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If I had to name a besetting sin right now it would be impatience, especially with my kids. I don’t think this is a constant problem, but it is recurring. I love my kids dearly and play with them and do special things with them and try to teach them the Bible and discipline them when they disobey. But I can also be impatient. And that’s a sin. I needlessly exasperate them at times. And that’s a sin too.

So I took note of these paragraphs from Bryan Caplan who has written a sometimes-right-on, sometimes-head-scratching, non-Christian, pro-big family book on parenting:

Most parents worry about the dangers of secondhand smoke. But few consider the dangers of secondhand stress. If you make yourself miserable to do a special favor for your child, he might enjoy it. But if he senses your negative feelings, he might come to share them.

Secondhand stress is one of kids’ leading grievances. In the Ask the Children survey, researched Ellen Galinsky interviewed over 1,000 kids in grades three to twelve and asked parents to guess how kids would respond. One key question: “If you were granted one wish to change the way your mother’s/father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?” Kids answers were striking. They rarely wished for extra face time with their parents. They were much more likely to wish their parents would be less tired and stressed. The parents were simply out of touch. Virtually no one guessed that kids would use their one wish to give their parents a better attitude.

Galinsky also asked kids to grade their parents’ performance on a dozen dimensions. Overall, parents did pretty well. Moms had an overall GPA of 3.14, versus 2.98 for dads. A majority of moms and dads got As for “appreciating me for who I am,” “making me feel important and loved,” and “being able to attend important events in my life.” Anger management was parents’ Achilles’ heel. More than 40 percent of kids gave their moms and dads a C, D, or F for “controlling his/her temper when I do something that makes him/her angry”—the very worst marks on their report card. (Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun, 32-33)

I’m never quite sure how much stock to put in studies like this, but Galinsky’s study certainly rings true. As parents we love our kids to the moon. We love to plan special events and give them special treats. We never want to miss a soccer game or recital. Way to go us! But we are easily frustrated and prone to anger. The basic point of Caplan’s book is that parents make parenting too hard by trying to do too much, getting too worked up about little things, and thinking they have almost sovereign control over their children’s future. I certainly don’t agree with all his suggestions and findings, but Caplan is right about this: it would be better for us and for our kids if we made fewer outings, g0t involved in fewer activities, took more breaks away from the kids, did whatever we could to get more help around the house, and make parental sanity a higher priority.

Beware the secondhand stress. If mommy (or daddy) ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Or as God put it, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27).

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22 thoughts on “Children and Secondhand Stress”

  1. Bryan Boersma says:

    You’ve spoken into my world. Now a dad of three wonderful children, I find my days nothing less than constant activity, constant demand, and constant stress-management. There are moments I have needed to apologize to my kids (and to my wife) for my impatience and expressed-anger. It’s frustrating for me to think that my whole “being” can erupt into a moment of unbridled anger, which I know I’ll regret later on. (To be clear… I have never even come close to abusing my children; these moments of expressed anger and emotion are few and far between. But they’re certainly a “lurking” sin residing within me.)

    One definition of “anger” once suggested to me that seemed to make a lot of sense is this: anger is the result of unmet expectations accompanied by fear. In some ways that’s true for me when I become impatient, angry, and frustrated with any or all of my three kids. I expect them to behave one way, and they don’t. I “fear” or am worried that if I don’t enforce some corrective and/or demonstrate my disapproval that they will continue on the path of misbehavior. I also live with the constant fear that I am failing or will fail as a father. Add to this the other stresses and demands in my life, and it can boil over as anger.

    I’ll join you in this prayer of confession, naming this “besetting” sin of impatience and anger in my life too. Thanks for being honest. Blessings as you work to navigate life’s pressures, demands, expectations, many involvements, and great joys that come with raising children.

  2. Bob Wiegers says:

    “I never knew I was such an angry person until I had a house full of little kids.” This is what I find myself saying to friends who ask how we’re doing. Perhaps it was the lack of stress before we had 4 kids in 6 years (and recently moved across the country) that I never realized the selfishness and anger lurking within me.

    But now I am called to die to myself every day, in very practical ways. And I’m not good at it. I’d rather be angry and pout.

    But once recently while doing the dishes and grumbling, an inaudible voice told me: “you said you want to be a servant, right?”

    After all, if anyone wants the be first, he must be very last, and a servant of all. May the Lord grant us forgiveness, and faith to trust Him and walk in His way as servants.

    And skipping endless sports and activities helps too :-)

  3. Jeffrey Brannen says:

    I find I must mentally and spiritually prepare to go home from work. If I finish up, get in the car and go home without any preparation, I tend to sit on the couch and sigh about my exhaustion. If, on the other hand, I prepare myself well, I can come home, play with the kids, talk with my wife, and enjoy my evening with them.

    Also, I discovered that if I don’t open my computer until the kids go to bed, I’m much less likely to get upset when they want me to play with them or read them a story.

    One bad habit I allowed myself to get into for a long while was that work lasted from 7-4 and that I needed time for myself when I got home. However, when I began to view my responsibilities with my family as being more important than work, I was able to frame my time with them much better.

  4. Dane says:

    This is very helpful to me, Kevin. Thanks.

  5. Erin M. says:

    Speaks to me these days too.

  6. Jeremy Oliver says:

    As an up and coming parent (with my wife’s due date in 3 weeks), I was recently struck by the testimony of a couple in our church in dealing with their children. They have on child in particular that has really been stubborn. Yet they constantly look to the relationship of God the Father with them, recognizing the grace that he has shown them, even when they do mess up. They also used corrective discipline as an opportunity to bring their child into the big picture – showing their children that even though they may have to discipline them, it doesn’t mean mom or dad loves them any less but in fact loves them more.

    But the most striking fact of this couple is when they do sin by getting angry with their children, seeking their children’s forgiveness and the grace their children have shown them…this has gone a long way in their children respecting their discipline even more and given opportunity to teach their children about who God is.

  7. SonFollowers says:

    Good stuff. I’ll definitely be sharing this. Thanks, Kevin.

    Words for the Argumentative Christian

  8. Ryan Fishel says:

    Thanks, Kevin, for some good practical measures to help alleviate some stressful situations. I’ve also found that getting to the heart of my impatience though, is a call to be like Christ in His long-suffering (I Tim. 1.16). Jonathan Edwards in his fantastic essays on 1 Corinthians 13 (Charity & Its Fruits) really opened up for me that “love suffers long.”

  9. Kids really do take on the attitudes and personalities of their parents, and a lot of parents reprimand their children for acting like them. Worse yet when a parent wrongs a child, they sometimes harden their hearts and claim that the child should always view them in the right as an excuse for not apologizing. Of all the attitudes we have throughout the week, isn’t humility the one we want to pass on to them? How will they learn gentleness, forgiveness, and humility if they never see them demonstrated?

    (I’m not advocating no-discipline)

  10. Allow me to chime in as a pastor/parent who planted a Church and a family together. We started with 7 people in the Church and one child but in a relatively short time grew to several hundred in Church and four children. Now our children (19, 23, 25, 26) are grown and gone (well, the 19 year old still has residency when his college isn’t providing it). The Church added several hundred more and numerous staff.

    When we raised our children, the technology available was minimal. I am sure this helped to keep the distractions and stress down a little. But we had four competitive, athletic (two division basketball players) and energetic kids! We also worked on a low budget for a number of years of Church planting. I remember very well reaching a conclusion: Either I will resist and resent the life defining realities of raising our children or I will set aside some personal interests and goals to be devoted to this high calling.

    Gratefully (by God’s grace), I chose to invest myself wholeheartedly and joyfully into the lives of our children. Today they are a fine group of young adults with two married! Those who are in the area have chosen to continue to attend our Church. I am both grateful to God and more than willing to credit their mom for most of their good qualities.

    Early on in ministry, I had to work through quite a number of extra invitations. For example, each year I was invited to speak at a number of conferences. I had three criteria for accepting speaking engagements. My first consideration was whether I could include my family in a way that they would enjoy. They have great memories from most of the conference centers on the east coast. Secondly, I always prioritized ministry to those who minister (pastors and missionaries). Finally I would only speak on themes I had already prepared for in our Church. During those years, I was also invited to write a monthly column for our Sunday News and produce daily radio for a contemporary station. Once again, I would only use things I had prepared. Simplify and prioritize became my theme!

    My suspicion is that you (Kevin) have to sort through numerous opportunities. If anything took away from my genuine (non-stressed out) availability to my wife and children (no matter how great it seemed) I learned to say no. Now, I am looking back with joy as I watch our children build their lives. I also have more time than ever before. Ah, but I am warned that grandchildren are next.

    If you have never read Tripp’s book on parenting teens (Age of Opportunity) read it well before your kids are teens. The book is mainly about parental posture being what it should be for parenting our children. It’s worth the section on “Five Idols” parents must deal with. I wrote an overview of that portion here:

  11. Jeri Tanner says:

    “The basic point of Caplan’s book is that parents make parenting too hard by trying to do too much, getting too worked up about little things, and thinking they have almost sovereign control over their children’s future. I certainly don’t agree with all his suggestions and findings, but Caplan is right about this: it would be better for us and for our kids if we made fewer outings, g0t involved in fewer activities, took more breaks away from the kids, did whatever we could to get more help around the house, and make parental sanity a higher priority.” A thousand thanks for this quote! :)

  12. Austin says:

    I very much enjoyed this article, thanks for your blog!

    I am the father of two awesome kids, a boy and a girl, both under 3 years old. Thoughout my life I’ve battled impatience and anger but as I’ve aged I’ve seen the ill effects of those emotions. I don’t want my children to be that way but occasionally I see it when they get frustrated or tired. They probably learned it from my behavior and I hate that. Good thing it is still early in the game and I can try to be a better example in the future.

    Realizing that when I “try” to change my behavior I rarely succeed, I am now trying to submit my will and expectations to God (even more than usual). It’s not easy, I get distracted by the world and my pride. But only He can change me and only if I let Him.

    It’s amazing how much you learn about your relationship with God when you have children.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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