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Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Dad's Guide To Anger Management

To your kids, you are a giant. Here's how to be a gentle one.
As a father of two boys, I’m an unrepentant kisser and cuddler, I hug. Copiously. Extravagantly. Engulfingly.  Eugene Levy in American Pie has nothing on me. You know the withholding dads who can never say "I love you"? If they're the North Pole, I'm the equator. At 4, my eldest son sometimes responds to my expressions of affection with a smile and two words: "I know."

So it shook me to my core when, after receiving a tongue-lashing for some fleeting transgression, Mason peered up at me from femur level with the saucer eyes he got from his mother and said, "Dad, you're really big and scary when you yell."

Me? Intimidating? I ferry ants from kitchen to front door aboard junk mail rather than crush them. MasterCard's "Priceless" commercials make me tear up. One little ack-ack of nastiness from a coworker can down my plane for days. Shouldn't my progeny realize this by osmosis?

He doesn't understand that when I was just a few years older than he is now, I was that kid--the one you didn't want to be. My glasses were way too thick for a fifth-grade nose to support. My knee-reinforced Tough-skins came from Sears. My tucked-in plaid shirt sported snaps. Did I mention the Star Trek fetish? I'm certain the 1979 edition of The Bully's Field Guide to Menacing listed me as an afternoon snack. At recess, Jimmie Rutten-berg chased me around the playground for one reason: I ran away.

Today, peering over 40's precipice, I am 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds with close-cropped hair, a goatee, a glare, and a decidedly non-shrinking-violet demeanor that has gotten me into run-ins with military police in China and Kalashnikov-toting sentinels in Afghanistan. My son sees that guy.

For days after his comment, I didn't feel big and scary. I felt small and useless. As I processed the notion that I could be not only hero but also monster-in-the-closet to my own child, a pair of questions kept dancing at the edges of my consciousness:

Am I a scary dad? And, more salient: Should I be?

Absolutely freakin' not, instinct insists. History is overstuffed with Great Santinis and Darth Vaders, and I'm damn well not going to join their ranks. The last thing I want is to be in the hospital suffering through my final decrepitude while my boys fight in the hall over who has to go in and make small talk today.

But there's a dark part of me--hidden behind the hugs--that relishes the ability to intimidate. In an era governed by the beige interactions of cubicle diplomacy, it's kind of nice for a guy to have his word be law every once in a while. Management gurus can preach about consensus building, but the truth is that in our go-West-young-man society, patience has long been dismissed as wimpy. Anger is a shortcut to results, collateral damage be damned. Occasionally, I'd like to yell "Jump!" and see everyone else's feet leave the ground. And the allure of being formidable runs deeper than that for me: I want to reclaim a much-misused parental tool, albeit one that is valuable only if meted out with extreme precision, like saffron or threesomes or seersucker suits.

Gen X dads are still sorting out the dueling role models our culture has served up. In one corner are the Greatest Generation fathers who taciturnly got the job done, assumed their affection was implied, and weren't above the occasional belt to the ass. In the other are the touchy-feely boomer parents who say the fear factor has no place in the paternal palette. Thanks, Thirtysomething. It's left to us to find the middle ground.
My college-professor dad was not scary and, he tells me, never thought about being so. He is elegantly formidable, and his words carry so much weight that his very occasional disapproval is still enough to rock my world. He spurns outbursts as if they were Amway salesmen. It was my mother's more visible emotions that taught me to appreciate passion and anger. My wife was one of three sisters and the daughter of a father who never offered a window into his demons, so she's flying blind too.

We're certain of only one thing: This "boy energy"--whatever alchemy it represents--must be understood, nurtured, and channeled so that we don't end up rearing the next exurban Slobodan Milosevic.

I've had four years of trial and error--lots of the former, too much of the latter. But I've learned a handful of techniques to help a guy control his inner Hulk while making sure Bruce Banner never takes a long vacation.

Use anger as a tool, not an outlet. Controlled thunderousness in the service of something, whether it be preventing filial roadkill or punishing callous behavior, is an entirely different beast from personal anger, which usually has nothing to do with your child and everything to do with your bad day. Your stuff is yours; deal with it among adults. Don't ensure that the sins of the father are visited upon the sons.

Be consistent and predictable. My wife grew up scared of her father's temper because she never knew what might set it off. She could never develop a game plan to avoid it. When parents are consistent, it becomes easier for children to adapt. Witness Mason's strategizing: A few weeks ago, he said to me, "Dad, I won't jump on your pillow anymore because I know it makes you angry when I put my feet where you put your face." Predictability begets communication begets less contentiousness.

Apologize to your kid. And not in the hyperpermissive, children-and-parents-are-equal way that encourages self-centeredness. When I lose my cool unfairly, I let my child know, as soon as possible, that I was wrong. I explain that I behaved badly and regret it, and the dividends are visible almost immediately. Talking about anger can defang many situations.

Find temperament role models for yourself. Even if they're in unlikely places, they'll tell you when you stray too far into self-indulgence. Mine happens to be Captain James T. Kirk (see Star Trek geek reference above), who uses anger like a surgical scalpel. Whether yours is John McCain or John McClane, Fred Rogers or Fred Flintstone, find a model of appropriate anger expression, then benchmark yourself.

Be a color commentator for televised anger. John Madden, name notwithstanding, is a useful model here. With pause button in hand, I've tried to be bullish with incisive on-the-spot analysis of bad tempers. Why is Wile E. Coyote dropping that anvil? Is Cyborg's epic battle designed to protect the rest of the Teen Titans, or is he just pissed? Okay, perhaps this can be taken too far. But as long as I'm holding the remote, I'm in a position to help my boy figure out different kinds of anger. And guess what? It's gotten me thinking about my own expressions of anger and whether they're productive or destructive. Sneaky.

The other day, I learned that my 4-year-old was picking on a nursery-school classmate. My head spun. Was I, perennial playground chasee, raising a bully? "Aren't you someone who cares about how others feel?" I asked. "I do care, Dad," he said with the sincerity only a preschooler can muster, "but sometimes I get angry."

Managing our own male anger is complicated. Managing it through to the next generation is downright terrifying. It's a complicated skill set that sends you wandering through all different corners of the culture for wisdom. You'll need a little Art of War, a little Law & Order, a dash of Leave It to Beaver, and a healthy dose of Dr. Melfi. And it's forever a balancing act. Remember, Grass-hopper: While a diplomat without a warrior is toothless, a warrior without a diplomat is doomed. That may sound like Sun Tzu, but I just made it up as I went along. Sort of like fatherhood itself.

Ted Anthony's first book, Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song, was published last year by Simon & Schuster.
Credit: Ted Anthony, Men's Health.

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