It happened in an instant one Sunday afternoon. A six-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother were playing in their Minneapolis home when suddenly, the little boy punched his sister. The provocation angered their father, and without thinking, he slapped his son as punishment.
The next day, the boy's teacher noticed red marks on his face. Following Minnesota law, she reported it to the Department of Child Protection Services. Although the agency closed the case after a police investigation, it recommended that the father, Tim Quist, enroll in an anger-management program for help in dealing constructively with his anger.
"I took their advice, because I'm not the type who hits my kids," says Mr. Quist. "I figured, if I did that, there's something that needs to be looked at. When it happened, I stood back and said, 'What did I do?' It actually scared me. It was an overreaction."
Although Quist's slap was a one-time mistake, that kind of overreaction fuels countless explosive incidents that injure and endanger women and children. By helping men learn to control their anger, the Fathers' Resource Center in Minneapolis, which sponsors the class, hopes to prevent violence in the home or stop it if it already exists. The 2-1/2-hour classes meet weekly.
Getting more men enrolled in classes like this, as well as in batterer-intervention programs designed to help men stop being abusive, remains a goal of many counselors. About half the participants attend the 16-week program because of a court order. Others are referred by wives or girlfriends.
"They usually haven't connected the dots," says program leader Mark Toogood. "They know what they experienced themselves as kids, but for many, it is a light bulb [going on] to see that they are replicating the same behaviors they swore they would never do, that they themselves endured as children."
One class participant, Pat Morley, says his first marriage failed because of his anger. Many in the group, he finds, "just feel good that they have a place to go to talk, because so much of what men learn is about not expressing their feelings. Men have never explored other ways to express their anger other than violently or in the context of power and control."
Clarence Jones enrolled to deal with anger in his second marriage. "The whole idea is to take responsibility for yourself.... There's no way you can be angry at your spouse and not affect your children. When you're angry with someone in the family and you don't deal with it effectively, it doesn't go away."
Although other social service groups in Minnesota are copying the male anger program, many lament the overall lack of services for men. "This class is something I wish I had had when I was a lot younger," Jones says. "Someone who could have said to me, 'This is how life is, and this is how you handle certain situations.' I do believe if there were more men's anger groups, there would be a lot less abuse."