Angry kids. Angry parents. This combination is universal in every family on the planet. I cannot imagine any home full of sinners that do not experience sinful anger and the resulting damage it causes.
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Since my home is no different (full of sinners, of whom I am foremost), I was motivated to pick up Lou Priolo’s oft-recommended book on the topic, The Heart of Anger: Practical Help for the Prevention and Cure of Anger in Children. To be perfectly honest, I read this more for my anger than that of my kids at this stage of life.
So it wasn’t a surprise that there were several eye-opening moments for me as I read, a conviction in areas I wasn’t even aware I was sinning. Things like “consider the degree to which you are self-disciplined; it is only to that degree that you can expect to succeed in disciplining your child to correct his anger problem” (60).
Sin is all interrelated, isn’t it? You can’t talk about anger in isolation from all the idols and wrong thinking that accompany it.
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Priolo speaks of the child-centered home. I’ve heard of this before; basically, it points out the idolatry and danger of orienting your life around your child’s wants and needs. “A child-centered home,” Priolo writes, “is one in which the child believes and is allowed to behave as though the entire household, parents, siblings, and even pets exist for one purpose—to please him” (24).
The child becomes the arbiter of and final consideration in every decision—instead of God. The parents have effectively replaced God with a very unsatisfactory substitute in their child.
The biblical model is, of course, the God-centered home where the parents and children fulfill their proper roles in the family as God designed. In the God-centered home, the one-flesh, permanent marital relationship is the most important dynamic and children “are welcomed into the family, but not as part of the decision-making unit” (26).
They are taught from an early age that life in the family (and by extension, in the rest of the world) is not about them and they are not entitled to have every desire and wish fulfilled.
The interesting thing about the child-centered home is that it does not produce happy children. The opposite is true: children in child-centered homes are often angry and emotionally unstable.
This outcome isn’t a surprise if you think about it: a child-centered home subverts God’s design for the authority of parents and the submission of children, and so naturally it will not be healthy or happy for anyone, parent or child. A child-centered home teaches the child entitlement, a surefire path to misery and immaturity. Reading the traits and habits of such households was a helpful check for our own home.
Another helpful insight is the Gumnazo Principle. Basically, it means “training” and states that not only must children be told what they are doing wrong, but we must train them how to do it right instead. Children will not automatically know what the right action would have been when we reprove them for a wrong action.
Parents must do replays, instructing the child in the right behavior when they sin and then having them practice it till they get it. This process is a huge investment of time and energy (especially with a three-year-old!). But it’s an essential part of biblical child-rearing and one that we are committed to using.
I’ve been saying this a lot: “Okay honey, let’s try that again the right way.” As my son grows older, I am hopeful that, when asked, he will be able to work out the right responses himself and practice them in place of the sin he just committed.
Priolo also talks about the difference between “I’m sorry” and “please forgive me”—they’re not synonymous. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t accomplish the biblical goal of putting past offenses aside. Nor does it lay the foundation to reestablish a broken trust as effectively as does asking forgiveness” (71).
Then there are the journals… the Anger Journal, Heart Journal, Conflict Journal, and Manipulation Worksheet. These are simple diagnostic worksheets of no more than four questions each that seek to break down the incident and help the person formulate a Christlike response for the next time. I have not filled one out yet. I plan to, but I’m a little apprehensive about the time these exercises are going to take. But I want to grow, so I need to make them a priority.
Like other biblical counseling resources I’ve read, now and then the use of Scripture is a stretch. In one place Priolo says, “I have found that most angry individuals readily acknowledge their anger problem.” According to Proverbs 14:10, ‘the heart knows its own bitterness’.” The point of that verse (I think) is the ultimate unknowableness of another person’s heart, both their sorrows and joys, not a person’s own self-awareness of personal sin (actually, we are many times blind to and unaware of our own sin). So I don’t know if its use of “bitterness” can be conflated with anger, as Priolo does.
There are other small instances like this, no major misinterpretations but just stretches. Sometimes these authors just try too hard to have a chapter and verse for everything.
Overall, I found The Heart of Anger a helpful resource for Christian parents trying to manage not just their children’s anger, but their own. I’ll confess that was my primary incentive in reading this book; parenting has got to be the most infuriating activity ever invented. But there’s too much at stake to just settle for my sinful default. I know I will be revisiting this book!