Have you ever been so mad that you were “spitting mad”?  I have.  Literally!  This summer I had a “spitting” mad incident.  Let me explain.

I had arrived home from work one late afternoon and was soon making the rounds of our neighborhood to track down my children.  They were running about with friends in the cul-de-sac we live on and generally causing a ruckus.  Normal stuff.  But pretty soon I noticed two little girls from down the street who were a little agitated and were hauling a mother around to track down “the one who did it.”  Did what?  Apparently they’d been in a name-calling argument with some other little child on the block and that child had spit at one of them.  After a few more minutes two moms and a grumpy-looking dad of one of the girls were questioning kids right and left.  I thought I’d better check on the whereabouts of my own children just to be safe, and I soon found my six-year old son.  He was hiding around the corner of my house.  Looked suspicious.  Can you imagine who the culprit turned out to be?

Spitting on another child?  I was not happy.  In fact, I was mad.  Really mad.  Not just a little mad, but more like you-did-what? whose-kid-are-you-anyway? I-absolutely-cannot-believe-you-did-that-and-more mad.  Spitting mad. 

So what do you as a parent when you feel such anger?  Yell?  Scold?  Lose your temper?  Spank?  Stomp up and down?  Take away privileges for a year?  My experience is that all of these temptations and more run through your mind like a freight train when you are really mad.  But there can be a difference between how we feel and how we express our feelings in our actions.  Anger is a common and natural emotion, but it is also a powerful and potentially dangerous emotion when we fail to control it.  Let’s think about parenting and anger.

Puffer Fish Parenting

Many years ago my father formulated a simple and symbolic definition of parenting in anger that has dramatically shaped my understanding of this concept.  He calls it “puffer fish parenting.”

One night when I was growing up our family was sitting around the dinner table and having a discussion.  My older brother, who at age twelve had read nearly every book in the house and could remember almost every detail, got into a discussion with my dad and the rest of us about the Indian chief Crazy Horse.  My dad started telling us about the history of Crazy Horse and his experiences and how he died.  Pretty soon my brother raised his hand and said, “Dad, that’s wrong!”  Somehow dad took exception to being stopped and corrected in that manner, and he let my brother know somewhat angrily and pretty clearly that he was out of line.  As he explained it to me once, he said, “I got upset and started to climb all over that poor boy’s heart and soul.”  Then Mom got involved, and we all got involved, and well, my family isn’t known for its quiet demeanor.  What had started as an angry response had soon become a total uproar. 

Well, Dad stepped out back and tried to calm his mind and emotions, and there overhead saw the blazing stars of the distant Milky Way galaxy and then considered his own status at that moment.  He realized then how absolutely insignificant he was in relationship to God above, and yet knew that God loved and cared for him.  And then he knew that his anger had been wrong and he needed to make it right with his son.  And he did.

As an ecologist, my father spends much time observing the natural world and has a unique capacity for drawing lessons of life from the things that he sees among plants, animals, and the patterns of nature.  Later as he thought about this experience he happened to be visiting a marine science center and there saw a fish tank that contained a unique fish called a puffer fish.  A puffer fish is a fairly small, almost square fish that looks innocent until it is threatened in its environment by any predator or anything that seems to be a threat or a surprise.  Then it changes!  The puffer fish has the capacity to immediately puff up and take on a lot of air so that it blows up to almost four or five times its original size.  The idea seems to be that if you blow up quickly and act really big and threatening then you can scare away or intimidate or control what it is that has disturbed you or threatened you.  It’s a bluffing mechanism.  It’s meant to discourage or control others.  It also happens to be a pretty common parenting technique.  And my father has taught me that when you parent by intimidation or with anger that you are practicing what he now calls “puffer fish parenting.”

How many of us have practiced puffer fish parenting?  Let’s think of a few examples:

  “I cannot believe you did that!  I’m sick of it!  If you ever do that again I will beat you within an inch of your life!”
“You did what?!  You’ll never drive again!  I’ll never let you behind the wheel of that car again, you irresponsible twit!”

  “If you touch that again, you’re going to get it!  I mean it, I will break every bone in your body!”
 
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.  A thousand times!”

“Get to your room!  You are going to be grounded for a year, young lady!”

“Just wait until your father gets home!  You’re going to wish you’d never been born!”

What does a child learn from these outbursts of anger and threats of pain or punishment or intimidation?  What does a child learn about us?  But more importantly, what does a child learn about God?

As parents, we must never forget that a child’s experience of God as a parent is intimately connected to their experience with their own mother or father as a parent.  Is God loving or is He condemning as a parent? A child’s image of God is intertwined with whether his or her parents are loving or condemning.  Is God patient or is He angry and uncontrolled?  A child’s experience with God is influenced by whether a father and mother are patient or quick to anger.  Is God kind and gentle or is He controlling and threatening?  A child’s connection to God is affected by the pattern of parenting that is experienced in the home. 

These are questions that we must think about seriously as fathers and mothers. 


If we as earthly parents abuse our children physically, emotionally, or otherwise, what will our children perceive as to the character of their Heavenly Father?
If our children are constantly threatened or mistreated or abused, how will they look at and relate to God their Father?

If we yell and scream and rant and rave, what do our children perceive as to the demeanor of their Heavenly Father?

If we withhold love from our children and withdraw our attention when angry, what do our children experience as to their Eternal Father?  Is He warm and loving if we ourselves do not let them know love and warmth and attention?

If we make of our homes a prison, what will our children come to believe that heaven is like?
If we are unwilling to express kindness and love and patience to our children, will our children perceive that God also does not care enough about them to truly love them?

Perhaps there is one question above all that we might ask ourselves when it comes to our tendencies toward parenting in anger.


 

Let us ask: Does our parenting reveal Christ to our children?

What we do in the family setting as mothers and fathers should reveal Christ to our children. 

“Pierced with Deep Wounds”

Parenting in anger has consequences that last far beyond the moments of frustration and conflict. 

A friend told me years ago of an incident that he observed in his neighborhood with a Latter-day Saint father.  The father became intensely angry about something that his young daughter had done.  He did not grab the girl and shake her or hit her.  He did not drag her yelling into the house and scream at her.  He did not even raise his voice.  But he took her favorite doll and put it in the driveway and backed over it several times with his car.  And then after climbing out and making her look at the doll, he remonstrated, “When you act like that, this is what Heavenly Father thinks of you.”

I weep when I recall this account.  And I am intensely angry. 

I learned of another incident in which a young girl nine or ten years old was excited at Christmas for the season to begin.  She and her sister were so excited and so they spent time making decorations.  In the process she forgot to do her chores.  In burst the father into the little room where they had been cutting up the decorations and getting them ready for Christmas, and he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out of the room.  He dragged her up the stairs and threw her across the kitchen against the sink.  He told her in a screaming voice that she hadn’t done her chores.  Then he went downstairs and took all of the decorations she’d made with her sister, wadded them up, and took them out and threw them in the garbage. 

Too often, years later the pain of those moments has scarcely dimmed and the memory is sharp and searing.     

In speaking to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Jacob rebuked the fathers and spoke plainly:

“Behold, ye have done greater iniquities than the Lamanites, our brethren.  Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you.  And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds. (Jacob 2:34; emphasis added)

I note that fathers especially need to take care in their parenting and learn to overcome tendencies to parent in anger.  And yet, this also applies to all parents and all who care for children and youth.  Have any of us “lost the confidence of [our] children” because we have acted with anger and foolishness?  Have we heard the “sobbings of their hearts” when we have spoken with harsh words or used a rough hand?  What a tragedy and a rebuke if because of our actions any hearts have died, “pierced with deep wounds.”

The trust given to us by God as parents is a most sacred trust.  Children are His most precious creations. A betrayal of that trust because of our unwillingness to curb our anger is a most serious offense.  It is a sin. 

There is a story contained in a remarkable book called How People Change that provides deep and profound and painful insight into the lasting personal echoes of parenting by anger.  The story is about a young man who came home from school as a boy to a strictly religious father in a highly structured family. The father was dying of cancer and spent most of his time in a glass porch in the house.  When he came home his father said, “School is over in the spring.  What are you going to do?”  He answered, “I’m going to play with my friends.”  His father told him that instead he would have to work, and his work was to be cutting the back lawn on their lot.  The lawn was more than two acres and the tool his father gave him to do the work was a straight-edge razor.  This young boy was then sent out to do work and accomplish the task.  He recounts his experience:

I became inured to the work but not reconciled to it, and throughout the summer continued to resist. Whippings-which had been rare before-were now common, and after each I would, in the evening, be required to apologize.  I would go out on my father’s glass porch, say I was sorry, and listen guiltily to a restatement of the principles involved.  Tirelessly my father would explain what I had done wrong, the importance of learning to work, and the benefit to my character which this discipline would eventually bring out.  After each of these sessions I would feel that I was innately lazy, unworthy, and impulsive.  Each time I would resolve to try harder, to overcome my resentment, but each time would relapse.  After two or three days I would again become sullen or rebellious and again would be punished.  Sometimes I saw my mother in tears and knew she had interceded in my behalf, but her efforts were ineffective. . . .

My father and I have never parted.  He made his mark on me that summer, and after his death that fall continued to speak on a high-fidelity system within my conscience, speaks to me still, tells me that I have been summoned, that I am standing once again before him on that glass porch giving an account of myself, that I will be found wanting, still after all these years a “low-down, no-account scoundrel,” and that this judgment will be binding on my view, that I shall not now or ever be permitted to regard myself as innocent or worthy.


These things, accepted as true, make one a slave, have so made me and make me still, fifty years after those pale blue eyes have gone to the grave.  Whenever a current situation calls upon me to stand forth, to present myself, my father speaks again with undiminished authority.  His denunciation yields guilt and anxiety, tends to drive me out of human society into the wilderness alone, there to confirm ever more deeply the image of myself as unworthy to live with others, having nothing to say, deserving of no recognition.  To accept that image altogether is to die; I have accepted it in part, have found in the writing of books a fearful way of denying it.  From exile I send back messages: “I’m still here!”  “Don’t forget me!”  “I do have something to say.  Please recognize me!” (How People Change, pp. 60-61, 73-74; emphasis added)

Remember Jacob the prophet’s words: “Many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds.”  Such is the terrible legacy of parenting in anger. 

Parents naturally are imbued with power in the relationship between parent and child, providing instruction and setting rules and making decisions.  It is a power that can be used to bless or to abuse.  Power used by a parent with anger and aggression is an abuse of that power.  It is a sinful use of power.  As Jacob notes, any sinful use of power leads to pain in the lives of others. 

The scriptures state that “wickedness never was happiness,” and this is especially true if we as parents abuse our power and sin against our children.  I asked my father to explain this once and have never forgotten his re-statement of this principle: “Sin leads always to relationships of pain.”

Sin leads always to relationships of pain.

Power without Aggression

There is a different way to exercise the power that we are blessed with as parents to guide the lives of our children.  It is the way of the Savior, Jesus Christ, who has invited us, “Come unto me [and] . . . take my yoke upon you . . . for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).  It is power without aggression.  It is guidance without the threat of intimidation or control.  It is direction without the arrogance of anger. 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shares a poignant and personal moment of growth as a parent in the following story from his own life:

One evening I came home from long hours at school, feeling the proverbial weight of the world on my shoulders.  Everything seemed to be especially demanding and discouraging and dark.  I wondered if the dawn would ever come.  Then, as I walked into our small student apartment, there was an unusual silence in the room.

“What’s the trouble?” I asked.

“Matthew has something he wants to tell you,” Pat said.

“Matt, what do you have to tell me?”  He was quietly playing with his toys in the corner of the room, trying very hard not to hear me.  “Matt,” I said a little louder, “do you have something to tell me?”

He stopped playing, but for a moment he didn’t look up.  Then two enormous, tear-filled brown eyes turned toward me, and with the pain only a five-year-old can know, he said, “I didn’t mind Mommy tonight, and I spoke back to her.”  With that he burst into tears, and his entire body shook with grief. A childish indiscretion had been noted, a painful confession had been offered, the growth of a five-year-old was continuing, and loving reconciliation could have been wonderfully underway.

Everything might have been just terrific-except for me.  If you can imagine such an idiotic thing, I lost my temper.  It wasn’t that I lost it with Matt-it was with a hundred and one other things on my mind.  But he didn’t know that, and I wasn’t disciplined enough to admit it.  He got the whole load of bricks.

I told him how disappointed I was and how much more I thought I could have expected from him.  I sounded like the parental pygmy I was.  Then I did what I had never done before in his life: I told him that he was to go straight to bed and that I would not be in to say his prayers with him or to tell him a bedtime story.  Muffling his sobs, he obediently went to his bedside, where he knelt-alone-to say his prayers.  Then he stained his little pillow with tears his father should have been wiping away. . . .

Later, as we knelt by our own bed, my feeble prayer for blessings upon my family fell back on my own ears with a horrible, hollow ring.  I wanted to get up off my knees right then and go to Matt and ask forgiveness, but he was long since peacefully asleep. . .

My wife has often told me that the greatest gift a child can give to his or her parents is forgiveness.  As parents, unlike our Eternal Father, we make mistakes and may say and do things that require our own repentance and the forgiveness of our children.  This is true when we act in anger.  Elder Holland goes on to recount a dream he had that evening that caused him to realize that in acting with such anger he had abandoned his son to the loneliness of trying to cope with life’s painful difficulties without the loving security and comfort of his father.  He continues:

The dream ended, and I shot upright in bed.  My pillow was stained, whether with perspiration or tears I do not know.  I threw off the covers and ran to the little metal camp cot that was my son’s bed. There on my knees and through my tears I cradled him in my arms and spoke to him while he slept. I told him that every dad makes mistakes but that they don’t mean to.  I told him it wasn’t his fault I had had a bad day.  I told him that when boys are five or fifteen, dads sometimes forget and think they are fifty.  I told him that I wanted him to be a small boy for a long, long time, because all too soon he would grow up and be a man and wouldn’t be playing on the floor with his toys when I came home.  I told him that I loved him and his mother and his sister more than anything in the world, and that whatever challenges we had in life, we would face them together.  I told him that never again would I withhold my affection or my forgiveness from him, and never, I prayed, would he withhold them from me.


  I told him I was honored to be his father and I would try with all my heart to be worthy of that great responsibility.  Well, I have not proven to be the perfect father I vowed to be that night and a thousand nights before and since.  But I still want to be. (“Within the Clasp of Your Arms,” in On Earth as it is in Heaven, 1989, pp. 165-166, 168)

Elder Holland closes his account with the counsel of President Joseph F. Smith on parenting.  His counsel is wise and it is a gentle invitation to undertake power without aggression in the similitude of the Savior himself.  President Smith invites:

Brethren [parents], . . . If you will keep your [children] close to your heart, within the clasp of your arms; if you will make them to feel that you love them, . . . and keep them near to you, they will not go very far from you, and they will not commit any very great sin.  But it is when you turn them out of the home, turn them out of your affection . . . that [is what] drives them from you. . . . Fathers [parents], if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! And prove to them that you do love them by your every word and act to[ward] them. (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. {Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966], pp. 282, 316; emphasis added)          

The Savior’s constant example of empathy for others and the challenge to master our “natural man or woman” impulses toward anger suggest that we need to understand the importance of proving to our own children that we love them by each word we speak and each deed we perform.   

Four Keys to Controlling Anger

Anger is an emotion that is directed toward control.  To feel anger is not uncommon or sinful.  But to maintain anger and to nurture it and direct it toward threatening or hurting or controlling others is wrong.  Anger tends to occur when parents are tired or stressed or feeling vulnerable, and usually is triggered by a particular event or experience.  When a person becomes angry, a series of changes take place that actually change what is happening to a person physically, emotionally, and mentally. 

Physically, anger triggers the release of particular chemicals in a person’s brain and body that stimulate quicker responses, tightening of muscles, elevated heart rate, and other physical changes.  Being aware of these shifts can help you to notice if you are becoming angry.  Emotionally, anger results in a person feeling more nervous, anxious, stressed, intense, or out of control.  Being out of control emotionally is uncomfortable and so that’s why anger is often directed at trying to control things or persons around you-to get back a sense of control.  Mentally, anger causes a person to become more hyper-vigilant and suspicious, and so normal comments or actions may become threatening or frustrating when they would not normally be taken as such.  These changes can lead parents to act and speak in ways that are irresponsible and painful to their children.  What can you do?

1 – Cultivate awareness of your “anger triggers.” Anger doesn’t usually just appear out of nowhere.  It is usually a response to internal stress or external things that are happening when you feel stressed that makes things seem out of control.  Like, for example, when your kids try to give the cat a bath after you’ve just spent the evening doing your home or visiting teaching and running a casserole to the neighbors and making calls for the upcoming school festival.  Things like that.  Each of us may have anger “triggers” that make an anger response more likely.  For some people, this may simply be something that relates to a bad experience in the past (e.g., a reference to being fat if they had challenges with weight while growing up) or to their own personality preferences (e.g., if you like things neat most of the time and the kids decide to build a fort on Sunday afternoon in your living room).  Other people may notice that they are more likely to become angry when they are feeling tired or are dealing with added stress.  For example, my wife and I have a rule that we don’t talk about anything really “serious” after 9:00 p.m. at night.  Why?  Being tired by that time, it’s too likely that an innocent disagreement could turn into an hour-long diatribe about a topic of no consequence. 

Finally, some people may struggle with chronic and habitual expressions of anger that are inappropriate and difficult for them to control.  A beginning point in all of these situations is to identify the issues, experiences or circumstances that may act as anger “triggers” for you and do your best to avoid them or control them in your life.  For example, the 9:00 rule mentioned above helps us avoid “tiredness at night” as an anger trigger.

2 – Send yourself to “time out” when anger starts to become a challenge.  The idea of “time out,” or a controlled period of time to calm down and think about a difficult situation, has become a popular strategy for discipline of children by parents.  But my favorite use of time out is, by far, when it is applied as a strategy to help parents control anger toward their spouses or children.  Face it.  When you’re getting angry and somewhat out of control, maybe everyone else needs a time out from you.  This can be used as both a “planned ahead” strategy and a “moment of need” strategy.  For example, some couples very successfully use “time out” when they transition between work and family responsibilities.  Rather than getting hit with a request to take out the trash and chase down the kids when a husband or wife walks in the door, it might be more effective for some parents if that early evening time is a “tired and possibly angry” time to have a 10-15 minute break before those responsibilities are picked up.  This allows time to make a transition from work to home, relax for a few minutes and think about something peaceful, and then prepare for the rest of the evening.  That is a “planned ahead time out” strategy.  The “moment of need” strategy for using time out might occur if a father or mother discovers a blood vessel bursting because a child’s chores weren’t done as requested (six times or so).  Before launching into a tirade, this is a good moment to recognize if you’re feeling angry and give yourself a ten-minute bike ride to calm down and think about how to handle things calmly and with a plan in mind rather than falling into the “puffer fish parenting” trap.

3 – Learn to curb your tongue and let yourself calm down before you speak.  The words of a parent to a child can be extremely hurtful when spoken in anger.


  Angry words cannot be easily recalled, and they are sometimes not easily forgotten.  My greatest instruction in the importance of controlling your tongue came in an MTC meeting with my Korean branch president many years ago.  One evening in our branch meeting, President Shin Yong In, a small man but a spiritual giant, turned us in the scriptures to James 3 in the New Testament and spoke for an hour on learning to control what we speak and how we speak toward others.  Speaking of gossip, criticism, name-calling, yelling, or other uses of the tongue, he warned us that if not controlled it can be “an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8).  But he also taught that though “the tongue is a little member,” a small part of the body, it is analogous to the “bits in the horses’ mouths” that are used to guide and control a horse’s actions by the rider (see James 3:5, 3).  That analogy stuck with me because, being a Utah boy with a ranching background, I knew that if you can control the bit in a horse’s mouth then you can control the great power underneath you when you ride a horse.  Parents have great power to bless or harm their children, and James 3:10 reminds us that “out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.”  If you feel ready to speak something that would be harsh or spiteful or painful to a spouse or child, stop first and consider your sense of self-control.  Perhaps write down what you considered to say and then think of what it would mean if it was said to you.  Learn to curb and control your tongue and do not speak in bitterness and anger to your children.

4 – Pray for strength and inspiration to overcome your tendencies toward anger.  Learning to control one’s anger is not simply a matter of willpower.  It is also a challenge of faith.  Parenting children in the midst of today’s challenges requires inspiration from on high.  We cannot be in a position to receive inspiration and bless our children if we are in a state of anger.  The Lord speaks to us by the Spirit when we are in a state of peace or humility in seeking Him, not when we are distracted by our own angry thoughts and attitudes.  Prayer cannot only help us to subdue our tendencies toward anger, but place us in a much better position to calm our hearts and receive the inspiration we need to be better parents to our children. 

Conclusion

I know the importance of overcoming anger because I have been a puffer fish parent at times.  I know the difference between speaking peace to your children and causing pain with your words or actions.  If we allow ourselves to parent in anger, we will not only harm our children but we will miss out on some of life’s sweetest moments of learning and inspiration as parents.

I opened with the story about my six-year-old son and learning that he had spit on a little girl down the street.  And I was mad.  But what then happened? 

I was angry, and I insisted that my son come with me to apologize profusely to the parents involved and the little girl who had been disrespected.  He tearfully came and wished to hide, but I was firm and made him come with me.  We returned home and I faced a choice.  My first choice was to give myself a “time out” – I knew that I needed some time to think and pray before knowing how to discipline him and teach him.  My wife and I spent some time talking about what the consequences for his action should be, and we came up with several actions he needed to do.  These included loss of privileges for some time, writing an apology to the little girl and delivering it personally, and other things.  But I wanted him to understand also how important it was to learn not to do this again.  I decided that making him write the words “I will not spit on a person ever again” fifty times would help him to learn this lesson.

I do not know if this was a good consequence or not.  But I learned something from it as a parent.  My sweet son apologized, accepted his loss of privileges humbly, and even wrote and delivered his note of apology with sincerity.  But to this little six-year-old boy, the hardest and most dreadful task of all was to write fifty lines that he would not ever spit on someone again.  Writing much at all is hard for any six-year-old, and to write so much and so long would take hours.  With his brothers and sisters at play or asleep, he and I sat in the kitchen while I got him the materials he needed and asked him to write.  An hour later, he had cried and cried and written two lines.  Only twenty-five hours to go. 

With my heart breaking, I left him and prayed and asked the Lord to help me understand what I might do to ease this task for him.  I could not take it away once it had been assigned.  I felt he needed to understand.  What could I do?  What would He do?  I thought of our Father watching His own Son, the Savior Jesus, and of the travails that His Son passed through.  I wondered if the Atonement might have any lesson for me as a parent in this hurtful situation for the little boy I love.  And then I realized that though our Savior does not take from us our challenges in this life, He has borne them all that He might be with us and bear our burdens in the midst of every challenge we face.

I called my son to me and took him in my arms and told him how much I loved him.  I talked about what he needed to do and he cried.  He talked about how hard it was and I cried.  Then I asked him if he could do it if we did it together.  I told him that I would write the same lines that he wrote and I would be there as long as he was there and he would not have to do it alone.  He would never have to do it alone.  And so my anger gave way to compassion.  And his loneliness gave way to the strength of our shared love.  And together we wrote. 

(As always, I encourage you to share your thoughts or comments or feedback with me at [email protected]“>[email protected].  Look forward to hearing from you!)