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Unholy Anger: Disciplining Ourselves Before Disciplining Our Children


There is a wonderful letter in which St. John Bosco advised his priests to avoid anger in their dealings with the foster children they cared for.

St. John Bosco

He had founded a religious congregation, the Salesians, to care for homeless boys, so he and his priests certainly had plenty of unruly behavior to contend with, and plenty of opportunities to flare up in anger. But in his letter St. John Bosco tells his priests, "They are our sons, and so in correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely. There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement."

What this saint said to his priests also applies to us as mothers and fathers in our dealings with our own children. Every time I read this letter, which appears in the Office of Readings for the feast of St. John Bosco on January 31, I admire the wisdom of it, but at the same time I am convicted by it: I am forced to acknowledge that if this great saint saw my parenting, he would tell me that I indulge in too much unholy anger toward my children.

In the Guise of Justice

In his letter, Don Bosco’s primary focus seems to be on the anger that creeps into the parental acts of rebuking, disciplining, and punishing. There are other kinds of unholy parental anger, such as when a child brings some need to a parent who doesn’t want to be bothered and the parent reacts with irritable frustration. Here the anger is outside the setting of a parent disciplining a child. But let us stay within this framework and try to understand why anger so easily creeps into disciplining and punishing a child.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that we are typically angry in the face of some injustice done to us, and that what especially provokes anger is the element of contempt or scorn in the one who does us some wrong. Thus, if a child is rude to his or her parents—if a child shows them, whether in word or deed, scorn rather than respect— the parents are "set up" for anger. They are in exactly the position in which people naturally feel anger. Anger grips the parents so strongly precisely because they feel justified in rebuking the disrespect of their children. They feel that they would deny their most basic sense of justice if they were to suppress their anger. Thus the poison of anger slips into their soul under the cover of justice.

St. John Bosco would hardly counsel parents to deny their sense of justice. He would not admire parents who are so lacking in self-respect that they don’t even mind the disrespect of their children. He would certainly expect parents to "dare to discipline." But he would warn against the anger that puts "contempt in our eyes" and "insult on our lips." Anger in that sense, he warns, is never justified—not by the disrespect of our children, not by anything else.

This great saint also had a keen sense of how impotent angry words of rebuke are. In the same letter, we read: "In serious matters it is better to beg God humbly than to send forth a flood of words that will only offend the listeners and have no effect on those who are guilty." If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that the louder our voices are raised in angry rebuke, the more powerless we are. We sometimes reach the point where our anger becomes in part a rage at our own powerlessness and is no longer merely anger at our disrespectful children.

The Power of Meekness

On the other hand, there is great power in the meekness advocated by St. John Bosco. On one famous occasion he took a group of boys from prison for an outing in the country; he declined the help of the prison guards and was able by himself to bring all the boys back to the prison at the end of the day. The guards were amazed that not one tried to escape. His fatherly way that dispensed with all anger was more powerful than any prison guard.

We can put it like this. The meekness of St. John Bosco may at first look weak, even wimpish, and the loud anger of a father berating his child may look strong and manly. But the reality is just the opposite: The gentle appeal to the child is full of a mysterious authority and persuasive power, whereas the loud anger just serves to estrange the child from the father and to undermine the father’s authority in his child’s eyes.

Perhaps the main thing we can gather from this letter of Don Bosco is that in boiling over with anger we fall short of a loving attitude toward our children. We lose sight of their well-being. We do not experience our anger as benefiting them, but only as denouncing them for their bad behavior. We do not give any thought to how our anger will be received and whether it has any chance of being heard and of helping the child to grow. If we did, then we would take into account the fact that it "has no effect on those who are guilty." But we ignore this obvious fact because in flaring up with anger we yield to our own impulses and urges far more than we tend to the good of our children. There is a self-indulgence in being swept away with anger. We lose touch with the spirit of service to our children of which Don Bosco speaks when he says: "Let us place ourselves in their service. Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority. Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better."

I repeat that the spirit of Don Bosco does not prevent us parents from being firm with our children. Rather, this great Christian teacher of youth would counsel us to draw boundaries, to be unyielding in essential matters, to expect respect, and, when necessary, to impose punishments. He surely also knew from his vast experience that there are moments when these things have to be done forcefully. You could call this forcefulness in disciplining "anger," and thus, in a sense, it would follow that Don Bosco’s instruction allows for justified anger. But there is often a bitterness in the anger of parents, an insulting edge—something that wounds rather than builds up, that estranges rather than bonds. When this failure to love enters into our parental firmness, a good thing is spoiled.

I have said that the opposite of anger is meekness. I would direct the reader to the beautiful chapter on meekness in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s great work, Transformation in Christ. He explains the contrast between Christian meekness and all that is brutal and violent; he also explains the contrast between Christian meekness and all that is weak and spineless. He beautifully brings out the particular reverence that the meek person shows toward the other as spiritual being and as person. This reverence, opposed to the bitterness of anger, must stand at the heart of all our parenting.

Punishing Our Own Pride

I conclude with these challenging sentences from the letter of Don Bosco: "My sons, in my long experience very often I had to be convinced of this great truth. It is easier to become angry than to restrain oneself, and to threaten a boy than to persuade him. Yes, indeed, it is more fitting to be persistent in punishing our own impatience and pride than to correct the boys." The saint is saying to us that we should not be deceived by the sense of "justice" that drives our anger; there is often a poison in this anger, and it is more important for us to spit this poison out of our spiritual system than to rebuke our children for disrespect.



John F. Crosby. “Unholy Anger: Disciplining Ourselves Before Disciplining Our Children.” Lay Witness (March/April, 2007): 42-43.

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.

The Author

crosbyjhnbooksmJohn F. Crosby is Professor of Philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Professor Crosby is known internationally for his work on John Henry Newman, Max Scheler, Karol Wojtyła, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. Dr. Crosby worked with his son in founding the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project. He has also made a significant contribution to the area of philosophical anthropology or the philosophy of the human person and has played a major role in the contemporary interest and discussion of that field through his books, The Personalism of John Henry Newman, The Selfhood of the Human Person and Personalist Papers.

Copyright © 2007 LayWitness
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