FAQ: how should i handle anger when disciplining?
Parenting small children can feel like Groundhog Day: correcting the same behaviors over and over again, often with no discernible improvement. When children disobey a clear expectation, parental anger can surge as a response. What should we do with that anger? Is it sinful? Or is there such a thing as righteous anger over the disobedience of a child? And most importantly, how can we keep anger from corrupting an act of discipline (training and correction) into one of retribution (getting even or vengeance)?
Many parents have a disconnect when thinking about anger and discipline: We suspect that disobedience should never touch our emotions – that good parents are able to correct their kids in an almost robotic, non-emotional way. It's important to acknowledge that we will get angry when our kids disobey, and that our anger is not sinful by definition. It turns sinful when we welcome it and use it to justify an unmeasured response. I do think it is extremely rare that we feel righteous anger of any kind, much less in moments of child disobedience. My anger in those moments was almost always related to the feeling that their disobedience was a personal offense against me or evidence that I was a failure at raising obedient children. That's a dumb kind of anger. And it's a dangerous kind, because it turns discipline into retribution lightning-fast.
Power-brokers and Peace-keepers
I believe the answer is not to be a robot, but rather to take time to calm down and gain control before administering discipline of any kind. We are allowed to get angry, but we are not allowed to sin in our anger. (Eph. 4:26) We are even allowed to express our anger on our faces or in our tone. However, because children are not as good at filtering those expressions as adults, I believe it's the better part of wisdom to control our outward reactions. Most children tend toward one of two categories: power-broker or peace-keeper. The power-broker recognizes emotional displays on our part as a sign that they are gaining leverage. If we show our anger over a disobedient act, we can actually reinforce the behavior. The peace-keeper, on the other hand, sees a display of anger as rejection. Seeing our anger may cause the peace-keeper to cease disobeying, but it may also breed fear and secrecy.
But if we completely hide our anger from our kids in those moments (particularly older kids), we can miss another training opportunity as important as the correction at hand: Modeling how to handle anger well. We can do so by taking time to calm down before disciplining, and by assuring our children (verbally and physically) that our love for them is untouched by their disobedience. We can also model repentance when our anger expresses itself rashly. We can confess it to our children and ask forgiveness, demonstrating to both the power-broker and the peacekeeper the power and peacefulness of humility.
Slow It Down
Proverbs 14:29 warns, “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” If ever we need to exercise great understanding, it’s in moments of disciplining our kids. By thinking through what triggers our anger, we can begin to repent of its sinful aspects, working to slow it down to a safer speed. Once the moment of conflict has passed, we can do a personal debrief, asking ourselves what was really at the root of our anger. Did we have a wrong expectation? Did we allow an age-appropriate lack of self-control to get underneath our skin? Is anger our go-to response in general when things don't go as we had planned? How could things go better the next time?
Consider also how our own childhood influences our discipline patterns. For the parent who grew up in an angry home, the combination of disciplining and anger will feel either so normal that we forget to question it, or so inseparable that we avoid disciplining altogether. Neither of these is healthy. Sometimes, agreeing to “divide and conquer” with our spouse can help. If your spouse has better control than you do, consider deferring to them as the primary disciplinarian until you can trust your own responses better. Know your triggers. If neglected chores drive you crazy, hand off discipline to your spouse. If back-talk sets off your spouse, maybe you are the better parent to discipline for that.
In every discipline moment, keep in view that our children are our neighbors, to be loved as we love ourselves. By remembering that they are people, we are more likely to correct rather than avenge. If anger arises, we will temper it with compassion and forgiveness, expressing it appropriately and disciplining out of love.