One of the most important books I’ve ever read about raising children is by a psychologist named Miriam Levi. The book is called Effective Jewish Parenting, but you don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from Levi’s wisdom.
She writes that the biggest mistake parents make is giving into their anger. That seems obvious, but she takes it a step further and asks a question I’ve never seen asked anywhere else – why do parents get angry so often?
Levi writes that parents get angry at their children out of a misguided expectation that “things should be easy.”
Where on earth do we parents ever get the idea that raising children was supposed to be easy?
Kicking back for an evening and watching Netflix?
Surfing the net, keeping up with your Facebook timeline, or buying stuff on Amazon?
But raising kids? Who ever told us that would be easy?
Levi says that there’s a second reason why parents permit themselves to get angry with their kids.
It’s the underlying, subconscious belief many parents have that “I can’t bear it when they act out.”
But why can’t parents bear it?
Maybe, Levi suggests, the problem is not the behavior of the children. Children misbehave. Like Macaulay Culkin told John Candy in Uncle Buck, that’s their job.
The real problem, according to Levi, is that parents have a low frustration tolerance coming from a desire for life to be easy.
We think that by displaying anger to a child, we’re going to teach them a better way to live.
Or, as the expression goes, the beatings will continue until morale improves.
Instead, all we are doing is teaching the child to have the same low frustration to tolerance that we have!
We’re also teaching the child to get angry and vent that anger every time something doesn’t go the child’s way.
So if you want to have a happier home, and especially if you want to have better-behaved children, you first have to modify your own behavior.
Specifically, you’ve got to recognize how quickly you get angry – yes, you – I see you! That’s the magic of the internet! I can see you right through your screen!
OK, that’s creepy, and no, I can’t. But the serious message is that we all have to recognize that by giving into anger, and venting anger on our children, all we’re doing is chipping away at our children’s self-esteem and hurting them.
How long does it take you to modify your behavior?
Let’s put it this way. When you entered a 12-step program, you probably had some bad habits or character defects you wanted to eliminate.
Maybe anger was one of them.
Maybe it was dishonesty.
Whatever it was, were you able to flip a switch and change your behavior overnight, especially if somebody got angry at you for acting that way?
Of course not.
A lot of therapists will tell you that it takes two years for adults to modify their behavior in a meaningful way.
So why is it that we imperfect adults, otherwise known as parents, have this insane expectation that our children will modify their behavior instantly when we scare them through our anger?
Levi says that we have to be patient with our children as they develop the right habits.
We have to model patience, not anger.
Kids aren’t born ready to take responsibility for their homework, for getting up on time, and for getting out the door with their backpacks filled with everything necessary for the day. As she writes, these things don’t happen overnight, and they are less likely to happen in angry homes.
When children are spoken to angrily, Levi suggests, it gives them the message that the parent thinks that they are bad.
We want to differentiate between the child and his or her behavior.
The child is a gift from God.
The behavior might seem to come straight from the devil – but our job as parents is to coach the child lovingly, not trash the child every time he or she does something wrong.
The subtle but essential shift we must make, Levi concludes, is that we have to stop focusing on getting our needs met as adults. Our “needs” are quiet, order, and peace of mind.
We have to let all that go, because that’s just simply not reality when you have young children. Your house isn’t going to be as quiet as a library. Not now, and not until they are grown up and out the door.
So instead of focusing on your own desires for quiet and order, deal in reality. Focus on the growth of the child. Recognize that your children have a right not to be yelled at.
Don’t give in when you hear that inner voice saying, “I can’t bear it when they fight, or make a mess, or not pay attention to me. I can’t stand it! It’s awful!”
See if you can modify your inner voice, Levi writes, from “I can’t bear it” to “I wish they didn’t fight, but it’s just part of children growing up.”
Remember ultimately that it takes a village to raise a child – not a victim, but a village.
You are the mayor of your child’s village.
So put your anger out in the recycle bin where it belongs, and if you want to modify your child’s behavior, maybe modify your own behavior first.
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