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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Reflections of a Failed Tiger Mother: What is a Good Parent?

A year and a half ago, I sat in a room with the deputy head of my child’s school.  We discussed my child’s academic difficulties, and my frustrations.  ‘Whatever I do, I can’t get my child motivated to work hard in school,’  I said. ‘If I insist that she do her homework – and do it to a high standard – she ignores me until I annoy her so much with my nagging that she throws a huge tantrum.  Then she spends the rest of the evening recovering from the tantrum, instead of doing her homework.   I want her to do well in school and reach her potential, but she thinks I’m pushy and not allowing her space to “be herself”.  But I don’t know how to encourage her without coming across as domineering and bossy.’

Finally I said, ‘I just feel like I have to change my whole personality in order to be a good parent.’

Have you ever felt that there was something about you that simply wasn’t up to the challenges of parenting?  Just what kind of a person do you have to be if you are to be a good parent?

I could give here a whole list of qualities which I think define a good parent.  However, a more philosophical approach to this question is to look at what we think the purpose of parenting might be.  Taking inspiration from Aristotle, we can argue that what we are trying to achieve with our parenting is what dictates the kind of person we need to be in our parenting.

Confessions of a Failed Tiger Mother

In January 2011, Amy Chua published her controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which soon became a bestseller (and she and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, have just published another book, The Triple Package, which looks at why certain groups in society excel more than others).  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother details her struggles to raise her two girls in a way similar to the way she was raised by her Chinese immigrant parents.  Chua’s parents were very strict – they allowed no A minuses, demanded music and math drills every day, forbade their girls to have sleepovers or boyfriends, and so forth.  When Chua tried to follow something like this same pattern with her own children, fierce rebellion ensued, forcing Chua to resort at times to rather extreme methods to get her children to obey.

Chua was roundly criticized for being too harsh and demanding as a mother.  Yet, her methods paid off:  one of her girls now attends Harvard, and the other attends Yale.

If Amy Chua is a tiger mother, then I’m a failed tiger mother.   This means that I set the strict rules, communicated the high expectations, insisted on the good work ethic, and endured the screaming matches, but didn’t achieve the desired outcomes.  Instead of resulting in a stellar candidate for an elite college, these methods seemed to create only anger and defiance in my oldest child.

I’m not saying that these methods are bad; indeed, in general I still try to parent this way (except for the screaming matches).  But I’ve had to change my perspective concerning the outcome I am trying to achieve with these methods.  And because I now see myself trying to achieve a different outcome, I have also come to change my perspective on of the kind of person I need to be to as a parent.

The Drill Sergeant = Good Parent?

When my oldest child was small, she impressed people with her charm, insight, boundless energy, and prodigious conversation skills.  Everyone who knew her was sure she had great academic potential.  Yet, when she started school, she somehow failed kindergarten (?!!).  My husband and I thought this was surely a mistake.  But in the next year, she had difficulties, and then the year after that.  She started to hate going to school, complaining every day that she felt sick so that she wouldn’t have to go.

By this time I was tearing my hair out, looking for anything I could find to help her in school.  She was diagnosed with ADHD, but I was sure she still had great potential.  I just had to unlock it.  I decided the best way to do this was through math and reading drills, and lots of them.  Thus began a ten year journey in which I insisted she do extra work every day so that she could keep up in school.   Music practice was also an important way to develop the brain, so daily practice was required as well.   The problem, of course, was that she didn’t want to do this extra work.  So, the conflict started.

The thing about conflict is that it tends to escalate.   I found myself turning into some kind of hard-nosed drill sergeant in order to get her to do her school work and practicing.  I was intolerant of laziness and unsympathetic to any complaints about how much she hated her work.  I was there to help her achieve.  But the more I stood my ground, the more she pushed back, and eventually our relationship started to suffer.

Now here I was, a miserable drill sergeant with a miserable subordinate, and I started to wonder:  what was the end goal here?  Was it to do well in school?  To what end?  So that she could get into a good college?  Was that the whole of my purpose as a parent?  Of course, I knew that it wasn’t, and yet, I was acting like it was.  As a result, those parts of my personality that I needed to achieve that purpose – things like focus, determination, inflexibility, industriousness, etc – were becoming the dominant ones.  And important as these qualities are, you need more than these to build a family.  I decided I needed to change.

What is the Purpose of a Parent?

As I reflected on the kind of person I wanted to be as parent, I was reminded of a question that Aristotle posed in his book, The Politics.  He asks whether the ‘goodness’ of a good citizen and the ‘goodness’ of a good man are the same thing.  In order to answer this question, he says we first have to define what it means to be a good citizen.  A good citizen, he argues, is one who fulfills his ‘task’, or purpose, which is to preserve the regime in which he lives, by doing his job well within the regime, obeying the laws and etc.  Now, there are different kinds of regimes with different kinds of laws, and some regimes have laws that do not encourage virtuous behavior.  Since a good man is defined as the virtuous man – that is, as the man who understands the moral concept of what is ‘good’ and lives according to it – it is therefore not the case that the good citizen will always be the same as a good man.   The ‘goodness’ of the citizen is defined by his purpose, which may or may not require him to also be a good person.

In the same way, we can ask if the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person.  And I think Aristotle’s insight is useful here:  a ‘good’ parent is defined by his purpose.  The problem is that different people have different views on the purpose of a parent.  And some of those purposes might not, in and of themselves, be moral or virtuous ones.  For instance, if the purpose of a parent is to, say, ensure the child becomes a professional tennis player, then the parent doesn’t necessarily have to be a virtuous person in order to fulfill this purpose.  They do have to be focused, determined, hardworking (to pay for all those tennis lessons!), and so forth, but these qualities by themselves do not make a person bad or good, since they can be used to accomplish bad or good ends.

By Aristotle’s reasoning, then, the goodness of a good parent is the same as the goodness of a good person when the parent sees herself as having a moral purpose.  For me, the point is not just to raise a child to be a concert pianist, or an Olympic diver, or a Harvard graduate.  It is to raise children who want to be good.  It is to raise children who love God, and who understand the difference between right and wrong.  It is to raise children who want to reach out and help others, who have the self-confidence and moral vision to form meaningful relationships, cope with difficulties, and live purposeful lives.  It is to raise children who have the capacity to love.

So, if this is my purpose as a parent, I have to try – sometimes really hard – to be a good person.  I can’t lead my children toward these ends if I’m not trying to reach them myself.  The ‘drill sergeant’ qualities can be useful, but they aren’t sufficient.   And the quality I need most to be a good person, and to help my kids be good, is total, unconditional love.

The Mom versus the Drill Sergeant   

At 6:00am this morning, our house was permeated with a strong smell.  It took me a while to figure it out, and then I realized that it was the smell of some essential oils that are supposed to facilitate mental focus and concentration.  Then I remembered that my oldest child had some very important tests she had to take today.  These are tests which everyone in the state of California has to take in order to graduate from high school.  ‘Everyone says they’re really easy, mom,’ she told me.  ‘But watch me be the first person to fail them.’

My heart went out to her this morning as I realized how worried she must have been to put on all those oils.  And that’s when I realized how far I’ve come as a parent.  A few years ago, I probably would have worried a lot about her test scores.  But today, all I worried about was her.

She’ll come home tonight, and I’ll ask her how her tests went.  If she tells me they went badly, I can say with confidence that I won’t freak out.  I’ll give her a hug, and I’ll tell her how proud I am of her for trying her best.  We’ll sit on her bed and talk about how she can always take it again next year.   I’ll tell her that everything will work out.

My purpose as a parent is much broader and deeper than to ensure my child’s academic success.  It is to raise a good human being.  I can feel myself becoming a better human being as I try to do that.  Really, that’s what being a good parent is all about.