My Old Enemy, the Short Fuse
I was upset for a third time that day. My 2-year-old had thrown an entire bowl of muri on the carpet, and I officially lost it. My old enemy, the short fuse, made a grand entry as I screamed at Ochoa, words coming out so fast they didn’t make sense. My child, taken aback at first, then became adamant, and frowning back at me, he shot back “No!” My outburst subsided; the lava cooled; and we continued with our day.
They seem to be happening more frequently, these eruptions. I have been trying to follow the “gentle parenting” approach propagated by author Sarah Ockwell-Smith, but my anger issues exacerbate any trying situation. My temper isn’t my child’s fault – he has the right to falter. But when a situation spirals, that isn’t so clear to my son, as my helpless feeling turns to anger, turns to aggression. Parenting gently is particularly difficult when my impulse is to quickly lose control with decidedly ungentle words.
I have always been a short-tempered person. It was easy not to worry about controlling anger with friends in school and college. It was even easier to vent to my parents – at best, Ma would argue while Baba would not indulge me. I could say whatever I wanted and be done with it. After getting married, I made (feeble) attempts to rein in my outbursts. Call it maturity, diplomacy, or best behaviour for my new family, I thought I was finally controlling anger.
Uninhibited anger problems have, ironically, danced their way back into my life when I am most embarrassed by it. Not only has my son met my inner Hulk, he has begun imitating it. When a 5-year-old girl took his favourite elephant toy, my child demanded it back with a loud, frustrated grunt. He followed it up with an even louder and lyrical “O pap!” – my typical scolding expression. When the kid gave him back the toy, he continued frowning at her. On another night, I watched him grunt angrily at his father for trying to make him sleep when he was up late playing. No words, just reaction. My reactions.
I, like most parents, want to be a good role model to my son and to learn how to control anger with kids. (Or, if not good, I definitely do not want to be a bad example for him.) I saw my mother lose her temper regularly. My sister and I would obey immediately after she lost control of her anger (which was because of something we had done and we knew it), but it made us acutely aware of how we didn’t want to be.
And yet, apparently, I am exactly like that.
My sister, in fairness, manages to be calm in the face of the storm that is her 7-year-old daughter. She sits quietly while her daughter rants long enough to miss eating or sleeping on time. It is only after she is done that my sister speaks, very composedly, about how such lapses in routine shouldn’t happen again.
Her calm gene overpowered the example we were raised with, but the lines of nature and nurture blur for me – a hot temper has been the bullet I simply couldn’t dodge. It is frightening to know that after all the youthful declarations that we’ll never embody the darkest versions of our parents, we end up there anyway. We read new studies, pull more tricks out of our hats, go another mile – only to end up where every other good parent has in the past and will in the future: trying to be the best versions of ourselves for our children. And usually failing. And trying again.
In a famous study, the psychologist Albert Bandura found that children learn social behaviour, such as aggression, through watching the behaviour of another person. But angry outbursts aren’t the only kind of social behaviour kids pick up on. If Ochoa picks up his angry grunts from me, I am hopeful he’ll also pick up the trying again, the attempts made at controlling anger, the dissatisfaction, and the effort to always be better.
Nature might have won this round, but nurture is a long game. It takes time to grow strong enough to muscle a Hulk into submission. Ochoa will get there. We both will.