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Don't Be An Angry Parent: Listen to Your Head, Not Your Gut

Posted by Dale Sadler

There I was; driving home after spending a wonderful afternoon at the Nashville flea market with my family. I’d purchased a 1949 Mercury Hot Wheels car to add to my collection, Malita picked out some beautiful bows for daughter Campbell, and Mason got some new unopened Batmobile cars to decorate his Batman room. I don’t know who was more excited, Mason or me.

You see, I’m a big collector and pretty meticulous when it comes to keeping things in their packaging. It’s called MIB on Ebay, “Mint In Box.” I don’t think I’ll be paying college tuition on the items’ appreciation; I just like how it looks.

Mason was a little disappointed when I told him he couldn’t open the three different Batmobiles. “They’re for your room,” I told him. “Who cares?” is what he thought. Thankfully, at one of the booths, some unpackaged Batmobiles caught my eye. They were exactly like the ones I’d purchased. Perfect. I bestowed the three loose gems to my son, proud that I could make him happy and still keep my latest acquisitions intact. After sampling some bar-b-q sauce, perusing odd antiques, and smelling candles that looked like pies, we left.

I did buy Mason one other toy. It was from the Disney movie Cars. He opened it in the back seat and began playing with it along with his new Dark Knight cars. After a while, Malita asked, “Dale, was he supposed to open that one?”

“Which one!!?” I nervously said. My heart sank as I saw him remove one of the Batmobiles from its plastic casing. “That’s OK,” I said, working to suppress my disappointment because it was the coolest of the cars; a Hot Wheels exclusive. Why am I the only one who is upset?

But I was also irritated that he didn’t do what I asked. This is basic parenting real estate that must be maintained no matter what the circumstances. Otherwise, your authority is undermined. What should I do when we get home? My mind began contemplating a creative and effective punishment.

Imagine this in other scenarios. Your child is using your make-up on the dog. She’s playing tag in her good shorts. He’s using your nicest shoe as a hammer. You are infuriated. You see it happening and that’s all you need:  “FEEL MY WRATH, CHILD!!”

The evidence was there for me to pass judgment on Mason. I heard the packaging rattle. I saw him remove the car from the plastic. Malita asked him why he opened it, and he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Wait. What did he just say?

After we arrived home, I looked in the back hatch of the car and there they were. The Batmobiles were untouched. Mason had removed his Disney toy and in its place put one of the loose Batmobiles. It only seemed like he was being a malicious tyrant bent on destroying my precious collectible.

But what about the other scenarios? Isn’t it possible that your daughter is using some old make-up you gave her? Isn’t it possible that her good shorts are the same color as her play ones? Isn’t it possible that the red high heel you see is actually one he found in the garage? What if I’d scolded Mason severely? It would be at the least, confusing and at the most, devastating to my relationship with him. My anger would have been unjustified and he would have been perfectly right to be upset with me. The damage would have been done and if I made this behavior a habit, trust would definitely be an issue between us.

When making parental decisions, we must be sure of what we’re doing.

In his book The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain, Daniel Gardner explains how our feelings, which he describes as “gut,” make judgments for us much more often than our brain or “head.” We see something and draw a quick conclusion based on its snapshot. Head rarely steps in to correct it and we are sure we are right, when in fact, we are not. My gut said that without a doubt, Mason opened the toy, but it was wrong.

Studies have shown just how far this can go. Earthquakes occur as pressure in the earth’s surface builds. So, one would think that as time passes, earthquake insurance sales would go up; quite the contrary. Insurance is purchased most immediately after an earthquake. This makes sense, but it doesn’t make sense to “head” that earthquake insurance sales go down as time passes. The purchase of this protection is almost entirely a “gut” reaction to a terrible event. Why doesn’t head intervene? Why does the protection lapse? The last earthquake is long past and thus out of our thoughts.

My gut said Mason opened the car and disobeyed me, but my head said something entirely different based on the conclusions my brain could draw. I knew I’d told him not to open it, he always does what I ask, and I remember (vaguely) placing the car out of his reach. As parents, we must use our heads in all aspects of our parenting. Gut reactions are good for survival, but sometimes they can be very detrimental to parenting our kids.


About Dale Sadler

Dale Sadler is the author of 28 Days to A Better Marriage and How to Argue with Your Teen & Win. By day he works with middle schoolers and by night he is a family counselor specializing in marriage, parenting and men's issues. He works hard to be the husband and father his family needs. Follow him @DaleSadlerLPC or visit

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