A McLean mother could no longer hold her temper with her teen-age son. He was locked in his room, talking on the telephone; she wanted the phone and he wouldn't get off. Rebuffed but determined, she put on a pair of thick-soled shoes and, with a fury seldom matched even in a mother scorned, kicked a gaping hole in her startled son's door.
Though her foot didn't hurt, the mother's psyche did. "The first 24 hours I felt quite dreadful," she says, "Mothers aren't supposed to do things like that. Mothers are supposed to be calm, sweet. But frustration builds up."
Trying to keep one's temper when dealing with children is one of the inescapable struggles in being a parent. But often it can be a losing struggle, despite warnings by social scientists that losing one's temper with a child almost always does harm not good - something many parents realize better than anyone, in calmer moments.
The problem is that children, from infants to teenagers, can give a parent a myriad of reasons for blowing up.
Curiosity for example, a desirable ingredient in a small child's development, can lead to all the cupboards being emptied into the middle of the floor, maybe minutes before a dinner party. Curiosity also can lead to a thousand questions, and a worn-down parent likely to lose his temper.
And as the child gets older, a parent is apt to be provoked even more. An 8-year-old pouring ink into the goldfish bowl is a different matter than a 3-year-old doing it; mischief with a motive can be a sure-fire way to set off a parental explosion.
Jacqueline Stallone, Washington native and mother of Sylvester (star of "Rocky") and younger brother Frank, recalls getting mad at her sons "every day."
"I wanted to give them cute rooms," she says, "so I had bunk beds. Maybe I had been watching too many westerns. The kids fought for the top bunk, they had this tremendous fist fight. They fought so hard - they were on top slugging it out - that they fell out. Sylvester broke his arm and the other one broke his shoulder. I had 'em in slings 'til the cows came home."
After school, when the boys would visit the health club she operated in Silver Spring, Sylvester would sneak away and pull the levers on fire alarm boxes.
"Fire engines would come tearing around the corner and down Georgia Avenue. This happened every week. Finally, a neighbor saw him. The cops called me up and said they had my kid in jail. They made me come down and pay for every false alarm for a couple of months.
"Could I have been happy? Mad is an understatement."
Setting off false alarms might well qualify as one of those occasions when, according to a Washington psychiatric social worker, a child's behavior is "exceedingly inappropriate" and just cause for a parent to blow his stack - not only justification but proper emphasis because of "the significance of the violation." But, she adds, losing one's temper should not be "a mode of operating, part of one's daily life."
Carrie Lee Nelson, wife of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson and mother of a son, 24, a 22-year-old daughter, and another son, 16, says she regrets that loss of temper was part of her daily life while raising her first two children. "I might have been a lot patient," she says. "I couldn't have cured all the problems, but I could have helped more."
Instead, she says she "hassled" her oldest child "all the time. He was up all night, in the sack all day. He hated high school. Every day was a chore and a crisis. He was bored stiff. We battled over homework. In my mind, I felt I was alone: 'Oh my God, I'm the only parent with a lazy, dirty boy who I can't move or get to take a bath.' I thought he should like to read like his father, be imaginative. I wanted him to be something he wasn't."
That sort of anger "come from a sense of frustration," says a Washington psychologist, "a feeling that 'a' should happen but 'b' is happening. The difference is the frustration level."
Nelson says she now gets along well with her older son and that her "frustration level" is much lower with her younger one. "I sit back and listen, I make up my mind to listen to whatever he says as if it's the most important thing in the world." Whether it's his nature or her patience, or both, she finds the results different: "You don't have to say, 'C'mon, take a bath." Instead, you have to say, "Stop wasting water.'"
Phyllis Pardee, wife of new Redskin coach Jack Pardee and mother of five, says, "I do have extremely vile temper, sometimes - at times, I'm like a fishmonger." But she has her reasons. Because her husband has played on and coached so many teams, the Pardees have moved no fewer than "30 or 31 times." Relocating is a common modern-day occurence that can weaken a parent's strength to cope.
One day recently she says she lost her temper in the kitchen and fled to her bedroom "for a good cry." And another day she had it out "a wee bit" with her 9-year-old son over his schoolwork until he started to cry. "After that," she says, "I didn't scream any more."
She says she mentioned her behavior to her pediatrician, but that he didn't disapprove. He said that "children need to know where they stand with parents. Be open, honest, and loving. Be yourself."
Mel Krupin says he's always himself. Maitre d' at Duke Zeibert's, Krupin is a large, friendly man, about 225 pounds or so, who nevertheless looks as if he could quell any restaurant disturbance with a mere suggestion to leave. Surprising then, that his children - he has a son about to graduate from law school and a daughter from college - would ever have cause him to lose his temper.
"At times I had to smack them on the behind," he says. "It was my way of showing them I was boss." He adds that one thing he learned from his father, as one of four boys growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, was respect for his mother.
"One time, my son - he was in high school and he was getting ready to leave for Florida - he said something back to his mother - and he went to Florida with a cut lip. I was sorry I hit him, but talking to him about it later he said he knew that I was involved in what my wife said. I showed him I wanted him to respect his mother.I showed him our love because I was interested in him."
Though few social scientists would agree with his method, Krupin says, "My son and I get along as buddies."
Where trouble comes in, according to psychologists, is when parents lose their temper repeatedly, risking a loss of control. "The tendency in the last few years," says one psychologist, "is to look at children's loss of control and not about the fact that parents lose control. From my experience, very, very frequently children who have temper tantrums have a parent who frequently loses control."
It's EXCESSIVE anger that can be dangerous and can lead to child abuse. There are an estimated 300,000 cases of gross maltreatment of children in the United States each year.
Abuse, as opposed to a spanking, occurs when "there is a total loss of control, where there is some physical damage created," says Dr. James, Wise, a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital. "A parent might get out the belt and may be just angry that day and it ends up where he's using the buckle side and in a fit of emotion lets go."
Wise says stress suffered by a parent causes abuse - not only "child-related stress" but also "environmental stress," such as the parent no being able to pay the rent or having a problem with a neighbor. The child is handy for a parent "to take it out on."
Bev, 44, of Washington, talks openly now about abusing one of her children five years ago. She saw her 5-year-old son throw a hairbrush across a room at her infant. She picked up the hairbrush and started beating him around the head.
"I just hit him," she says. "I don't remember how much I hit him." The next day the child's head swelled; she carried him to a hospital and he was placed on the critical list. Today, the boy is healthy, though he still lives in a foster home. The mother operates a hotline for the Washington chapter of Parents Anonymous, a national self-help organization for child-abusing parents, many with stories like her own.
She hadn't wanted the child, hadn't wanted to give up her "very good job." She was raising four children as a single parent. "I had no job. I was facing eviction. No food, light, gas. I felt nobody cared. Everything just exploded."
But in relatively "healthy" family situations, a parent can usually find some way to avoid the inevitable temptation to lose one's temper, possibly something as simple as leaving the room briefly to cool off. Rare is the parent who never loses his temper, though one man swears that his father never did. But he says his father, a shoe factory worker with 12 children, sometimes looked as if he might.
"He was a big, strong man," the son says. "When he came out on the back porch and whistled, everybody came right in. When he sat down for dinner, he expected everybody else to be there, or you didn't eat. Sometimes he'd make like he was taking off his belt, but he never did. It was the way he looked at you. You got the message."