Be a Better Dad: Check Your Rage

Be a Better Dad: Check Your Rage

An anger problem. We’re fire-breathing rage monsters set off by the slightest infraction. We see challenges when there are none and see conflict in peace. You’re probably angry just reading this.

“I’m not angry. Why does he think I’m angry?”

“Not all men are angry. I get angry sometimes but not all the time.”

“Who does this guy think he is, calling me angry?”

“Some jerk on the internet says men are angry and I’m just supposed to take that?”

“If I ever meet this idiot I’ll — ”

“Oh.”

“Yeah I see what he did there.”

Women are just as angry. We’re all messy humans trying to make the best of flawed products of a long evolution, though we differ in how we respond to anger. Men tend to become more physically aggressive, impulsive, and seek revenge, while women tend to maintain a controlled state of anger for longer.

Male anger can be destructive and dangerous. Men vastly outnumber women committing violent crimes, of course, but we turn our anger on ourselves even more often. We’re much more likely than women to get in severe car crashesdrive drunkabuse substances, and die by suicide.

These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.

Captain Jack Ross

It’s easy to make excuses. Every instance of aggression feels justified in the moment, even if we regret it later. We tell ourselves the world isn’t a kind place… the strong eat the weak and you’re not on the menu. We don’t trust one another and we’re afraid of everything. We respond with violence, or at least the threat of it.

Let’s say that’s not you. It’s certainly not me.

I’ve never been arrested for a violent crime or gotten a DUI. I’ll have a few drinks on occasion but I haven’t been drunk in years.

It’s tempting to think these statistics don’t apply to me, that I’m somehow exempt from the biological and social forces that drive male behavior. I’m not.

I’ve screamed at people in anger. I’ve brought men and women to tears with words. I’ve intimidated those smaller than me. I’ve gotten blackout drunk, been in a few fights, and broke a windshield with my fist.

While those events were more than a decade ago, the emotions aren’t hard to access. I’ve counted on anger to take control when I can’t navigate my own feelings of insecurity, doubt, frustration, and shame.

 

Anger Is the Hallmark of Male Youth

Male aggression is often erroneously attributed to testosterone and immutable characteristics of developing masculinity. While sex-based differences do indeed exist, they’re largely absent or irrelevant pre-puberty.

Gender is a social construct that we create and enforce by dictating who we expect children to become and how we expect them to act.

Boys are conditioned to compete, to stratify peers based on size and ability, and to pounce on perceived weakness. In Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, authors Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call this environment our culture of cruelty.

Adolescent male culture demands conformity and punishes virtually any difference. There’s no escaping its eye; all one can do is stifle their emotional response or divert attention to someone weaker.

With every lesson in dominance, fear, and betrayal, a boy is tutored away from trust, empathy, and relationship. This is what boys lose to the culture of cruelty.

After being raised in a culture defined by domination, we’re tasked with caring for the most vulnerable among us. We spend two or three decades perfecting our ability to ignore the full range of emotions we’re equipped to tap into, then we become responsible for developing the emotional intelligence of children.

Kindlon and Thompson highlight three prominent features of male parenting, most pronounced in the relationship with boys: control, competition, and criticism. We have high expectations, stunted communication skills, and precious little empathy. When we’re tapped out, aggression is our go-to response.

 

Culture of Cruelty Into Manhood

I left the childhood culture of cruelty for another. Displays of aggression were commonplace, and frequently encouraged, in the Marine Corps. Picture a few dozen young men screaming “KILL!” in unison while practicing body hardening (hitting each other) — that’s basically recruit training.

Aggression is useful if you’re being trained to endure horrors of war, but not when you’re navigating the school car line or escorting your toddler to a playground.

Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

USMC General James Mattis

By age 25, a man is well-acquainted with aggression. It’s helped him survive the culture of cruelty, and may have served as a driving force in competitive sports or military service. He probably thinks aggressiveness has ensured his success, or that he simply wouldn’t be the man he is without it.

Whatever growing up in the culture of cruelty requires, parenting demands different skills.

The transition to manhood is slow and its barrier diffuse. We don’t simply stop being boys and become men — my experiences as a boy inform my parenting.

Every cruel thing I’ve done, and every cruel thing done to me, lies in wait for my sons and I can’t predict or prevent what they’ll experience. I can only control how I prepare them and respond to their hurt, and that starts with controlling my own anger.

 

Who Am I Afraid Of?

I’m six feet tall and about 190 pounds. I discharged from the Corps as a Staff Sergeant and graduated at the top of my police academy class. I’ve earned awards for physical fitness and marksmanship, both rifles and handguns. I’ve even been mistaken for an athlete, despite having double vision and zero sporting skill.

Exactly none of that is relevant to my day-to-day experience.

My Marine Corps days are long behind me and I wasn’t a police officer for very long. I’ve got no interest in fighting and hardly exercise, though I do a decent job keeping up with my kids.

Despite no longer being counted among the few and the proud, I’m still the most intimidating person in my house.

My wife is tough. A former police officer and current physician, there’s no questioning her grit. But I’m taller than her by a head and outweigh her considerably. I absolutely tower over the children. I’ve got the deepest voice and I’m not known for my quiet demeanor. My resting facial expression sits somewhere between annoyed and angry, and I tend to be blunt.

Parents come in all shapes and sizes, of course. Your family might look a bit like mine, with two unimpaired cisgender parents who mostly conform to gender-typical roles (though I’m way more domestic). Whatever your family looks like, I can all but guarantee you’re bigger and more competent than your toddler.

 

A Twelve-Foot Giant

My 3-year-old is three feet tall. If his world were mine, I’d by lorded over by a twelve-foot giant with a booming voice. The seat of the bar-height chair I use at breakfast would come to my chin and I wouldn’t be able to reach anything in the fridge without dragging around a thirty-five-pound step stool.

Everyone around me would be better at everything, save for the drooling monster stealing my toys (baby brother). I’d have practically zero autonomy or freedom of choice — not that it would matter much. If I voiced my opinions, people would only understand about half of what I say and I’d be routinely overruled by the giant.

Instead, I’m the biggest person around. None of the people I live with pose any threat to me and they know it. I can scoop up a child against his will and win every play fight. I’m faster, stronger, and more coordinated. I can’t help it.

If you’re a father, you’re probably bigger than your kids until their teen years, if not always. A baby comes into the world small, vulnerable, and capable of nothing except nursing and advocating for itself by crying.

Human development is slow. It takes babies a year just to walk, two or three before they’re reliably feeding themselves, and another decade before they can even think about becoming a useful member of society.

Even if you’re five foot two with pencil-thin arms and can’t run a mile, you’re vastly more powerful than a child. This isn’t a point kids need to be made aware of — they know it already.

Your very presence is authoritative.

Aggressive posturing may be your adaptive reaction to the culture of cruelty, but it isn’t warranted with children. You gain nothing by asserting your dominance through aggression and acting like an enraged mountain troll. Leveraging your size to control your children will only work until they’re a teenager anyway, and then you’re in serious trouble if being bigger has been your main parenting tool.

Instead, put yourself on their level. Literally.

If you find yourself struggling to connect with a child, standing over them won’t bring you closer. Try taking a knee and meeting them eye to eye. Don’t get exasperated when they’re incapable — they’re small and likely trying their best. The world they live in wasn’t built for them, it was built for you.

The biggest person in the room bears the greatest responsibility for helping everyone else.

 

“Step One, Calm the F*** Down”

I arrived at the 1st Marine Division headquarters to “coffee aroma and jams,” as the platoon Staff Sergeant put it. He was a laid-back guy who was a few months from wrapping up his final enlistment and heading home to Indiana.

He wasn’t your typical Marine. I like to imagine him in retirement looking and acting a bit like The Dude. Despite his homeostatic level of chill, he was still responsible for keeping a group of young Marines in order.

He believed that if you had to raise your voice, you’ve already lost; that strong messages can come from quiet voices, and that being flustered is only a disadvantage.

This aggression will not stand, man.

The Dude

Whenever someone acted out of line or something went wayward, he was quick to offer this sage advice, “Step one, calm the f*** down.”

Military and paramilitary organizations practice stress inoculation. The shouting, explosions (real and simulated), gunfire, attention to minor details, and physically-demanding punishments both heighten your self-awareness and diminish your response.

It’s a sound concept. We want our first responders to keep calm and carry on, so they need to get used to taxing conditions.

Stress inoculation has no place in the home. There are two serious flaws in overreacting when handling children: adaptation, and diminishing returns.

 

Maladaptation

Children are learning machines. Their brains are highly plastic, meaning they demonstrate a profound ability to grow and change in response to their environment.

When a child is routinely exposed to stressful conditions, they experience permanent neural changes that alter the function of their brain and increase their susceptibility to developing psychiatric disorders.

If you’re routinely spanking or blowing up at your kids, you’re raising their baseline level of stress response to a problematic level. Kids can adapt to a wide range of horrendous conditions but that adaptation comes at a serious cost to their future. Getting compliance out of them isn’t worth it.

 

It Works Until It Doesn’t

I had an office, once. I have an office now, but I routinely have children barreling through piles of toys scattered across the floor.

What I mean to say is that I once had a private office in a professional workplace, and oh did I feel special. I remember my boss handing over the key while I unpacked my things. I put a two-cup coffee pot and a picture of my wife on the desk, then opened the blinds.

There was a giant air conditioner.

Technically, yes, my office had a window, but it was roughly 90% obscured by a hulking mess of metal. When it kicked on, a symphony of whirs, clicks, and thumps ignited along with a deep rumble that vibrated my brain.

It was tough to concentrate… for a week, anyway. I got used to it pretty quickly and hardly noticed the noise and shaking unless a visitor mentioned it.

The more frequently you demonstrate an exaggerated or overblown reaction, the less effective it becomes.

If Dad is a quiet, calm guy who suddenly shouts “STOP!” it’s going to get a response. If Dad is screaming all the time, there’s no distinguishing between the urgency expressed for shoes on the carpet vs an oncoming car.

There most certainly are situations that dictate a loud or aggressive response, but those events are pretty rare. Save the dad voice for when it matters.

 

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Step one in any stressful circumstance is calm down. Most things kids do that aggravate adults aren’t a matter of life and death. They’re annoying, inconvenient things cause messes or make us late for work. Whatever corrective action or discipline may be warranted, it can usually wait.

When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed and agitated over something that’s objectively trivial, take a break. An immediate response is likely to be an aggressive one, which is damaging at worst and ineffective at best.

Yes, Liam threw the box of Cheerios. Yes, they’re all over the floor and that sucks. No, it is not a big deal. Giving yourself a moment to take stock of the situation can seriously improve how you handle conflicts, and how your kids respond.

 

The Stress’ll Kill Ya

Deep breathing. Meditation. Journaling. Mindfulness. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to roll your eyes.

Stress reduction strategies often conjure images that seem at odds with daily life, as if we can all afford the luxury of eight hours of unbroken sleep and spending our mornings sipping hot tea while balancing our chakras.

The deleterious effects of stress are well understood. It’s a precursor to hypertension and heart disease; it’s associated with harmful coping strategies like excessive alcohol consumption; for men, it’s a factor in increased all-cause mortality and shortens your lifespan. Psychological stress can exacerbate existing health conditions, leading to infarction in those with heart disease.

Yep, stress can give you a heart attack.

Stress is a mind game. There’s nothing objectively damaging about having a tough day — the damage is done by how we perceive and respond to our circumstances.

 

Pushing Your Own Buttons

I remember a counseling session several years ago, during which I mentioned something had made me mad.

The psychologist, a military officer, drew a picture of a remote control and handed it to me. She asked, “Do you have one of these on your body?” I told her I did not. She continued, “Right, nobody presses your buttons and makes you anything. You get mad on your own.” I scoffed.

I was too immature to appreciate what she was saying, but she was right.

Our emotions aren’t controlled by external factors.

At every moment, we’re dictating how we want to respond to a given stimulus. Self-control takes practice, and we’ve got plenty of that. The problem is we’ve been practicing how to cultivate anger and express aggression. Simply understanding and believing the fact you control your emotions can be a powerful factor in changing how you cope with stress-inducing situations.

You’ve probably been at a party where others are drinking. As the night wears on, behavior starts to loosen, folks get louder, and people tend to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. It’s just how alcohol works.

Now imagine you’re the sober one at a party full of drunks. The jokes aren’t as funny and you can clearly see the behavior for what it is — pretty ridiculous.

Understanding the origin and expression of emotion is like that. It’s as if you’ve pulled the veil from your eyes to clearly see what’s worth getting upset over, and what simply isn’t.

 

Looking Out for #1

Managing your anger and associated stress is good for your kids, of course, but it’s really for you. There’s no shortage of content on stress reduction — strategies are easy to find, and I can guarantee you don’t need to ascend to the astral plane to reap the benefits.

I’m sure I’d benefit from becoming a yoga master or reaching enlightenment through meditation, but that is not happening right now.

If that sounds like you, try simple things like taking a walk, spending some time in nature, and genuinely engaging in whatever ridiculous game your kids invent (without trying to control the outcome). You’ll feel better and live longer.

 

You’ll Grow Out of It

My early twenties were steeped in anger.

I was on active duty from age nineteen to twenty-three surrounded by plenty of hyper-aggressive warriors, so I didn’t recognize it as an issue. I was relatively tame, plus it’s easy to channel aggression in the Corps. There’s limitless opportunity for physical fitness and any number of peers willing to accept a challenge just for the fun of it.

Still, that cultivated aggression isn’t always well-contained. Those in the armed services and law enforcement have higher-than-average rates of domestic violence, suicide, and alcohol abuse. Among civilians, the age of perpetrators of violent crime dramatically skews toward early to mid twenties. Young men are markedly more aggressive than everyone else in the population.

There’s no shortage of reasonable explanations, some of which I’ve touched on here. If you’re interested in learning more, consider reading Raising Cain and The Macho Paradox. Reasons aside, this behavior changes as men age.

Plenty of middle-age or older men will tell you they aren’t as wild as they once were, or that they’ve become much calmer with time. It’s not a coincidence.

The issue is that most fathers do much of their parenting as young men.

When I was twenty, I was certain I’d never want kids and planned on being a terminal bachelor. I thought the idea of being a father was an absurd way to ruin a life, and marriage was a pointless exercise in pain that I wanted no part of.

By twenty-five, I was ecstatic to get married. By twenty-seven, I was getting used to the idea of being a dad. By thirty-six, my current age, absolutely all I want to be is a loving husband and father.

 

This Is It

You only get one shot at raising a child and whatever the context of your kid’s childhood, that’s what it will always be. The aggression associated with being a man in his twenties is fleeting but your kid’s memories will last a lifetime.

If you spend those years losing your temper over trivial things, you’ll regret it and your kids will resent you for it. Don’t let that happen.

 

This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.

 

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The post Be a Better Dad: Check Your Rage appeared first on The Good Men Project.

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