I didn't think this would be so hard to write, to even begin writing. It's hard to look in the mirror and face some tough truths. But so many times it ends up being so fruitful.
We all know that no one is a perfect parent, our own selves included. Mommy guilt is a powerful force, though, and sabotages our attempts at honest self-analysis. How quickly we go from regretting losing our temper to fretting about the irreparable damage we've done to our child's emotional well-being! Or, worse, to begin comparing ourselves to other moms. Does (__) ever lose it with her kids? Does she even ever get mad? She's so calm and patient, I can't imagine her getting angry. This way of thinking is depressing and defeating. And so the human mind puts up its defenses with blinders and excuses. Kids can be really annoying! I'm only human. At least they're well fed/cleaned/clothed. I'm doing my best.
But we're not really doing our best. We can be better. It requires reflection, introspection, resolution .... and a lot self-forgiveness and perseverance. Self-improvement is a constant, slow, difficult and often-times painful process, but I think we'd all agree our children are worth the effort.
For the seven years my husband and I have been raising our children together, I have nagged and repeatedly confronted him about him shouting at the children. It took all those years for me to become self-aware enough to understand that I was not so much bothered by his shouting but by mine - or, rather, that his shouting bothered me so much precisely because I was so bothered by mine. I don't think this is an unusual phenomenon, having a strong dislike for something in another because you dislike it so much in yourself. We're skilled at obscuring our own weaknesses and projecting them onto others. I assumed that my dh shouted at the kids in the same way and for the same reasons as I did. And since my experience of shouting at the kids was basically a discharge of some very high emotion - basically, losing control of myself - I couldn't imagine it was any different for him. A few weeks ago I confronted him once again about the shouting. It is no coincidence that it was a day in a string of very tough days in which I had been very exasperated by the children. Our conversation was a revelation. Everything fell into place, like finishing a puzzle we had been laboring over for years. I understood so clearly that I was taking out my frustration with myself on my husband, thereby shifting responsibility and failing to make any changes. It felt like we were having the same conversation we'd had so many times before, but this time we were communicating. (We've been reading a little about the Imago method ... more on that later!).
Anyway, together we decided that we would cut shouting cold turkey. I don't intend to make any definitive judgments on disciplinary methods here - as with so many parenting decisions it comes down to the individuals involved. For us, we felt like it was an uncreative, unthinking reaction that had become habitual - and probably rendered ineffective for that reason. For me, personally, I felt that shouting was destructive because it was so personal. I took whatever bad behavior personally and reacted in kind. Discipline is effective when it's done out of love for the child, when it's consistent, when it is attentive to the individual needs and personality of the child in question. My shouting could be none of those things. It was frustrated, reactive, and often angry; it was like an explosion, not a measured response.
Now I'm not saying I was a loose cannon or that on any given day if you walked into my house you'd be witness to any of this. It's not the case that every time I was frustrated I'd just lose it. It's not even the case that every time I raised my voice it would lead to the shouting that bothers me so much. It's that at those times when I felt stressed out or overwhelmed and the children were acting out and I was losing control over them, destructive shouting would be my default. I hated it, and I was starting to hate myself. It had to stop.
Now I have to be honest here - because as long as I'm digging deep I might as well go all the way - but I thought my husband would have a tougher time at sticking to our resolution than I would. After all, the shouting thing was something I'd been focusing on for so long and I was the one who was so fed up with it. DH claimed he shouted precisely as a measured response and not out of temper. For seven years he told me this and for seven years I never quite believed him. Still he agreed there were very likely better methods that he, too, didn't consider because of force of habit, and so he was willing to quit. Well guess who has had zero difficulty with not shouting? Hint: not me. But knowing that he's on board has been an enormous support to me. We're a team. If I find myself slipping during the day when he's gone, I'm able to catch myself sooner and nip it in the bud. If I find myself slipping while he's around, he helps me snap out of it with a gentle reminder. (He's A ROCK you guys.) We even told the kids about our resolution, pitching it as a family-wide policy.
The results have been pretty incredible. Don't get me wrong, there hasn't been any magical transformation into a fairyland household. But little changes in relationships and family dynamics are noticeable and meaningful. For myself and dh, we're more aware of our tones and careful to listen better and communicate more clearly. If shouting isn't an option in a disagreement, it must necessarily be calmer, more restrained, and less emotionally-fraught. Plus, if they kids aren't seeing it between us, there's that much less of it to mimic. Between me and the kids, no shouting means I have to pause, take a few seconds, think of a different way to address the issue. More thought goes into the discipline. More control.
I assure you, I have not been perfect. There are sometimes when it is HARD. Sometimes it feels like shouting is the only way to get through to them! At those times I literally just need some physical separation. I walk away or send them away and try to approach the issue later and in a different way. (The car is tricky. Sometimes I just fade the music to the front and tune them out.) I find that some days are just harder than others. I imagine this has to do with pregnancy or poor sleep or hormones or all of the above ... whatever that emotional susceptibility is that at once makes us more vulnerable to being overwhelmed but also uniquely equips us to nurture our children. Until I develop the habit of other effective discipline methods, it helps to have some tricks to resort to. (Like counting, walking away, those kinds of things.) It seems so elementary but we're talking baby steps!
So three weeks later and what's the takeaway?
First, it has been like a little experiment in my ability to make definitive change in my behavior. I had actually doubted this! It might seem a little laughable that the same person who has the discipline to exercise every day would feel powerless to hold her tongue at her family. While I have no doubt that I will continue to have hard days, I also now have the conviction that this is within my power!
Second, I think I have a little more appreciation for the fact that they are just children. Yes they each have little foibles that can drive me crazy, but at the end of the day they are just kids - my kids - who need the all-embracing, unconditional love of their parents. They're not burdens or annoyances getting in the way, interrupting my thoughts, frustrating my plans. They are a gift to me, not only in their very persons but also as opportunities to grow in love.
Third, and similar to the above, discipline isn't an onerous burden but a privileged responsibility. Along with these children came the unique duty to form their minds and hearts in faith and virtue, and one aspect of this is corrective discipline. What a tremendous task! One that no doubt requires attention and intention.
But lastly, it's a good reminder of the smallness of my human weakness. Even though on the one hand I'm pretty mortified at admitting that I struggle so hard not to shout at my own children, at the same time I realize, I am small, I am human, and this is the struggle of human love, to make it pure and selfless. If I am struggling with it even with people who I actually find quite loveable, thankfully I have all day every day to work on it with them. That might give me a fighting chance at loving all my neighbors.