I wrote about being a parent who is slow to get angry with their children on my blog, and a mother asked me that essential question: How?
Her question is one that many of us have asked. We see the beauty of grace contrasted with the ugliness that still lingers within us, and we find our hearts asking the same question. I can only attempt to answer as someone who knows much failure amid much grace. What follows are not theoretical or from the past, but they are intensely fresh, personal, present and real.
Before we can change what we do as parents, we often need to change how we think. Identifying thought patterns might seem purely theoretical and not of much practical help, but if what we do is often the overflow of how we think, perhaps it’s a good place to begin.
Four helpful realizations
1. Realize that the times when we are easily angered are often moments ripe with opportunity to teach our children.
Often, the moments when we are naturally angered are those times when we can teach our children about life, sin and grace. Conflict is a part of life in a sin-filled, broken world. For our children’s entire lives, they’re going to be dealing with it.
In those moments when we’re easily angered, our instinct tends to want to get things back to a state of peace and quiet as speedily and effortlessly as possible. The children are whining or fighting so we angrily snarl, "Enough. Stop it right now! I don’t want to hear it!" What a wasted opportunity. When it’s possible, we ought to be willing to take the time to patiently talk, listen and teach. In our haste to get back to peace, we sometimes forget the most important part: their hearts.
2. Realize that angry parenting is often deeply selfish.
Think of the words that usually escape our lips in our worst parenting moments: "I’m sick and tired of you guys fighting. I’ve had it up to here!" What’s striking about these phrases is that they’re all about me. They’re selfish phrases that give us a glimpse of our heart—our anger is about us and how their behavior is disrupting our life.
But parenting isn’t about us being sick of whining or fighting, is it? Ultimately, it’s not about us at all. It’s about our children and putting ourselves aside to love, nurture, teach and guide them. A quickly angered parent is a selfish parent whose peace and quiet is being disrupted. It can be helpful to realize afresh the intrinsically selfish quality of the easily angered parent and to remember that grace-filled parenting means caring more about others than ourselves.
3. Realize that being easily angered is less about lack of control and more about lack of desire.
When our kids do stuff in public that makes us mad, we often handle it differently than if we were at home by ourselves. We’re more patient, aren’t we? Kinder. Gentler. Tempered. In other words, we’re better parents. We really do have self control in moments of frustration. We really do have the capacity to respond the way we should. When I’m at home, unnoticed by others, it’s not that I lack the control to do what’s right. It’s that I lack the desire.
There’s a sadness in this because most of us truly care more about what our children think of us than a bunch of strangers. More than that, we care more about what God thinks about us. Yet, our actions often indicate otherwise. It can be helpful to remember that how we respond really is a choice, and the people who matter most see our parenting all the time.
4. Realize that becoming a slow-to-anger parent is often about reprogramming the muscle memory of the heart.
Much of our time in parenthood is spent reacting to things our children do. We all have patterns of reaction in our lives. When we reflect upon how we habitually react in moments of frustration, we’re able to discern our own pattern of reaction. For many who are quickly angered, the muscle memory of the heart is to react in anger instead of grace. When we find ourselves habitually reacting in anger, it means we need to repent and form new heart habits. Eventually, with time and much grace, we create a new rhythm that changes the muscle memory of our heart.
Four practical suggestions
1. Prepare in advance.
Before the day begins to unfold and begins to unravel, anticipate that your children will occasionally do frustrating things that annoy you and get under your skin, and then prepare to react with grace. Think about it, know it’s coming and then plan how you’ll respond.
Each day, our children are going to do many things that bring us joy and make us laugh. And with just as much certainty, our kids are going to do things that irritate and anger us. Why does it seem to catch us unprepared so that all we’re doing is reacting? Before the moments come, spend time praying and preparing your heart. We don’t just want to go through parenthood reacting. We want to be proactively changing.
2. Reflect at the end of the day.
When it’s been a good, joy-filled day with your children, take a few moments to reflect on why things went well and why you reacted in grace instead of anger. And similarly, when it’s been a difficult day and you’ve been angry and sinful, take a few minutes to reflect upon why it was a rough day. You might be surprised at the clarity of patterns and themes that emerge with this little exercise. One mark of mature, sanctified Christians is that they are often people who can identify those things which cause them to stumble and those things which help them soar.
3. Get enough sleep.
This doesn’t apply to everyone, but for many it holds true that lack of sleep leads to lack of grace. When we’re tired, we’re irritable. And when we’re irritable, we are prone to becoming quickly angered instead of patient and gracious. Granted, there are some seasons where sufficient rest is impossible. But in the many other times when staying up too late is a choice, we ought to remember that it’s the people who matter to us most who will be on the receiving end of our tired, angry responses.
4. Avoid rushing.
When we’re rushing somewhere with our children, running late or haven’t allotted enough time, it can easily lead to frustrated, angry and impatient words. It doesn’t take being a parent for long to realize that, with young children, the simplest things can take way longer than we ever thought possible. It’s just the way it is.
A simple but helpful detail in how my heart and our family functions has been to become more organized and, along with this, to ensure that we have ample time to do whatever it is we need to do. Of course, this isn’t always possible, and there are many disclaimers, but when it’s within our power to do so, avoiding rushing is a simple yet helpful little tool to employ.
Why we have tremendous hope
Parenting is a journey. There are days when it seems like God’s grace pours into and out of us into our children. There’s good stuff happening in our home, and we’re filled with hope and excitement for the days ahead. Then there are days where it seems like anger and tears have been the theme.
But even during hard times, we have every reason to have tremendous hope. We're not alone. Truly, in our failures and in our joys alike, we're not doing this parenting thing alone. We live our lives beneath the shadow of his wings, and even as we parent our little ones, we’re being parented by a Father who loves us, is with us, and is helping us every step along the way.