Adrienne: Most new parents swear they’ll avoid yelling or saying the angry things their parents said to them. And then they catch themselves yelling those exact things. Well it turns out there’s a good reason we do that. And there’s a way to stop. Today our Wellness Columnist Scott McPherson is here to discuss how a new approach to anger might just have the potential to create a kinder society. Hi Scott.
Scott: Good afternoon Adrienne.
Adrienne: Why do people yell at their kids in exactly the ways they said they wouldn’t?
Scott: Because the way they knew they didn’t want to do it was because they had been subjected to it as kids. And that’s the problem. Because humans learn whatever we’re subjected to. We’re only speaking English right now because that’s what we grew up hearing around us. But if we’d been born in Russia we’d copy our Russian parents and speak Russian. Well, same often goes for how we walk, how we laugh, what we eat. If we grow up and see our Mom phone her friends every time she’s mad at our Dad, the odds increase that when we’re mad at our spouse we’ll think of calling a friend. So we learn stuff like that, and we learn stuff like how to be angry. If you watch people, they’ll generally get mad the same way one of their parents gets mad. But how we express our anger isn’t as important as why we’re expressing it.
Adrienne: Why is the reasoning behind the anger more important than the expression of it?
Scott: Both are lessons in how to behave, but the expression comes after the reasoning. So if we change the reasoning we often won’t feel the need for the expression. If we think of when and why we yell at kids, that’s when we teach them about anger. It’s usually because our perception is that they are misbehaving. We want them back in line. So we yell at them to solve our problem. And that’s the real lesson the kids learn. They think– often subconsciously– ‘Okay, I get it. When you have a problem, you fix it by yelling.’
Adrienne: But it’s not like our yelling fixes very much. If anything it usually makes things worse.
Scott: Yeah, but they’re kids. They don’t know that. And they trust us. We taught them English. Plus we feed them, keep them safe from monsters under the bed. Our track record as adults is pretty good. So they implicitly trust what we do must be how that thing is done. So we all just copy our angry reaction like we copied everything else.
Adrienne: So we all innocently learn how to be angry just like we learn how to say– peel a banana?
Scott: Ya. [Barring disease or other external factors] Our ‘temper’ is just the level of anger our parents taught us to react with. Then, when we grow up and deal with people who learned different responses, we learn to either hate others, or ourselves, for having been taught different reactions. But it’s all innocent. The only reason that society looks the way it does, is because we all keep handing down angry ways of dealing with anger, generation after generation.
Adrienne: Can a parent stop that cycle and find something better? Is there anything better?
Scott: They can, and there is. But we can’t really pull it off as a technique. This is like a new way of seeing how human beings are formed. It takes getting used to when we’re brought up the more traditional way. So since we’re retro-fitting it onto the more angry way we were raised, a parent should really only anticipate being able to do this some of the time. But that’s enough. If we just keep moving the ball forward each generation, we can all learn this approach bit by bit until it becomes part of the fabric of society. So if we grow up as traditional Inuit, or even in some communities in Japan, people often learn this calmer approach to anger as a part of their culture. Just like we learn our much angrier anger.
Adrienne: So it’s possible to have anger that isn’t angry?
Scott: It is if the lessons on anger start way before anyone’s angry. The brain is made of pathways. And we copy. So what matters is what we model. So, for instance, Inuit parents have been studied. There’s a good anthropology book from the 60’s on it, called ‘Never in Anger.’ Traditional Inuit parents will interrupt an otherwise happy day to ask their otherwise happy kids to hit them, or throw things at them, or to say angry things to them. Then, when the child does it, the parent will sort-of comically act out the consequences of the action. The little dramas are lessons on what would otherwise be unseen consequences. They use them kind of the way parents use Santa Claus ‘be-good’ stories to scare kids into better behaviour. And it’s important that the acting-out is funny and engaging. We have to remember, before books and the internet, all learning was done through memorable songs and stories. So the parent will perform the other person’s feelings being hurt, or someone being physically hurt. And they’ll pretend they’re sad and they’ll repeatedly ask why the child doesn’t like them? Or they’ll encourage rational thinking by asking the child why they are doing what they are doing? They’ll wonder aloud why the child is having such a weird and immature reaction? And in that calm state of mind, no kid wants to be seen as childish. And because they’re not really angry, and they love the parent, they want to make the parent feel better. So they learn to switch away from expressing anger. Often to even consoling the person they were supposedly mad at. And that wires their anger into their ideas about understanding and caring, instead of wiring it into just their emotional feeling of anger itself. They’re not taught to see anger as a potential solution. They’re taught to see it as an embarrassing failure to be mature.
Adrienne: So do they feel the kind of emotional anger we do, at all?
Scott: It appears they just use that initial response as the trigger to go use this pre-wired, calmer, consequence-based thinking. It can be remarkable to witness. And from a mindfulness perspective it makes sense. It’s what I would teach adults to do when they’re learning to manage anger. It’s just a lot easier to build healthy wiring as kids, than to re-wire later as adults. Those repeated practice sessions as toddlers, or even with adults, those help establish pathways for thinking about anger in calmer ways, and to develop the pathways for letting go. I suspect most of us would like the idea of being raised like that.
Adrienne: And any parent can do this?
Scott: It’s obviously easier when we were raised that way, so parents have to be kind to themselves. We can’t expect anything close to perfection. But even if we just wire this other version of anger in with the more common version, at least those kids will have both possibilities within them. But the opposite can happen too. Things like Residential Schools taught a lot of kids a more Western version of anger. So now there are Inuit kids who learned our way, rather than us learning theirs.
Adrienne: So the modelling is the key. They’ll do what we do?
Scott: Yes. It’s all about modelling. And of course it’s better to start when kids are really little. I don’t recommend anyone asking their 15 year-old to hit them, or throw rocks at them [laughs]. Then we’re just adding lessons on violence to our bad ones about anger. But all of us can adapt to model this behaviour. At least to some degree. So it’s worth it to learn how to slow our thinking down, and to see our anger unfolding. Whenever we’re able to see our anger for what it truly is, in the same clear-headed way the Inuit kids do, it’s much easier to let it go. It is rarely a solution. And as you pointed out, it often makes things worse. Once people recognize that in a really earnest way, the change starts to happen. So my vote is, as much as possible, we adults should do our best to model positive responses to angry situations. Then we can all take turns teaching it to each other. And, over time, that could make a big difference to the society we live in.
Adrienne: It does seem like society could function a little better with less anger involved.
Scott: We could certainly find better uses for the energy we put into that anger.
Adrienne: Thanks Scott. Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He teaches mindfulness in Edmonton. Find him at relaxandsucceed.com, and Twitter and Facebook.
I’d like to invite you to join Adrienne Pan and I for the Wellness Column on Radio Active, on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), or through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca.
We usually start between 5:15 and 5:20pm, usually every second Tuesday, although that can occasionally move as news events happen. When it does I post notifications of the changes on twitter and facebook.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the top of this post within a week or so of airing.
Many people resolve to raise their kids differently than they were raised. But when we’re angry we’ll often sound like one of our parents. And that makes a kind of sense. And the sense it makes points to the fact that there is a way to teach kids better responses to anger. Today we discuss that response.
If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy their show. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.