Anger Management for Parents, by Plato

OK, that’s it. I’ve declared my son the winner in the ‘Most-loveable-yet-most-insanely-frustrating child’ category.

My son is lovely. He is funny, well-behaved (mostly), incredibly bright, and interested in everything. He loves to read. He’s the kind of kid that puts up his index finger, and then cites facts about anything from ancient Rome to dinosaurs to conditions on Mars. And when he’s in the mood, he’s very good at soccer, making desserts, household chores, and playing the cello. The problem? He refuses to do his homework. Absolutely refuses.   The other day he took a math test in school and got the highest grade in the class. But he still has an ‘F’ in math, because he doesn’t hand in any of his assignments. Yes, he’s that kind of kid. Very bright, and nearly failing in school.

Every weekday, our conversations go something like this:

‘Son, do you have any homework today?’

‘No idea.’

‘What do you mean you have no idea? If you don’t know, how am I supposed to know? You’re the one who goes to school. Do you have any homework in your backpack?’

‘I don’t know. ‘

‘What do you mean you don’t know? Surely if there was homework in your backpack, you would know about it, since you would have been the one who put it there.’

‘Well, I just don’t know.’

‘Now, your teacher says you are missing assignments in math, but that she will accept late work and still count it in your final grade. Which assignments do you need to hand in?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘How are you going to catch up if you don’t ever do your homework? And how are you going to do your homework if you don’t take responsibility and actually bring your homework home?’

‘I don’t know.’

We have had this problem for years now. At first, I didn’t worry about it very much. As the years have gone on, I’ve tried on numerous occasions to intervene and help him establish good work habits. Yet, somehow, he has always managed to sabotage these efforts, usually by simply ignoring me – even when I am right next to him, imploring him to do his duty. A bit like ‘No hard feelings, mom, but I’m not going to do that.’

But now he’s 12, and I’m at my wits end. More and more, the dominant emotion I experience as I face this ongoing situation is … wait for it … anger. I find myself losing my temper on a regular basis in those daily, exhausting, homework battles. And, dare I say it, an angry mommy is not a happy mommy.

Now, obviously this is a development I need to reverse. I don’t want to get angry at my kids, because that makes them suffer. But as I turn to philosophy to help me with the issue of ‘anger management’, the answers there are rather surprising. For both Plato and Aristotle argue that the main person who suffers from something like anger is not the recipient of the anger, but the person who gets angry. Thus, it stands to reason that it is me, rather than my son, who will be the main beneficiary as I learn how to cope with this challenge in a more constructive way.

Plato on Anger, Justice, and Morality       

One of Plato’s lessons in anger management can be found in a passage that, ironically, really doesn’t mention anger at all. His famous Republic opens with a discussion on the concept of justice, both what a just action might be, and what it means to be a just person. The concept of justice in the Republic is perhaps a wider notion than what we might think of as justice today, so this discussion can really be seen as one about what is means to be a moral person. The underlying question here is ‘Why should we be moral?’

One of the characters in the story, Thrasymachus, argues that we only try to be moral because we do not want bad things done to us. We would all take advantage of other people if we could do so without being caught. So, we act in the right way only because we lack the power to get away with doing wrong to others.

Glaucon, another character in the story, tells the fable of the Ring of Gyges, to add more weight to the claim that no one values justice, or morality, in and of itself, and no one would practice it if they didn’t have to. In the fable, Gyges, who was a shepherd for an ancient Greek King, was one day looking after the king’s flocks, when he found a special ring. He discovered that when he put on this ring, he became invisible. He then used this ring to make his way to the king’s court, seduce the Queen, murder the king, and eventually seize the throne.

Glaucon argues that if there were two such rings, and one was given to one an unjust man, and the other to a just man, we would see that there would be no difference between the two men. ‘No one … would have such iron strength of mind as to stand fast in doing right or keep his hands off of other men’s goods, when he could go to the marketplace and fearlessly help himself to anything he wanted, enter houses and sleep with any woman he chose, set prisoners free and kill men at his pleasure, and in a word go about among men with the powers of a god.’ Surely, he concludes, the Ring of Gyges proves that ‘men do right only under compulsion; no individual thinks of it as good for him personally, since he does wrong whenever he finds he has the power.’

This is one of the burning questions of the Republic, then: Why should I be moral? Should I be moral just to ensure that I am protected from the immorality of others? Or is there something more to being moral than the external benefits?

Plato answers the last question with a resounding ‘yes’. He argues that living a morally good life, in itself, benefits the person who is moral. Quite apart from what sort of accolades, reputation, or protection a person may get for ‘doing the right thing’, being moral is the single most valuable thing for a person’s soul. Developing the moral virtues has an ‘intrinsic effect on its possessor’. In other words, being good is good for you.

Being A Good Parent is Good for You

I’ve always thought that sharing the ‘Ring of Gyges’ with my kids would be a great teaching moment about the importance of doing the right thing, for the right reasons. So a few days ago, as we were driving to school, I related the fable and causally asked, ‘So, would you do the right thing if you had one of those rings? Why do you think we should do the right thing?’

My nine-year-old said, ‘Well, you should do the right thing because then other people will like you.’ Hmm, I thought, the message didn’t quite go in. Then my son said, ‘You should do the right thing because you feel good when you do it.’

And then I was struck by my hypocrisy. Why was I trying to get my children to see that doing the right thing was good for your soul, when recently I had been letting myself doing the wrong thing by frequently losing my temper with my son? I was trying to teach them to take care of their own souls, without showing them an example of taking care of my own soul. If anything, I needed this lesson more than they did.

The immoral person, Plato says, is like a diseased person. He has a diseased soul which is ‘out of order’. The human soul is meant to be a certain way, with the passions being subdued by the thinking, reflective part of the soul, rather than letting the passions take control. So ‘anger management’, for Plato, is a study in how to have a healthy soul. More to the point, it’s a study in how to have a happy soul.

Thus, a ‘trying-to-be-good’ mommy is a happy mommy – or, at least a happier mommy. And if that’s true, being good, as a parent, doesn’t only benefit your children. It’s of immeasurable benefit for you, too. So I shall re-dedicate myself the principle of ‘keeping calm, and carrying on.’ It’s the best I can do, for both of us.