My 7-year-old has taken to pointing out when he thinks I’ve not slept enough.
“Mom, I think you need a nap,” he’ll say kindly.
That his kindness is almost always in response to some high-volume freak-out I’ve had makes the whole exchange especially shameful. He could hold a grudge. He could give me the cold shoulder. He could make me pay. Oh, and I would.
I’m supposed to be the adult here, after all.
I should be able to hold it together, even after six straight hours of whining. Or when my boys’ umpteenth wrestling match of the day results in a broken dining room chair. Or after telling someone to put his shoes on, over and over for half an hour. Or when a certain child wills himself to stay awake, making as many as—JUST SAY—17 pilgrimages from bed to inform someone else that he’s STILL NOT TIRED.
And many times I do hold it together (thanks to a little thing I call muttering-to-myself-like-an-insane-person). But not always. I’m not saying it’s every day, or every week even. But once or twice a month, I snap and throw a real doozy of a tantrum. At least twice I’ve bellowed, “I QUIT THIS JOB!”
“This job” being parenthood.
And when I lose it—and watch their little bodies freeze and their little unsure faces sizing me up—I almost immediately choke on the regret.
I can so relate to this anecdote from one of my favorite writers, Catherine Newman, who recently recounted a time she asked her child to help out with a photo for her blog:
“If you are on your way out the door, on a Monday school morning, and someone asks you to hold up a granola bar so that she can photograph it, and this is a favor to that person, that person who made the granola bar and is therefore responsible for its crumbling, and that granola bar breaks in half and falls to the floor, should sharp words be flung at you like knives outlining your sleepy baffledness? I said two hands. Also, should there be a sharp addendum about your boots, and why you aren’t wearing them, even though the granola-bar photographer has reminded you at least a dozen times to wear your boots today? Your bright face will fall. And when, ultimately, you end up in her lap, in tears, do you feel like the lamb lying down with the lion, only not in a good way? I don’t know.”
We’re not alone, Catherine and I. According to a University of New Hampshire study, 90 percent of parents admit to snapping at their young children within the course of a year.
Which doesn’t make it right. As psychologist Matthew McKay, Ph.D., coauthor of When Anger Hurts Your Kids, told Good Housekeeping: “Studies have shown that parents who express a lot of anger in front of their kids end up with less empathetic children. These kids are more aggressive and more depressed than peers from calmer families, and they perform worse in school. Anger has a way of undermining a kid's ability to adapt to the world.”
The silver lining, McKay adds, is that kids can learn something from watching parents’ lose their temper and then regain their cool. “This provides an opportunity to show kids that we all get angry, but what really counts is how we repair things afterward,” he says.
As Newman says about her granola bar incident—and this goes for me, too—“I am quick to apologize, and that’s about all I can say for myself.”
At my house, it usually goes something like this: “It is not okay that you whipped your plate of spaghetti onto the floor—and I find it very suspicious that you did that just as I picked up the ringing telephone—but I should not have yelled like that and I’m sorry if I scared you. I will try very hard not to do that again.”
It doesn’t help, I often tell them, that I’m tired, and so less patient (cue the sleep advice from the 7-year-old).
Lucky for me—and thanks to the easy grace and compassion of children—my boys are quick to forgive me my bad behavior.
I should take a lesson from them.