Anger at your kids is not really all that different from anger at anyone else. We tend to think of parental anger a bit differently, but James tells us that all anger comes from the same source, and it’s not our children. We become angry at our kids because of the desires in our own hearts (James 4:1-2). Three common idols lie behind our parental anger.
The idol of My Agenda asserts that I ought to be able to control the world of my child. Good parents have plans for the kids. We want them to achieve certain levels of success, acquire certain kinds of friends, make specific decisions, and stay out of harm’s way. We have an agenda as we raise them, but there is always a temptation to confuse our agenda for our kids and God’s agenda for our kids. They may not be the same, and God may direct our child’s path differently than we wanted.
Anger can arise when we feel that we are losing control of our kids, when their path diverges from our plan. We became frustrated and annoyed that our plan is not being realized. Even where a child has sinned we can be angrier about the loss of control or the change in plan than we are about their disobedience to God. The focus is not on the child, but on the loss of our agenda.
Parents must always remember who is ultimately in control. Our children belong to the Lord and He has numbered their days (Ps. 139:16) and He has determined their steps (Prov. 16:9). Parents certainly have an influence over our kids, and we should exercise that responsibly. Yet, influence is not control, and parents are not God. God has a plan that may diverge from our own plan for our families. When that happens we must be willing to submit to God’s will or be tempted towards anger.
The idol of My Reputation asserts that my child needs to make me look good. Every parent has experienced the fear of man at some level. We know that temptation to worry that others are judging our parenting. I recall feeling especially nervous one Sunday morning as my kids squirmed in the pew next to me. Their restlessness was becoming noticeable (or at least I thought it was) to others, and I was felt concerned. After all, I am a pastor and my kids are supposed to be respectful and responsive during the sermon.
Our sinful anger is always more about us than our children. When fear of man drives our responses we can guarantee that we aren’t thinking about what’s best for our kids and will most likely sin in response to their behavior. This motivation will tempt us to bypass discipleship opportunities, moments to teach our kids in their disobedience. Embarrassment will tempt us to rush pass the moment and get conformity instead of heart change. But true love, John tells us, “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Love for our kids can empower us to look past our own fear of man and see their needs. Love “considers the interests of others as more significant than our own” (Phil. 2:4). Love invites us to sacrifice our reputation for the sake of their growth and development.
The idol of My Convenience asserts that parenting shouldn’t be difficult. We all want easy and comfortable lives, but there is nothing about parenting that is easy! We can guarantee frustration if we view parenting as convenient. We will find that we have to repeat ourselves, exert loads of energy, and interrupt our plans to teach, instruct, and correct our children. If we are sometimes careful to avoid the child-centered home, we can, instead, become guilty of the parent-centered home. Our desires and expectations are what matter most and when parenting frustrates those desires and expectations then we become angry and lash out.
When convenience is my heart motivation then I look for a quick fix to difficult parenting situations. Maybe instead of helping my kids learn to solve a fight over who’s playing with a toy, I simply take the toy away. Maybe instead of helping my child take responsibility for a spilled cup of milk, I simply yell ad vent while I clean it up. Maybe instead of asking my child why they are afraid at night, I simply punish them for getting out of bed.
Parenting isn’t convenient; it requires much selflessness and sacrifice. A parent ruled by the heart motivation of convenience will become annoyed at all the intrusions and interruptions. Their parenting will be more anger than compassion, more impatience than care, and more grumbling than shepherding. In contrast we have a Shepherd of our souls who models for us the kind of selfless sacrifice we are called to. Christ, who had the ultimate rights to convenience as God, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Our Good Shepherd models for us what good shepherding looks like, it is not a focus on feeding our appetites but on the sheep in need (see Ezekiel 34).
Parenting is not easy, we all struggle as parents to honor God and serve our children. Consider where you struggle most frequently. Reflect on these three heart motivations, do you see yourself in any one specifically, in any one frequently? By identifying our sinful heart motivations we can strategically plan for change and growth, we can change our desires and thus change our parenting too.