“What?” I barked.

“Nice hat.”

It was then that I realized the paper Waffle House hat still sat squarely on top of my head. The entire scene had taken place with a silly hat on top of a silly man who wanted nothing more than to be taken seriously.

Our Biggest Enemy as Parents

Truth be told, I didn’t need the hat to make me look foolish. I had done that myself with my knee-jerk reactivity. In fact, that kind of emotional reaction is our worst enemy when it comes to having great relationships. Let me say that again: Emotional reactivity is our worst enemy when it comes to having great relationships.

If you don’t get anything else from this book, get this: Our biggest struggle as parents is not with the television; it’s not with bad influences; it’s not even with drugs or alcohol. Our biggest struggle as parents is with our own emotional reactivity. That’s why the greatest thing we can do for our kids is learn to focus on us, not them. Instead of anxiously trying to control our kids, let’s concentrate on what we can control—calming our own emotional, knee-jerk reactions.

What’s so damaging about being too reactive? Keep reading. The next couple of chapters will make it clear. For now, consider this: How can we have any influence on our children’s decision-making if we don’t have an influence on our own? When we get reactive, we get regressive. That is, we shrink back to an immature level of functioning.

Think of me at Waffle House. In an effort to get my two-year-old to stop acting so immaturely, I became just as immature. How effective can that be? I’ve come to realize that if I get loud and scary and intimidating, I may get compliance eventually, but at what price? I may have screamed my son into submission at Waffle House, but what type of relationship will I have with him if I continue to parent by reactive intimidation? If we want to be influential, then we have to first bring ourselves under control. Only then can we choose our response.

Only then can we choose how we want to behave, regardless of how our children choose to behave. Think about Jesus. He was constantly being misunderstood. His authority was frequently called into question. He had plenty of people trying to derail him from his mission and goal. But he refused to let them push his buttons. He knew who he was, where he had come from, and what he was going to do. If people wanted to follow him, he encouraged them. If people wanted to walk away, no matter how sad it may have made him, he let them walk away. Because he refused to manipulate or coerce, he maintained the moral authority needed to be the greatest influence the world has ever known.

So if emotional reactivity is our biggest enemy, where does it come from? More important, what can we do about it? Most of us cannot think of a more terrifying emotion than feeling overwhelmed. We can feel scared, exhausted, worried, or angry, but nothing shuts us down, stops us in our tracks, and causes us to throw up our hands in futility like feeling overwhelmed. When we feel incapable of coping with, handling, or accomplishing all we have to do, we are overwhelmed. When it seems as if even if we weren’t so tired and so frustrated we still couldn’t keep all the plates spinning, that’s about as scary as it gets. When we feel stretched beyond our limits, that’s when we just want to quit.

And I can think of no more accurate description of how most of us parents feel far too much of the time. Far too often, we feel overwhelmed. We feel overstretched, overcommitted, underprepared, and underappreciated. That’s a recipe for feeling overwhelmed. As a result, most of us feel a gnawing sense of inadequacy. We don’t just feel like bad parents, we feel like failures.

And unfortunately, our role as parents is the one area of life where we cannot afford to fail. If there is one area where we feel the pressure of absolute success, it is with our parenting.