There are certain things that can definitely get a parent so riled up, so frustrated beyond words that it becomes close to impossible to resist the urge to blow up and be impulsive. Sometimes it's just so much easier to give way to a visceral reaction, rather than be rational and take a pause...It was a typical school day afternoon. My son Noah was walking home from the bus stop and unknowingly, he dropped his jacket on the ground. One of the boys walking behind him called his attention and let him know that his jacket was on the ground. When Noah turned around to pick it up, he saw another boy "Q" just walk all over his jacket. It was obvious to Noah that Q did it on purpose because as this boy walked all over his jacket, he muttered the words "step, step, step", as if it was nothing, or worse, that it was something entertaining. Q neither paused nor made any effort to avoid stepping all over my son's jacket. He just kept walking away as if it was garbage to be ignored. I asked my son how he reacted to the situation and he said he did nothing. Nothing. He simply picked the jacket from the ground and headed home. He was obviously upset over the incident and yet he said nothing to the other boy.
At that point, frankly I couldn't decide who upset me more—the jerk who stepped all over my son's jacket, or my son who once again did not assert himself in a situation where he clearly should have. Once again, he chose not to stand up for himself when clearly he was mistreated. In spite of repeated talks in the past where I'm practically hemorrhaging from every orifice on my body as I explain to him how important it is to stand up for oneself, he still chose to stay quiet and just walk away.
This. Made. Me. Explode!!!
The truth is, I sat in front of my computer for a while and let my fingers type away. I knew how to contact Q's mother online and started composing an angry email. But right before hitting the Send button, I took a breath, re-read and reflected. Is this really all worth it? I know my email will only make the mother defensive and will definitely strain our relationship (not that we have anything more than knowing each other very casually and belonging to the same subdivision). Is it really worth making me and my son even more uncomfortable in our neighborhood given our already introverted selves? Can I guarantee that no awkwardness can ensue from my upset message? Do I know the other family well enough to judge how they will feel about my letter?
The answer to everything was a No.
I had to choose my battles. I knew that awkwardness in the neighborhood in trying to avoid each other was something I would not be able to handle. Nor is it something I am willing to burden both my son and husband with, simply for the reward of getting my anger off my chest. It's not like we could just move and sell our home if things escalated and became intolerable. Now, if my son were physically or verbally abused then clearly that would be a different matter. But this was simply over a jacket being stepped on and a child being inconsiderate or rude. Could I really not let this one go?
I had to let it go where I knew I had no place controlling the other person's choices. But I couldn't just let it go altogether.
I got angry at my son for not saying anything. I got angry at him for not responding to the situation the way I needed him to. Most of all, I was angry because I couldn't scream at the other boy.
It was a selfish and myopic choice. My blowing up was because of a sense of powerlessness with the other boy but not with my son. I knew it was a case of what Martha Beck calls Stress Rolling. I was displacing my aggression, passing on my own stress, anger and sense of powerlessness on to someone (my son) who is less powerful than I am and who I know won't fight back. It was also because of my own fears: fear that my son might be bullied; fear that he might not learn how to speak up for himself; fear that he will get hurt and not be able to defend himself. But as I think about these fears, I also realize that they still point to a sense of powerlessness—my acknowledgment that I really have no control over most anything that happens to my child. I cannot be with him to defend or protect him from every harm. I cannot make him behave according to my desires. I can't magically make him acquire a personality that is not truly his. Most of all, it's unloving of me to expect him to give me something I don't have myself, something that perhaps I have not shown him.
Parenting advice prescribes that adults make it a point to explain to their children why they are being punished or what it is that disappointed or angered us.
It's worth considering that maybe we get angry not just because our children fell short of our expectations, but that we ourselves feel some disappointment with how we've turned out as adults; that there is an inadequacy within ourselves that needs our attention. Or maybe our anger shines a light on the truth that parenthood does not translate to power, but instead to vulnerability—our capacity to accept that there are very few things in life we can fully control, and the only real space where we can learn trust and courage. The sooner we see that powerlessness is a space for growth, the easier it will be to shun anger.