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.

To Edit, or Not to Edit, Your Child’s Playlist: That is the Question

I spend a lot of time, it seems, in the car with my children. My teenagers especially get lots of car time. I try to use this time well – you know, talking about the meaning of life, encouraging them to talk about their experiences and feelings, exhorting them to goodness, and so forth. But after about 3 minutes of parent/child quality time, inevitably one of the teenagers turns on the radio.

Then we are treated to what is apparently some of the very best music that contemporary Western culture has to offer. And there is no getting away from it, since every station plays the same stuff. So inspirational is this art form of pop music that I break out into a kind of sullen monologue every time I hear it. The monologue varies slightly from day to day, but runs pretty much like this:

‘This song is about getting high. Change it please. OK, now in this song we have a bunch of young women shouting at us “I don’t care, I love it, I love it” over and over again. What kind of a song is that? Let’s change it. What? Here’s another young woman shouting in a different song that she really doesn’t care. This is all really rather mindless. I’ll change it, shall it? Ahh, more shouty music on this station, with no discernable tune. Someone is shouting something like “turn down for what”. Can’t even listen to it – neither the words or the music make any sense. You know what? Let’s just turn it off. Did you know that was an option?’

OK – I’ll admit it: I have high standards when it comes to music. My opinion is that classical music, opera and musical theatre are superior art forms to pop and rock music. But you don’t have to share that opinion – as indeed my husband does not – in order to appreciate that pop music seems to be more or less the only form of music which our society makes accessible to children. The teenage culture filters down to the younger ones, and basically as soon as a child starts watching TV, movies and playing computer games, pop music becomes a huge part of their lives. Pop music is played routinely in stores, theme parks, swimming pools, and at school assemblies and community events. TV shows like The X-Factor or Teen Idol of course exalt the pop music culture further, spreading the myth among the rising generation that being a pop star is the apex of musical achievement.

There are a few problems with this ubiquitousness of pop music. One is that it is really very confining. We think we have lots of choices in our ‘free market’, but the truth is that we are confined by what is on offer. And we start to think that what is on offer is all there is, unless we are educated otherwise.

For instance, a few years ago, I went to a talent show at my children’s elementary school. With the exception of two or three performances out of about twenty-five, the talent on offer consisted of one child after another ‘singing’ current pop music to a pre-recorded track.

I don’t blame the children, and I don’t even blame the parents. It’s just a reflection of the utter lack of musical education in huge parts of our society. It’s also a reflection of the way the market thrusts its own kind of education upon us – and more to the point, our children – if we aren’t discriminating consumers.

This leads to the second problem regarding the ubiquitousness of pop music. It seems to suggest the idea that we don’t need to be discriminating consumers. Pop music is fun, it is catchy. Above all, it is entertainment. And what’s wrong with entertainment?

Actually, the idea that music is purely for entertainment is a modern idea. Ancient thinkers had a much different conception of music, where they understood it to have a significant impact on human beings, and therefore, upon their communities. The philosopher Plato gives us a provocative discussion of the influence of music in his Republic, a work which discusses the conditions necessary for the ideal state.

Plato argues that the ideal state needs to be governed by guardians, a class of people who would be bred and selected for their tendency for unselfishness and a love of wisdom, as opposed to a love of power. These guardians must be carefully educated from their birth, and exposed only to art forms which would encourage them to temperance, bravery, wisdom, piety, virtue and so forth.

Music, Plato argues, is ‘more potent’ than other types of art, ‘because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten’. Therefore, the guardians must not be allowed to listen to certain kinds of music:   harmonies which encourage ‘drunkenness and softness and indolence’, and rhythms which encourage ‘meanness, insolence and fury’. Plato goes so far as to list the specific harmonies and cords which should be banished from the state, and then argues that instruments should be made in such a way that those harmonies could not be played. On the flip side, the guardians should listen to the harmonies and rhythms which inspire them to courageous acts in battle, pious moments, self-control, moderation and wisdom.

To modern ears, Plato’s views on music seem completely alien. But, in a way, that’s what makes him so important. Now, of couse, Plato has some rather draconian and totalitarian recommendations, and his total disregard for freedom of expression – outlawing certain harmonies, for instance – offends our modern sensibilities. But he is motivated by a truth that as a society we have lost: the truth that music has a serious effect upon our minds, and our emotions. In short, it affects our souls, if you believe, as I do, that there is such a thing as the soul.

One could argue that in our modern world we do still have a conception of art, and especially music, as a serious communication of important ideas. But I would argue that while this is true, we moderns are also unwilling to acknowledge that art can have a significant negative affect upon us, to the point that we should avoid it.

For instance, if I stop my children from being exposed to certain types of music, by say, turning off the radio or editing my teenager’s play list, then I am a controlling parent. (And indeed, I certainly felt like a controlling parent when my 12 year old stomped, screamed and slammed multiple doors when my husband and I deleted Katie Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ from her playlist).

Even worse, I am working against the noble ideals of free speech and freedom of expression. I may not like it, but I shouldn’t stop it, even in my own home. So our children listen to the music of pop culture, unchecked. The vast majority of teenagers, and even pre-teens, are plugged constantly into their playlists, receiving a steady stream of music that is either mindless and trivial, or centered around themes of sex, drugs, alcohol, defiance, unhealthy relationships, and anger.

Our liberal world demands that we hold up freedom as the highest value. Yet, in order to do this, we often have to convince ourselves that nothing resulting from our culture of free expression affects us, or our children – not very much, anyway – and that we can handle anything.

In my view, free expression is a necessary, noble thing. But, as parents, we have to understand that this freedom must be tempered by a different kind of freedom: the freedom that comes from understanding our human condition. As human beings we are affected profoundly by our culture and our environment. The messages from what we see and what we hear have a huge influence on how we live our lives. Even though we live in a free society, our culture can be almost oppressive at times in its ubiquitousness.  Yet, we always have the choice to ask our children extricate themselves from their headphones, or turn off the TV, and look together for alternatives to what our narrow, overly-commercialized, spiritually deficient, pop culture has to offer our children.

This is what I would suggest.  Because believe it or not, your children will thank you one day for showing them a different way.  I’m off to put Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven on my teenager’s playlist.  (Good luck with that).

Leading Our Children Away From Celebrity Culture

Is anyone else tired of hearing about Miley Cyrus?  Or Justin Bieber, Selina Gomez, Lindsay Lohan, or any other teenage – or not-so-teenage – celebrities?  Their dysfunctional relationships, audacious behavior, drug abuse, sex lives, partying, etc. is paraded constantly before our eyes.  We live in a strange world where emotionally unhealthy people with very little self-control or sense of purpose are held up as icons to be worshipped. Their bad behavior is portrayed by the media as disgusting and tragic, perhaps, but also as exciting and glamorous. So, we keep admiring them, no matter how they act.

The longer I am a parent, the less I understand our fascination with celebrities.  Being a parent, I think, opens your eyes to what is really important in life – things like unconditional love, selflessness and stability.  Yet, the celebrity culture seems to turn everything on its head:  what is essential for a happy life is not valued, while the less important things – such as wealth, fame and beauty – are touted as the only way to happiness.

Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote in the Guardian that we need celebrities because we have a natural tendency to admire people who seem glamorous and successful.  We should ‘anoint’ good celebrities, he argued, so that we can channel our admiration appropriately.

I disagree.  In fact, I think it’s a dangerous idea, because celebrity culture is based upon myths about what it means to live a meaningful human life.  For instance, celebrities are portrayed as skinny – but with big breasts – unbelievably beautiful or handsome, wealthy and famous.  The message we get is that, because of these things, they are therefore of more value than us. And they have more fun, better sex, and more meaningful relationships.  Indeed, the wisdom from celebrity land is that beauty, wealth and fame are the things that give anyone value, and they must be pursued above everything else.  

Now, these may be myths, but they are very powerful myths.  Because celebrity culture is an integral part of our wider culture, these myths can affect us.  Sadly, they can also have a great influence upon our children.

Parents as Leaders

So, how do we help our children understand the myths of the celebrity culture as myths?  I would suggest that how we answer this question has to do with what we perceive our role to be as parents.  Is our role to bring a child into the world and then let that child uncritically absorb whatever ideas happen to be prevalent in society at the time?  Or, is our role to provide leadership to the child regarding the ideas he encounters?

Indeed, are parents leaders?  As a society, do we perceive them as leaders?  I don’t think we do.  When you first became a parent, did the doctor hand you your baby and say ‘Congratulations, what a fabulous leadership position this is for you!’?  Probably not.  It may have been more along the lines of ‘Good luck with that.’

And yet, here is some startling news:  In February, Forbes magazine ran an article by Rob Asghar, in which the job of ‘stay at home parent’ was ranked as the #1 ‘toughest leadership role’, beating such positions as university president, congressman, and CEO!

Why does Asghar consider parenting to be such a challenging leadership role?  Quoting family therapist Joanne Weidman, Asghar argues that ‘the greatest leadership challenge for a parent today is to be countercultural …’  We must be ‘thoughtful, intentional and articulate’ about ‘determining what on the children’s achievement hamster wheel is good for [our] family’.  In the same way, we must also draw ‘boundaries around what is not’ good for our family.

On this view, parents are leaders because they have a vision of what is ‘good’ for their family that is not dependent upon current cultural expectations and norms.  And, it’s interesting that Weidman uses the word ‘countercultural’.  This implies that there is much that is valued in our dominant culture that will not be a part of our vision of the good life.

In other words, when parents are leaders, they don’t worry about ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – or, say, the Jolie-Pitts – in terms of what they buy, how they look, what they do, or what they think.  They parent to the beat of their own drum.

Parental Leadership as Vision

What kind of leadership model is this?  I think the key concept here is vision.  This leadership model involves seeing things that your children can’t see, usually because they do not yet have experience, maturity or wisdom.

For instance, I’ve seen the sadness and emptiness that happens when people – especially women – base their self-worth on their appearance.  Thus, the vision I have for my children is that they learn to value themselves for who they are, and I lead them according to this vision.  I teach them to be healthy, but I tell them to be happy with the body that they have.  At this stage in life, they may believe the ubiquitous cultural message that what you look like determines your worth, but I am trying to lead them away from this false notion.

Interestingly, Plato had a notion of leadership that may provide some insight here.  Plato’s vision of the ideal leader is one who has a true conception of what is ‘good’.  He is called to lead others, however, who do not have this understanding.  Indeed, those who he leads are living in a state of deception regarding the good.  It is the leader’s responsibility to recognize those deceptions and try to govern his followers instead according to the truths which he knows but they do not.

One of Plato’s most famous discussions regarding his idea of leadership as countering deception is what is known as his allegory of the cave.  In this allegory, he invites us to imagine prisoners living in a cave, chained so that they cannot move and can only see in front of them.  Unbeknown to the prisoners, there is a fire in the cave behind them which casts some light against the wall of the cave facing them.  There are also people behind them, who hold up various artificial objects, like figures of men and animals, which project shadows onto the wall by the light of the fire.  Because the prisoners cannot see – and have never seen – anything other than these shadows, they suppose that the shadows are indeed reality.

Plato then asks us to consider what would happen if one of these prisoners was set free and could be ‘healed’ of the ‘unwisdom’ of the cave.  The prisoner would be unchained, forced to turn his head and look at the fire and the objects behind him.  Plato argues that this experience would, at first, be painful and dazzling; the prisoner would be confused and still believe that the familiar shadows on the wall were the ‘real’ objects rather than the objects themselves.  He would experience further trauma if he were forced out of the cave and into the sunlight, where he could experience reality to an even greater extent.

Yet, Plato argues that gradually the freed prisoner would come to understand the difference between the reality of the world above and the deception of the cave.  He would be happy for himself that he had gained wisdom, but sad for his fellow prisoners in the cave when he thought of what they considered to be wisdom.  Thus, he would have a duty to go back down into the cave, to help enlighten his fellow prisoners as much as possible.

The Challenge:  Leading Our Children Away from Plato’s Cave

Now, I’m not saying that Plato’s allegory of the cave is something that we can apply directly to parenting.  For one thing, most parents I know do not consider themselves to be as ‘all-wise’ as Plato’s ideal ruler, or the freed prisoner of the allegory.  Although they have strong values, they continue to learn about the good, even as adults.  So, they refine their idea of the good life on an ongoing basis.  For another thing, although children are lacking in understanding, I would not consider childhood to be a state of deception.  Adults can be deceived as well as children, and indeed, there are times when children can see the reality of a situation far more clearly than adults.

Yet, Plato gives us as parents plenty of food for thought about our culture and what it tells us to believe.  We and our children are surrounded every day by images and messages that do not tell the truth about what is means to be a happy human being, or live a good human life.   

As parents, when we can recognize the falsehood in our society’s messages, no matter how popular these messages are, we have a duty to reason with our children and expose them for the ‘shadows’ that they are.

They may disagree with our reasoning, and think that we are the ones who are deceived, not them.  And, there will probably be other parents who discourage you from having and implementing a vision of the good life for your family.  They will think you are over-protective and domineering, and will want you to ‘go with the flow’.

But of course, this isn’t supposed to be easy.  There must be reasons why parenting is such a tough leadership challenge.

Is Good Parenting a Problem for Society?

About a year after my first child was born, a friend of mine came to visit me. We were both enrolled in PhD programs, so he was aware of my workload. He took one look at me with my baby, and a look of terror came over his face. Although he didn’t have any children, it was as if by simply looking at me he could comprehend how much work it was to look after my child, and how that conflicted with my PhD studies.

He spoke with desperation in his voice. ‘Is your church helping you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ he explained, ‘do they provide childcare?’

I knew that he meant well, but I was frustrated that all he could see was how parenthood was a disadvantage to me. What I wanted him to do – indeed, what I needed him to do – was to recognize the good I was doing as a parent. He saw parenthood as problematic, but that wasn’t helpful.  I needed him to recognize that parenting was an activity that was worth the massive effort it required.

Is Parenting a Problem?

I have pointed out before that philosophers don’t often speak directly to parents. As I reflect upon this state of affairs, it strikes me that one reason for this may be because many philosophers regard the family – and therefore the activity of parenting – as problematic.

Some see the family as problematic for society in general, others see it as problematic for children, or for women. But whatever criticisms philosophers make about the family, one thing is clear: some thinkers seriously question the ultimate value of what we do as parents.

Questioning the value of the family for society goes back as far as the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. In his Republic, Plato argues that in an ideal state, the ruling class could not be permitted to have families. The rulers, or ‘guardians’ as he calls them, would need to be virtuous, wise and selfless, and have all things in common among themselves. Families allow people to form exclusive attachments, and would therefore hinder the guardians in regarding the good of the group as higher than the good of their family. So, the guardians would ‘mate’ with one another, but when children were born they would be taken away immediately from their mothers and raised communally.

There is speculation among philosophers over whether Plato was serious in making this proposal. But whether he was serious or not, he is among the first in a long line of thinkers to propose that the activity of parenting – with all the love and partiality that it entails – obstructs the goals of the unity and equality of a larger group.

Is Good Parenting Bad for Society?

It’s not common today for philosophers to propose something as radical as Plato’s abolition of the family. In our modern liberal societies, people are free to become parents, and they have rights over their children. Yet, even among philosophers who espouse the importance of freedom and rights regarding the family, there are some who worry about the adverse effects it has upon society.

The great liberal theorist John Rawls argued that the family was a fundamental cause of inequality in society. Certain children, he said, will be born into good families where they are loved and their capacities are developed. Other children will be less fortunate and be less loved. For Rawls, how people fare in life has much to do with their upbringing – particularly if they come from a happy home. Rawls does not argue for the abolition of the family, but he acknowledges that the idea of equal opportunity does ‘incline’ in that direction, if equality is considered to be the most important goal in a society.

Certain feminist philosophers, too, believe that the family causes inequality. Philosopher Susan Muller Okin argued that the family puts women on an unequal footing with men in society, as long as women carry out the role of caregiving. For Okin, caregiving puts serious constraints on a woman’s time and energy, thus denying her ‘equality of opportunity’ in wider society.

Both Rawls and Okin have made points worthy of consideration. It is true that there are good parents and bad parents, and that children with good parents often will be better able to access opportunities than those with bad parents. It is also true that the caregiving aspect of parenting requires just as much time and commitment as any full time job, and therefore those who choose to do it are foregoing certain opportunities outside the home.

Yet, ultimately, Rawls and Okin are questioning the value of parenting for society. Indeed, they have questioned more than that: by raising concerns about the inequality created – among children for Rawls, and among women for Okin – by the love and time that parents give to their children, they have, in effect, questioned the value of good parenting for society.

Truly Supporting Parents

The trouble is that concerns like those of Rawls and Okin about the family are shared by many in our society, particularly among politicians and opinion-makers. We can see this as parents who take the time to actively parent their children are criticized in a variety of ways. On the one hand, they are criticized for not being ambitious enough to ‘lean in’ at work, or for taking a career break and thus failing to use their talents to ‘give something back’ to society. On the other hand, they are portrayed as people who have the ‘luxury’ of looking after their own children, who through sheer luck are in the fortunate position to create a loving and stable home environment which other parents envy but cannot have.

The issue here is that a society which views the activity of parenting as problematic cannot produce policies or even a culture that is truly supportive of parents. Any support that parents feel that they have will be given from a position of contempt for the parent/child relationship, which means ensuring that parents don’t actually get to spend much time at all parenting their children.

In my view, true support for parents can only be given from a position of respect for the parent/child relationship. This means acknowledging that the time and love a parent puts into raising a child are necessary for the child’s well-being – not instruments of oppression for the caregiver, or commodities to be redistributed somehow by the politician.

A parent’s time and effort on a child, however demanding, must not be considered a burden or a waste or an injustice, but rather time and effort well-spent. We mustn’t pity or resent parents.  We must respect them as equals in our collective effort to build a good society.  That’s all I needed my friend to do.