I am, once again, watching and learning through my children. Their anger makes me angry. Now the anger is multi-leveled, like a big, fat layer cake of doom, which then makes me feel guilty and sad. Then I feel angry about that. I want to take this gigantic mess of questionable parenting and frustrated child behavior and chuck it out the window.
Anger makes a lot of noise. It slams about and pounds on doors. It is a loud talker. It is, as my grandma used to say, a very bad apple. Other times, anger is quiet. Too quiet. It can slide into a conversation with silky ease. It can wait and smile and sneak. Either way, it’s tricky stuff.
At my house, we most often entertain the loud version of anger. This is because I have two small boys and they have little use for the art of the passive aggressive. When they get angry, they explode with shrill voices and dramatic stomping that would be comedic if it didn’t make the dog so nervous.
The anger we have at our house is a very standard strain. There are the usual arguments about who had more toys to clean up, or who got an eighth of an ounce more syrup on his pancakes. My husband and I bicker about the forgotten auto insurance bill or why his shoes never manage to make it into a closet. These are all very run of the mill, normal irritations of life. When we live life with other people around, we tend to clatter against them. We’re clumsy that way.
But anger can be so much more than just clumsy. It can break hearts.
On a long, rainy Saturday afternoon, my boys were finding it easier to fight than play. The scene played out exactly as it was scripted: dark, gray skies, dark, gray children, and an endless game of Monopoly. It was going to end in tears, of course.
But anger can be so much more than just clumsy. It can break hearts.
As I overhead the simmering argument begin to boil over, I started the long trudge upstairs to intervene. “You MOVED MY PIECE,” one boy shouted. The other boy, as is customary, turned up his shout to one-half decibel louder and lobbied back, “NO, I DID NOT.”
I kept trudging and wondered if perhaps the first one would now say, “Oh, well, you’re quite right. I do apologize.” Then we could all go down for a snack and live happily ever after.
Nope. “YOU DID TOO. I SAW YOU. IT WAS RIGHT HERE,” and onward.
As I entered the room, a small Lego aircraft shot past me and burst into a thousand sharp pieces onto the floor. I, of course, remained perfectly calm. “WOULD THE TWO OF YOU CUT IT OUT RIGHT THIS MINUTE? FOR PETE’S SAKE, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU BOTH?”
I have it on the best authority that asking a six-year-old and eight-year-old “what is wrong with you?” is not the best way to proceed. These types of questions only prompt more outraged bleating from children and no one, ever, actually answers what is wrong with them.
I proceeded to unleash chastisement about Monopoly, flying Legos, the yelling, and all the bells and whistles that accompany anger. Loud feelings are so very good at covering up the truth. As I dispensed warnings and punishments, my eight-year-old started to cry. In the smallest voice, he said, “He always takes away my things, and then you tell me to let him have them. And I have nothing for me. Nothing is mine.”
His eyes were tear-filled, of course, which seemed to make them even larger and impossible. And that is how I remembered: behind anger is the impossible feeling of sadness and loss. We lose control. Or security. Or love. And then, we throw a Lego aircraft at our brother.
Two days earlier, Charlie had informed me that I always take his little brother’s side. He felt this was unacceptable. Unfortunately, he chose to relay this information to me while shouting and stomping, and therefore it was not very well received. Perhaps, instead, if he had approached me with a cup of tea and said, “Mother, is this a good time? I need to talk to you. I’m upset and I’d like to clear the air,” I would have listened better.
It’s so annoying how anger has all these feelings attached to it. And noise. Like I said, there is a lot of noise attached to anger in our house. It covers the sadness that strums underneath.
I’d like to say that I redeemed myself on that rainy Saturday in the play room, amidst all the sharp Legos. But, the noise, you know. Instead, later, when I was tucking them into bed, I decided to discuss anger, and how they need to squelch it. I was thinking we could create a star chart or something. Perhaps a daily “How Did I Not Squash My Brother Today?” poster with happy face stickers and maybe some glitter. Or, even better, a flow chart! The options were endless.
So, our bedtime discussion of The Plan went something like this:
Me: OK, we need an anger management plan.
Boys: What’s a plan? Can I have a drink of water? I’m not sleepy. Will you read me just one more book? Or twelve?
Me: Boys, we are not to that point in the bedtime ritual yet. Save the avoiding-sleep interruptions for 9:30, OK? Back to the plan.
So, as it happens, I made the plan on my own. This is acceptable because, as it also happens, it all starts with me anyhow. Isn’t that always the way? This does not mean that my boys have no work to do, but they need a picture. It’s like trying to make your kid a Pinterest-worthy Star Wars Chewbacca cake without any images to follow, only words. Chewbacca will turn out badly. Granted, most of my Pinterest attempts don’t turn out too well with our without pictures, but you get the point.
My children need a well-illustrated, full color guide through life. To create the guide, I first had to accept three things:
1. Anger is much more than a clumsy non-avoidable nuisance. It can lead to sin, so we must attend to it, however big or small.
2. Grace paints over all of this with a wealth of love, so keep walking.
3. There are some practical steps to help. Most of them are difficult and easy at the same time. Such is life.
The first step in the Bowman Anger Management (BAM!) plan was to start toting around my Bible a lot more, and then actually reading it. It had been a long while since my boys and I had done any sort of devotional together, so we started one. At first, I considered hunting down all the Bible verses about anger and making my boys memorize them (you better believe a star chart could work for this), but I thought that might be a bit too heavy-handed. Basically, when I intone, “Hey, you have this issue, and you need to fix it, and here is how,” the kids kind of start sparking out on me. Like pouring diesel into my economy Toyota, it’s just too much, and things break down. Instead, I just grabbed a devotional series I had pinned long ago on some Pinterest board about kids and Jesus, and we went for it. And you know what? It’s perfect. So, you know, Jesus knows what he’s doing, and he’s on Pinterest.
Next, we started journaling. Not just Charlie and Henry, but me too. I had wandered away from this with all my blogging and tweeting and articles. But I missed writing for just myself, with no intention to publish or share. Did you know? You can have a thought, and not share it. How did we even exist before we tweeted about everything?
My boys have Star Wars spiral notebooks that they write in, and after a fight I ask them to sit down and scribble away. I have pasted a list of questions to the inside cover that they can answer. The journal prompts start with “How are you feeling?” and travel all the way to “How do you think (fill in the blank with your partner in crime in the latest yell fest) is feeling?” Sometimes they groan about it and write for ten seconds and then wander off. Sometimes I watch them, enraptured, as they furrow their brow and write for pages. I love this. They are learning prayer through pen and paper.
Finally, after an anger moment, we often visit this gem: Go outside. I like to think of nature as God’s cough drop, the really yummy Luden’s cherry kind. It’s soothing medicine, but it is so sweet.
These actions help. They are a way to renew our hearts when we feel sucker-punched by life. But, just so you know, the last time we had a blow up at our house, I forgot. I forgot all the things. I forgot the journal. I forgot there was an outside. I forgot that the Bible exists. I wanted to yell at my boys and stomp and rant right along with them.
But, a few minutes later, I prayed. It seems super spiritual, but it sounded like this: “How? Help? Please? Now?” And when I finished, I had no discernible answers or leads, but I walked away from two angry boys and carried on with my day feeling a sort of peace about the not knowing. A waiting. In the stillness, I felt like the answer had to do with the noise.
Later, I walked up to one boy, the angrier one, took his head in my hands, and looked into his eyes. I was quiet. He was quiet. He didn’t ask; I think he knew. We were finding our way back in, after a morning of tearing apart.
For a moment, we did nothing at all. And in that moment, we found the feelings behind all the anger and noise. We found the thing we wanted so very much. The silence allowed the Holy Spirit to come and sit with us and give us himself.
And then, we started talking.