My daughter has a sticker chart on the fridge that says, in her seven-year-old mix of capital and lower-case letters, “I was nice in the morning and controlled my anger!” The exclamation mark is dotted with a star.
Then there are ten hand-drawn squares, with shiny stickers in several of them. If all goes well, she’ll pick out a Playmobil at the corner toy store downtown, as a reward, in less than a week.
This was all her idea. She saw a sticker chart of her brother’s and wanted a vehicle for scoring a new toy, too.
When I asked what she would do to earn a sticker, she didn’t hesitate. After countless talks and family meetings, she knows her early morning attitude problem is one of her biggest hurdles.
My heart goes out to her. She and I both struggle with a quick fuse. My tendency to “lose it” diminished following a blitz of therapy sessions a couple years ago. And it helped when my kids’ sense of reason emerged. The early years – when I couldn’t talk anyone out of anything – were tough on me.
Observing myself also helps. If I’m frustrated with how the morning’s going, I can take a breath and make an observation: “When we’re late and the kids are having a sit-in in the bathroom, refusing to brush their teeth, I feel like throwing this lunchbox against the wall.” That’s much better than actually doing it.
The problem is that I have done it (though with objects somewhat softer than a lunchbox). And it makes me cringe. Especially when I’m watching one of my kids stomp up the stairs or grit their teeth in a closed-mouth scream. They’ve learned this from me, I think.
I want to tell you I’ve reached a point of rational detachment. Or that I’ve committed myself to ten minutes of quiet prayer and meditation every morning and it’s made a world of difference.
But I haven’t been disciplined enough to cultivate either state of being. It’s going to take awhile. There are no substitutes for hard work and the drip of time. No magic tickets.
This week, an influential person in my life died. He was the minister at the church my husband and I attended when we went to college. Through the years, he was not only our pastor but a mentor and periodic lunch companion to us both. At the end of our undergraduate studies, he agreed to travel across the state to officiate at our wedding.
This man, as one friend put it, could “spin a great tale from that box.” And, boy, could he ever.
But he was not only a gifted speaker. He was as attentive to the theological questions of a twenty-something as he was to the weather and how it might affect his onion crop. He was the kind of Renaissance man formed from the rich, rural life he led; not only did his answering machine message include instructions on what to do if you wanted to buy a sheep, he also held office hours at our college, where he worked part-time as a French professor.
In a blog post, written by one of his daughters on the day of his death, I was surprised to read that he tended to have a quick temper. Reading this, I had two thoughts, in quick succession:
I can be a good, even an exceptional, human being and struggle with anger? Phew.
I can be an incredible influence on the lives of people, even a pinnacle in my community, and still be unable to stem the rage completely? Oh, boy.
No magic tickets. I’m in this one for the long haul.
But, as my therapist told me, minor adjustments in thought patterns – just this much – can go a long way. The thing is finding the right ones.
And I do have a bag of tricks now, tailored to my moments of annoyance, fury or frustration. I give myself concrete reminders, early and often. I’m gentle with myself if I have a bad moment with the kids. I wake up and remind myself: there’s no reason today can’t work out just fine.
These internal accommodations are more subtle than stickers and less sparkly, too. But they’re working, even if the give-and-take process of change is slow. And I hope in some way, my kids are picking up on the fact that I’m trying.
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer and mother of two from Olympia, Washington. She loves to blow an entire morning at the farmers market with her kids. Find out more about her writing at www.jennifercrain.com.