Getting Angry is a Waste of Time

Of all the wonderful philosophies and words of wisdom and encouragement that Dr Suzuki had for parents, this has to be the easiest to remember but the hardest to practise consistently:

"Getting angry is a waste of time."

Comprising seven simple words, the phrase is so ingeniously succinct and easy to recollect - even when your blood is boiling and angry words ready to launch from your mouth. And yet... Easy to think. Easy to say. HARD TO DO.

The only way to overcome a hard task is to put it into practice. We try, we fail, we try again. We make headway, we lapse, we aim to do better. Until our capacity to handle the task grows larger than the task itself. For isn't this how we guide and encourage our children?

I raised my voice (okay okay, I might have yelled) at my eldest daughter last week in the middle of a practice session. I berated her for letting her frustrated emotions and scowling expressions get the better of her mind and body. How did she expect her playing to sound like a light-footed dance if she was sawing on the strings like an angry lumberjack, I asked her. The cello is an inanimate object so the only reason that it was bitterly spitting out notes had to be because she was channeling her anger into it, I pointed out.

Letting that rip only went to prove that I wasn't doing better at exactly what I was picking on a 9 year-old for. With the damage done, there was only one thing to do: Repair. I exhaled. Asked her to exhale. And said, "Okay. Let's both calm down, relax and try this again."

We tell our children that their choices have consequences. If our child chooses to bring a poor attitude to the lesson or to be in a bitter mood while practising, then they are not going to find the session fun. Likewise, our choices as parents also have consequences. If I choose to lose my temper during a practice session, it would ruin the experience for both parent and child. How can I expect my child to bring a positive attitude to our next practice session, even if I offer to play a fun practice game, when I have clearly demonstrated that this parent could blow up at her anytime for doing exactly what she was being asked to do: to practise together?

Even if we all agree that getting angry is a waste of time, when our fuse is lit, what can we do to stop ourselves from exploding (or imploding)?

First, live your intention not to get angry. Really live it - accept and become your intention not to let your anger overcome you. This alone requires a shift in state, for example, in accepting that you don't have to prove that you are right - at least not right now. (I'm sure we'll find another teachable moment later in the day to lecture about it anyway because it's just in us parents to do so.)

Second, listen. Keeping quiet and focusing on something other than your own angry thoughts will make you forget about the hurtful words hanging precariously from the tip of your tongue and ready to jump from your mouth.

Just today, when the same child was again wearing scowls upon her face and huffily hammering out mistake-ridden repetitions, I turned my attention away from her display of emotions (quite literally) and just listened to her play. I located a slower tempo marking on the metronome that when she played at, she was able to hit those challenging high notes accurately. I told her, "Follow my tempo (on the piano) at 60 beats per minute. Playing more slowly will give you time to position your fingers correctly in preparation for the high notes before you play them." With each successful repetition, our moods lightened and the tide turned - stopping our practice session from going further downhill.

Slowing down the section at hand has the multiple benefits of regulating everyone's heart rates and hence calming both minds and emotions; giving the child's mind and body time to think and act in order to play correctly; and putting the parent in a more suitable frame of mind to give praise. It's just really hard to say something like "I LIKE YOUR BEAUTIFUL TONE!!!!" in a yelling voice.

Third, take the instrument out of the equation. In the equation "Child + ? = Angry", it is often not the instrument that the child is upset with. It is simply an object that the child is taking out his frustrations on. I really like this advice from Christy Hodder, a Suzuki teacher in Canada:

"Whenever you’re having a problem, no matter what the problem is, take the instrument away… take it out of the situation.

Look at your child, in your mind, and ask, ‘What’s really the problem?’ Because it’s never about the instrument. It’s about what they’re thinking; how they’re feeling. It’s too big; it’s too hard. They want to be doing something else. It’s not inspiring to them. They want to fight with you and it doesn’t matter what it’s about.

Imagine the instrument gone and really look at the situation. Determine what’s really happening between your child and you.” - Christy Hodder

Noticing that our eldest remained snappish after she had moved on from music practice to other activities, my husband enquired if there was anything bothering her. She denied that there was, sighed about the Lunar New Year school holidays ending, then promptly denied that it was a case of the holiday blues. Nonetheless, I think that simple display of care and concern must have shifted something inside of her, for she returned to her usual cheerful self soon after.

Just tonight, a post by parent coach Leia Schott popped up on my Instagram feed: "We repeat what we need to repair, regulate or rehearse." Just as our children do repetitions to overcome mistakes and get them "out of their system", perhaps they are at the same time practising regulating their emotions and rehearsing bringing a good attitude to learning. These scowling faces, rough sawing with the bow and banging on the keys are the lapses and the "mistakes" that appear when the task at hand feels too big and impossible for these little people. They tried. They failed. As their parent, we are in a position to help them to aim to be better and to try again. Again and again. Until their capacity to self-regulate an emotion becomes larger than the emotion itself. And we can't do that if we get angry.

"Getting angry is a waste of time" is more than just a phrase that we know. It is an intention. Living a life of intention takes courage. So let's put ourselves out there and be brave.

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