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.

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Talking to Your Kids About Money (and Life) – the Stoic Way

One morning recently, I went in to wake my 13 year old daughter for school.  She slowly sat up and said ‘I had the worst dream!  I dreamed that we didn’t have enough money to pay our mortgage, so we had to move in with Grandma and Grandpa.  Only, their house in my dream wasn’t as it is in real life; it was all run down and horrible.’

This daughter has always been very aware of money and possessions, even when she was little.  One could argue that it is good that she worry about money; it shows that she doesn’t take money for granted, and understands its value.

However, consider this:  a few months ago, we were talking as a family about two teenage sisters we knew who had lost their mother to a terminal illness.  We were expressing sadness at the tragedy that had happened to this family.  Then my daughter said ‘Well, at least they’re rich.’ 

‘What?!’  I cried.  ‘What does that have to do with it?  Having money can’t replace their mother!’

‘Yea, I know they’re miserable,’ she said.  ‘But I’m just saying that it’s better to be miserable and rich than miserable and poor.’

What’s that line from Apollo 13?  ‘Houston, we have a problem.’

Materialism and Happiness

In my opinion, my daughter’s comments show an unhealthy attitude toward money.  On the surface, this attitude is characterized, among other things, by a fear of a ‘reversal of fortune’ – which is natural, and understandable. Yet, this fear seems to be based upon a deeper belief that financial status and material possessions (such as the kind of house one has) are an essential part of one’s happiness, or even one’s self-worth.

If I have diagnosed her attitude correctly, then one thing I can say in her defense is that she is certainly not alone.  The belief that the money we earn and what we own gives us happiness and value as human beings not only pervades our western culture – it seems to define it.  We do have opinion makers telling us from time to time that we have too much ‘stuff’.  Yet, that doesn’t stop us from centering our lives around acquiring more.

But beyond that, we live in a society where we honor, and even reverence people based on wealth.  People are paid in our economy based on what the market deems to be the worth of their job to society.  So, your ‘value’ is, quite literally, tied to your salary.  The banker and the lawyer are somehow much more important to society than the teacher – or indeed, the parent (who gets paid nothing as a parent).

The association of money with esteem and happiness is not some abstract philosophy that seems remote from the here and now; on the contrary – speaking for my own family at least – it affects us deeply.  It seeps into our daily lives and colors my children’s judgments of ourselves and others. 

For instance, recently my husband and I bought our first home.  We loved it the moment we saw it, and our children loved it as well.  We were grateful and happy.  Then, some new friends invited us to their house – which was much bigger.  All of a sudden, our house was no longer an object of adoration.  Indeed, our children now felt somewhat ashamed of our house, and ashamed of us as parents that we could not afford something bigger and better.  The family with the bigger house was ‘good’, and we were not as good.

Stoicism:  the Antidote to Materialism, and to Modern Life 

If you have suffered similar condemnations by your children, the good news is that philosophy can offer some real help is countering this materialism.  In particular, the ancient philosophy of Stoicism gives a comforting perspective on the proper place of money and possessions in our lives. 

Stoicism, however, isn’t just a philosophy about money.  Really, it’s a philosophy about happiness.

The Stoics taught that happiness cannot be found in ‘external’ things.  External things include wealth and possessions, but also things like health, reputation, fame, position in life, etc.  These things are all changeable, but beyond that, they are not entirely within our control.  And for the Stoics, happiness is achieved only when we focus on things that are within our control. 

As it turns out, the things we can control are quite few in number. According to the philosopher Epictetus, these things are our perspective on life, our opinions, our desires, and our actions.  These are things that are ‘free’ for us, precisely because we have control over them.  However, external things not ‘free’ for us, and if we try to pursue them as if we have total control over them, then we will be frustrated, depressed, and we will blame other people for what happens to us.

Because our thoughts and our actions are the only things we can really control, it is in these things that moral value is found.  We are not ‘good’ if we are rich or famous or well-liked or experience pleasure.  We are good when we control our passions and our actions according to reason – in other words, when we think, say and do the right thing.

For the Stoics, as for Aristotle, reason is what characterizes human beings as distinct from other living things.  The Stoics, however, stressed that reason is the ‘divine’ element in man: that is what we have in common with the gods – not our possessions.  Therefore, the aim in life is to follow reason ‘seriously, vigorously, calmly’, without being distracted by things of a lesser value.  The stoic Marcus Aurelius taught that if we do nothing ‘contrary to justice’, and if we express ‘heroic truth in every word and sound’ which we utter, then we will be happy.

Thus, since happiness lies in being good and doing good, our lives should be simple, rather than characterized by a pursuit of the unnecessary, which makes us stressed.

The Stoics had a humble realism at the core of their philosophy.  Along with arguing that there are very few things within our control, they also argued that we should accept all things that happen to us willingly and peacefully.  Human life is short, everyone’s corner of the world is small, and human things are ‘ephemeral and worthless’.  Yet, as rational beings, we are not worthless.  Our thoughts and actions matter.  So, we must embrace what comes, and live our lives each day to the best of our ability.

Stoicism and Parenting

Stoicism seems to me to be an imminently workable philosophy for family life.  People are important and our actions are important.  What we have, what positions we achieve in school or work, and what happens to us, are less important.  Our crazy schedules, material insecurities, and insatiable desires can be tempered, or even jettisoned, with this perspective. However, once again, you will be a countercultural parent if you can achieve and live by this perspective.

Ironically, as I write this post from where we live in San Diego, fires are burning all over San Diego county.  School has been cancelled (California’s version of a ‘snow day’), and evacuation from our home is enough of a possibility that we are packing our bags, just in case.  My children are unsettled and nervous, despite my reassurances.  ‘What if our house burns down?’  ‘What about my stuff?’

Admittedly, worrying about the disaster of having one’s house burn down cannot be compared fairly to the vice of materialism. I understand their fears.  But this does seem to be an opportunity to teach that whatever happens – whatever we lose – we still have what matters.  We have our faith, our hope and our love.  We have our capacity to be good, and to do good.  That’s enough for true happiness.

Children, Happiness, and Screen-Time

     As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do?  Maybe you are trying to raise your child to be really good at school.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on an instrument.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded.  Whatever goals you may have for your child, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind:  we want to raise our children to be happy.

     Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that everything we do in life aims at some purpose, which for him is synonymous with some ‘good’ or ‘end’.  Some of our actions are meant to accomplish smaller or lower ends; for instance, I do the laundry because I want my children to wear clean clothes.  However, all of the lower ends we aim to accomplish are done for the sake of something higher, until we come to the highest end in life, the ‘chief good’, which is the thing that we aim at above everything else – the thing that we want ‘for its own sake.’  And that chief good for man, according to Aristotle, is happiness.   

     However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal.  That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness.  For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy.  No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.

Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children

     So often my children seem unhappy.  Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household:  restricting ‘screen-time’.

     Perhaps like many other parents, have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’.  I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone,  ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing. 

     First, there is the addiction issue.  I have teenagers who live to socialize.  If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours.  But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’.  Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media.  There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music.  And I don’t think they are the only ones.  If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be well and truly addicted to their screens.

     Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue.  With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location.  So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation.  With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing.  The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and at times my children need some convincing that there is a difference between the two.

     There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here – for instance, the addictive nature of computer games, especially for boys, and the ever-present danger of pornography – but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t.  No screen during homework.  No screen during music practice.  No screen during family mealtimes.  No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.

     The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive.  The true extent of their resentment was revealed to me when one of them compared taking away her screen to the performance of female circumcision.  The other one said, ‘My friend would have committed suicide by now with these rules.’  Apparently we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal – and, according to them, completely unthinkable to anyone else – practice of screen extraction.      

Aristotle’s Happiness:  Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses

     Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night!  There have been times when self-doubt has crept in.  Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions?  Am I fighting the right battle?  Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?    

    I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now.  This is not to say that I think we should ignore our children’s immediate concerns and feelings; only to say that Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.

     In the last entry I talked about Aristotle’s idea of the human good, which is that man reaches the good for him as a human being when he lives his life according to reason.  As may be clear by now, the human good and happiness, for Aristotle, are closely linked:  those who achieve the human good are those who are happy.

     Yet, there is more to Aristotle’s concept of happiness.  Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well.  It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not.  Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character.  So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process.  It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.

     We have already established that to act according to reason means to use one’s practical reason to control the impulses, desires and emotions that we have as part of our human nature, so that we feel them and act on them in the right way.  Along this same line of thought, Aristotle thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal.  Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child.  It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.

How to Help Children Be Happy 

     Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end?   To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals.  Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually giving them your full attention and talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.  

   Following these impulses may make your child feel as though he is happy, and all of his friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses.  Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world.  Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction to the enforcement of your restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness.  Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.