Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of excerpts from H. Wallace Goddard’s new book, The Soft-Spoken Parent: More than 50 Strategies to Turn Away Wrath.
We all get angry. Sometimes it is nothing more than simmering irritation. Other times it is fire in our soul. Our ears burn and every cell tenses.
Yet even as we ready for the holy battle, we have the sneaking suspicion that our anger is not good for us or for our unlucky target.
We are right. Anger is very destructive.
You’re Not Alone
Haim Ginott, the parenting genius and author of several books, described our dilemma in the introduction to his classic Between Parent and Child:
No parent wakes up in the morning planning to make a child’s life miserable. No mother or father says, “Today, I’ll yell, nag, and humiliate my child whenever possible.” On the contrary, in the morning many parents resolve, “This is going to be a peaceful day. No yelling, no arguing, and no fighting.” Yet, in spite of good intentions, the unwanted war breaks out again. Once more we find ourselves saying things we do not mean, in a tone we do not like. 
In fact, those of us who are most vulnerable to anger may be those who have stronger emotions of all kinds. We love more passionately, we live more joyously. That is a blessing. But it must needs be that there is an opposite in all things. Along with the gift of fire (enthusiasm, passion, gusto, zeal), we have the challenge of channeling, managing, and training our fire.
Fire can warm and cook. It can also scorch and destroy. Let’s begin by trying to better understand anger.
The Assumptions behind Anger
Even as we violate our conscience by insulting those we love, it is quite possible for us to feel virtuous. We may think, “You are wrong or bad and I am helping you by straightening you out.” Consider some of the common assumptions behind most anger.
1. Anger is real. Anger tends to feel wonderfully authentic. “This is truth. I hadn’t seen it before. But now I do!” We discover that our child has stolen from a neighbor, hurt a sibling, or told a lie. We feel that flash of indignation. Suddenly it all makes sense. The child needs rebuke!2. “I must be honest with you.” When we discover something awful, it seems as if we must deal with it immediately. We need to talk about it. The “truth” explodes from us. We can’t seem to keep it in.3. “I must deal with anger by getting it out.” “With all this feeling inside me, if I don’t get it out, I’ll explode.” So I tell my child just what she has done wrong – in angry, indignant tones.4. “After getting my anger out, I will feel better.” Most of us assume that the expression of anger is cathartic. “After I have fully expressed my indignation, I will feel relieved and peaceful.”5. “After I’ve told you what’s wrong with you, you can do better.” It seems that our child has been blind to some truth that we have discovered. When we point out his error, he should be able to make better choices in the future.
Anger seemingly has all the satisfactions of a crusade: a worthy cause, plenty of emotion, an opportunity to make the world a better place, and a deep feeling of satisfaction.
Unfortunately for those of us who get angry readily, all of the five ideas above are almost entirely false. The crusade turns out to be a slaughter of innocents. The truths about anger are very different from the common beliefs.
The Truth about Anger
Years of research have helped us better understand anger. It is generally not the positive, beneficial force that many have believed it to be. The following propositions about anger are generally closer to the truth than those listed above.
1. Anger is a liar. Our thoughts when we are angry are not calm, sensible, or balanced. They are narrow and frequently irrational and unbalanced. “Rare is the person who can weigh the faults of others without putting his thumb on the scales,” wrote Byron J. Langenfield. We get taken hostage by an unhelpful emotion and our reason and civility break down. Instead of seeking understanding, we begin to seek a conviction of the person.2. Angry times are bad times for honesty. Anger tends to focus on the negative. That is not the whole story. It is not even the most important part of the story. When we are angry is not the best time to say everything we are thinking.3. There are ways to deal with anger besides pouring molten lava on those we love. The popular belief that, if we do not express our anger, it will explode – or come out in sick forms – is simply mistaken. Anger is a little like tasting very hot soup. We must allow it to cool a little before we eat it or we will burn our mouths.4. We often feel quite conflicted after we have blown up with people we love. After unloading on a child, our minds may be insisting that we were right and they needed to hear it. But our hearts tell us that we have violated the contract of love. We have turned against those we swore to bless and protect, to encourage and to teach. Francis Bacon once said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.” (Quotationary)5. When we get angry at our children, it often leaves them unmotivated, even despairing. Think about times you have been given an angry lecture. Were you energized and motivated by the tirade? Most likely you were hurt and your first thought was counter-anger or revenge. It is possible that you acquiesced, but you were probably not motivated or energized. The same is true with our children. When we unload on them, they don’t usually feel taught and encouraged. They probably feel burdened, hopeless, and angry.
As a wise man has said, being angry is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die. Anger destroys us. It also damages our most cherished relationships. It gives control of our lives to irrational – and usually unrighteous – passion.
The Commandments about Anger
While the field of psychology has generally turned against anger rather recently, God has always been against it. The Savior taught, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22).
This is serious business. If we are angry with our brother we risk damnation. Some may cite the “without cause” clause in the scripture. But Jesus removed that clause when he came to the new world. (The clause also does not appear in many of the most ancient manuscripts of Matthew 5:22.)
The Book of Mormon records Jesus’ words:
Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, and it is also written before you, that thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment of God; But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of his judgment. And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council; and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire (3 Nephi 12:21-22).
To translate the scripture into more modern parlance, one may say, “You may have thought that murder was the great sin but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother or sister is in danger of God’s condemnation. If you call any brother empty or worthless, you risk facing condemnation. If you insult or judge another human, you put your own salvation in peril.”
This is stern stuff. Society may excuse – even encourage and model – smart-alecky, diminishing, and sarcastic attacks on people. God condemns all of it.
Getting Free of the Father of Contention
Anger often seems irresistible. A child breaks a glass or hits a sibling and we erupt. Can such an automatic process be interrupted? Can volcanic anger be replaced with civil helpfulness? It seems that it would be easier to turn the mighty Mississippi upstream than to redirect the energy of wrath. We feel helpless in the face of our passion.
The problem of anger doesn’t actually begin with the misbehavior that seems to cause it. It begins much sooner. Often we remain quite unaware of the background of irritation in our moods that sets the stage for anger. Sometimes our children get the residue of disappointment from work or loneliness in our souls.
There is another problem with anger. We may be quite unaware of the assumptions that we impose on those around us. We each have a script filled with notions about how people should act. When someone acts differently, we may become quite indignant.
When we act as if everyone should follow our rules, we set ourselves up for chronic frustration. There is a devious kind of pride in imposing our assumptions on everyone around us. In contrast, humility is a wonderful openness. We are more free to appreciate the diverse ways that people – including our children – think and act.
For example, a mother awoke on her birthday smelling the aromas of a delightful breakfast. She rested in bed anticipating a birthday surprise. After a long wait, one of the children came into her room, “As a birthday surprise, we cooked our own breakfast.”
The mother could be quite angry that the children did not bring her any breakfast. Or she can be grateful for the children’s growing thoughtfulness and self-sufficiency. Of course she might also tell them that she loves to have breakfast with them and would be glad to be included next time.
You can see the vital role of humility. When we are humble – when we don’t insist on having the world operate by our rules – we are less likely to be irritated by differences. We are less likely to impose our meanings on someone else’s behavior. The anger problem has deep roots – way down into our assumptions.
At the heart of much of our anger is a painfully human reaction. A child spills a glass of milk and, somewhere in our souls, we react: “How could you do this to me?” Of course we have been trained to use other words. “You need to be more careful.” or “How could you be so clumsy?” But behind the words there may be a more self-oriented reaction: “Why should your clumsiness make me late for work or mess up my table or.” In other words, “How could you do this to me?” Anger is a self-centered reaction to inconvenience or disappointment.
In perfect contrast to our egocentric humanness, is Jesus’ graciousness. His focus was always on those around him. He was, and is, totally tuned to our needs and our ways of seeing the world. Based on his discernment of us, he acts to bless us.
If we follow his example, we might respond to spilt milk in gracious ways: “Oops. The milk spilled. I’ll grab you a towel,” or “Too bad. We all spill sometimes,” or “Cool! I have wanted to do milk painting on the table for a long time. What shall we draw?”
When we act with the child’s needs in mind, we act very differently. When we understand that our children are doing the best they know how in a big, confusing world in which they often feel awkward and powerless, we, like Jesus, can act redemptively. When a child falls short because of lack of wisdom or experience, we can teach rather than punish.
I love the compassion in a statement by Jeffrey R. Holland:
When a battered, weary swimmer tries valiantly to get back to shore, after having fought strong winds and rough waves which he should never have challenged in the first place, those of us who might have had better judgment, or perhaps just better luck, ought not to row out to his side, beat him with our oars, and shove his head back underwater. That’s not what boats were made for. But some of us do that to each other. 
Let’s return to Buechner’s observation. At the beginning of this section we quoted him describing anger as a feast fit for a king. He finishes his observation with the following words: “The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” 
Anger can destroy us and our families. God invites us to turn away wrath and be soft-spoken parents. In the weeks ahead, Meridian will publish the top ten strategies to turn away wrath.
You can buy the book with full introduction and 55 strategies by going to www.deseretbook.com
Jeffrey R. Holland, However Long and Hard the Road (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 71.