Anger Mismanagement

by Brett on June 16, 2009 · 13 comments

in Fatherhood, Relationships & Family

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Editor’s note: Father’s Day is this weekend and you may have noticed that here on AoM we’ve been running some father-themed posts. We have a couple more for you, including today’s essay by Joel Schwartzberg. Mr. Schwartzberg is an award-winning essayist whose new book is “The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad.” This essay is excerpted from that book.

For a micromoment, my eight year-old son Charlie and I just stared blankly at the hot dog resting beside our feet as if we expected it to suddenly anthropomorphize, brush itself off, and hop agreeably back onto the grill.

We had just spent an hour putting the grill together, screw by tiny screw. Charlie helped me lug it to the small patch of grass outside our apartment, and together we arranged the charcoal into a nice, tight pyramid. Once the coals were coated white, Charlie asked if he could use the heavy tongs to move the hot dogs. I wasn’t sure he was strong enough to keep the long tongs pinched, and these three were all we had. But Charlie was excited about extending his term of responsibility, so I let him try.

“Use two hands,” I said.

He carefully grabbed a frankfurter with the tongs, but as soon as he shifted his feet toward the grill, the pinchers sprung open, and the hot dog dropped onto the damp dirt. No five-minute, five-hour, or five day rule would save this dog. It was history.

There’s a TV commercial for a brand of paper towel in which a Dad and his young son are lounging on a couch behind a coffee table. On the table are two glasses of juice. The father stretches and places his feet on the table. The adorable son mimics his father, placing his own feet on the table. Naturally, the kid knocks over his juice, which spills everywhere.

The kid looks at his Dad with a fearful look so exaggerated it’d make a mime blush. Will he get sent to his room? Yelled at? Viciously beaten?

No. The Dad just smiles and knocks over his own drink. Son is relieved. Cue Mommy, who looks sharply at Dad.

Will Dad be sent to his room? Yelled at? Viciously beaten? We’ll never know. But I have yet to meet a father who’d handle such a moment this way. Certainly not me, having been raised in a home were childish mistakes and other immaturities were the behavior of “retards,” “dummies,” and “shmegeggies.”

I’m above calling my son names – even Yiddish ones – but not always able to resist doling out disappointment, even for tiny mistakes like dropping a hot dog. I felt the words stepping up to the batter’s box in my head.

“Come on!”

“What’s the matter with you?”

“I KNEW that would happen.”

“Charlie…” I started, but my son took my lines and rewrote them.

“I’m sorry.  I’m so stupid!” he said, slamming his tiny fists into his thighs. “I’m an idiot! An idiot!”

I painfully recognized both the tone and the words, like a song from my childhood.

When I was 10, my parents bought me an expensive, life-sized ventriloquist’s dummy. I coveted the thing dearly, but once while I was playing with it, the jaw stopped responding to my tugs. It hung perfectly still while I frantically pulled the string. Then, the string broke.

I cried until my eyes were dry. ”Idiot,” I said to myself. “Stupid, stupid idiot!”

Desperate to avoid my parents’ disappointment, I rolled up the doll, wrapped it in a plastic bag, and secretly buried it in a dumpster behind the apartment. It was a very undignified way to die, even for a dummy. The doll’s sudden disappearance was a major family mystery for 20 years.

Watching Charlie psychologically pummel himself was like looking through a one-way mirror; I saw him clearly, but also my own ghostly reflection staring back. My mother tells stories of how I used to throw terrible tantrums in my room, tossing clothes, tearing books, and breaking toys in a tearful tsunami that ended only when I exhausted myself. My parents saw it as outward anger. In truth, I was punishing myself; I felt undeserving of all I had.

I so wanted to do for my son what wasn’t done for me – to hug him, to console him, to insert myself between him and his hate. But even that impulse felt unnatural, as if I were trying to control an involuntary organ. I wanted to say something healing, but it’s futile to tell a kid to stop feeling what he’s feeling, no matter how much my own mother tried.

So I impulsively picked up the hot dog and chucked it deep into a neighboring yard.

My son looked at me.

“That should make Luna happy,” I said, in reference to the feathery white cat who routinely patrols the back alley of my apartment.

Charlie nodded.

I offered him the tongs. ”Another try?”

After a moment, he took them from my hands.

I don’t remember if Charlie’s next hot dog survived its short journey or not. It didn’t matter. We simply comforted each other as best we knew how, and moved past what had fallen between us.

If you enjoyed this essay, be sure to check out Joel’s new book, The 40 Year Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Turling June 16, 2009 at 9:23 am

My son does the same thing, calling himself names, saying he’s stupid, etc. I can’t help but think it’s something I’ve said to him in the past that makes him think this way, but I have never called him names nor said anything of that nature. I do have a quick temper and I’m not sure I would have handled the hot dog situation that well. However, the story does give me the inclination to keep trying. Thanks.

2 Fred T. Jane June 16, 2009 at 9:42 am

My father was raised in a household where being called “stupid” was the norm rather than the exception, and even a half-century later, he’s still dealing with it. I’m usually fairly flippant and sarcastic when I’m around my friends, but since I’ve become a school teacher, I watch everything I say so carefully because I’ve seen how even a single statement can screw someone up for years. In addition, considering how most of my students come from backgrounds where they are yelled at and berated constantly, I’d like to think my outlook is sufficiently different that at least one of them notices the way I treat them.

3 Matt @ Rational Imperative June 16, 2009 at 9:50 am

This is a great essay! I’ve struggled with some anger issues in the past but lately I’ve been able to control it in a better fashion, I can attest to the fact that when you have to tip-toe around your parents because you make a simple mistake such as dropping a hot dog it makes you used to walking on eggshells.

Great post, I’m loving all of these father-oriented essays.

4 Lexi June 16, 2009 at 11:24 am

I wonder if the kids treat themselves that way, because they see the parents treating themselves that way? Even if not out loud, but kids pick up on those things. (Assuming there is an absence of the parent doing that to the kid.)

5 Morriss Partee June 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm

This post brings tears to my eyes. Why? Because it’s all so avoidable. I know that as parents (and I am one), we get wrapped up in our own world and our own perspective. It takes an extremely thoughtful parent to try to look at things from the child’s point of view. In this case, Charlie had no prior experience with the pressure necessary to keep the tongs closed. His small body doesn’t have the leverage that an adult has. He was simply doing his best, and trying his best. If we don’t try, we’ll never learn. So good for you Joel, to make a joke out of it. In addition, let him know that it’s not even really his fault the hot dog fell. Go ahead and give him that hug to let him really feel that you’re not mad at him. You are right; it is futile to tell him not to feel what he’s feeling. Instead validate his feelings, and you can still give him a hug while he’s working through his own disappointment.

@Fred, I would try to eliminate sarcasm from my repertoire as much as possible. Sarcasm is very hurtful to the person it’s aimed at, even though you might think it’s a joke. Also, it’s hard to turn it on with friends, then turn it off when at school. So to be safe, work on turning it off everywhere. If you want more ammo as to the harmful nature of sarcasm, read the classic book “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie.

6 Chris McCracken June 16, 2009 at 7:21 pm

I love that story. I needed to hear it after reacting poorly to some mild concentration issues from my 10-year old on the weekend.

Thanks.

7 Chris June 16, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Great article. I have just recently become a father, and your awareness and management of your own history, and the way you translate that into loving your son, is inspiring. I hope I can do so well.

8 Van Owens June 17, 2009 at 2:50 am

Nice story … but I do think I would have given the kid a hug … maybe. It’s a thin line, isn’t it. Don’t want to be the type of Dad who watches his kid do something stupid and unadvisable (like trying to run to home when the third base coach tells him to hold up and getting easily thrown out) and then says, “good job, sport, we’ll get ‘em next time.” I want my son to know that I love him and accept his failings but don’t want him to stop striving either …

Or am I reading too much into a simple story?

9 Ron Huxley June 17, 2009 at 5:59 am

Just stumbled into your blog via twitter. I will be reading more. Any article on anger for dads is awesome. Keep up the positive dad work.

10 Bryan Watkins June 27, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Thanks for the post; it was great to read. The thing that I am taking away the most from what you and Morris wrote is that we need to see things from the kid’s point of view. Our kids just want to please us and want to know that we are proud of them.

11 Jamie July 31, 2009 at 3:32 pm

Thanks for the article.

Unfortunately, I’ve inherited my mother’s quick temper; as the father of a strong-willed 4 year old girl and a strong-willed 2 year old boy, I have ample opportunity to practice controlling it. To my discredit, I frequently struggle with the volume of my voice, although I’ve refrained from using terms like “stupid” and “idiot.”

My role model is my father, who I have never witnessed losing his temper. He’s a patient man whose blood temperature appears to be regulated by a thermostat, taking life’s situations and dealing with them calmly. One would think that having such an example would naturally translate into my own behavior, but it hasn’t been the case with me.

There are few things in life more difficult than the apparent oxymoron of chasing after patience. Self-control is one of those gradually acquired skills with which opportunities for improvement pop up suddenly with little or no time for preparation, leaving me blindsided when I realize that I’ve failed yet again.

At any rate, this article was a great reminder that we MUST be aware of the effect our reactions have on our children.

12 Evan September 27, 2009 at 1:21 am

This post was very applicable to my own life.

I struggled with a hot temper most of my adolescent life though I don’t think it was any fault of my father who had a bit of a temper himself. I think it stemmed more from a personal desire to expect perfection from myself and a learned reaction to dealing with failure or frustration in an unhealthy way.

After joining the military I got the opportunity to deal with failure frequently in an environment where a temper tantrum is unacceptable. This taught me two things that I hope to be able to use when I become a father.

1. Its okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from the experience and strive to avoid repeating them in the future.
2. Don’t sweat the small stuff (like a hot dog dropped on the ground) because in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter and there are many other more important things that you should focus your energy on.

13 James Abel July 27, 2013 at 1:08 pm

My God, I need help with this very thing. So much help. I’m glad I found this particular post.

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