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A Troubling Parenting Philosophy

parenting-style-angerI came across a parenting story to help control anger outbursts in little children. It’s a story called, “Nails In The Fence” (below). The story aims to teach little kids the hurtful nature of their words when angry. The moral of the short story is not to learn to express anger in a healthy way or to uncover any underlying feelings, but to control it.

In the story the little boy is given a bag of nails. Every time he loses his temper, he has to hammer a nail into a fence. He had to hammer 37 nails on day one. However, he quickly learned to control his anger. As time went on, he didn’t have to hammer any more nails. So his dad told him to pull one out for everyday he doesn’t get angry.

Eventually all the nails were gone. His dad congratulated him, but said, look at all the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same again. Hence, the point that angry words hurt.

The shallowness of this parental thinking is startling. First, it features a little boy. A little boy! Couldn’t we give him a hug or something? Kids get angry. Kids have big emotions. As parents, we need to help them express these in a healthy way. That’s our job. We also need to explore what’s underneath the anger. This little boy was obviously troubled – 37 outbursts in a day! Imagine the connection that could have been made had father and son worked together to figure out what was triggering his son. Imagine the healing.

The parenting philosophy in this story is about control. It stems from the might-is-right mentality that dominates western culture. Behind the “moral” is a selfishness that screams “We can’t be bothered with your emotions so quit it.” The kid did quit it. He learned very quickly that expressing emotions was not allowed.

Yes, words in anger can do damage when coming from those who know better. But angry words from a little boy don’t do damage. They reflect damage underneath. The little boy in this story was in pain. Instead of helping him through it, he was made to feel guilt and shame. Even adults who have outbursts are suffering. They need help – love, compassion, kindness, prayer, support, and forgiveness. It’s not easy, but it’s the only thing that will truly heal.

At the end of the story, the little boy asked for his father’s forgiveness for putting so many holes in him. There’s some truth here. We need to ask forgiveness when we have outbursts. But was this dad really hurt by his son’s outbursts? Could he not see past his own pain to help his son? Was he that thin skinned? If and when the dad does realize his failures, he’ll need to beg his son for forgiveness because chances are the relationship will be so damaged, so broken, that his son will be teaching the same lesson to his little boy. Scary.

Imagine if God treated us that way? There wouldn’t be enough nails, or fence.

Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.

The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”

The little boy then understood how powerful his words were. He looked up at his father and said “I hope you can forgive me father for the holes I put in you.”

“Of course I can,” said the father.


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  1. As one who has never – and I do mean never – allowed to raise my voice in anger and repeatedly heard that “only dogs get mad”, I can attest to the damage that repressing anger can do when one is young. Eventually you learn to repress any and all strong emotions and lose your integrity as a human being. I’m glad to say that wise and loving people people helped me to regain my authenticity and embrace my feelings – all of them – as valid components of who I am. I applaud you for your wise compassion, Ted!

  2. The interesting thing that I see is that the story is not about an adult controlling his/ her temper. It is a young child. You are right about it being a story about controlling children.

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