to be in such a hurry. Have a good day, guys!”
b) I turned away from them and began to pick up the beads.
My kids continued to stare at me for a while longer, checking to see if there would be a delayed outburst. Jo’s eyes turned from panic-stricken to relieved. “Bye mom,” they called as they walked out of the house to pile in my son’s car. “Love you!”
I literally smiled as I picked up the rest of the beads and said to myself, "This was definitely the better choice. Remember this."