Can Stoic thinking help us become better parents and people? Brittany Polat says yes. She has created the parenting blog Apparent Stoic, and her book, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in January 2019. She shared her thoughts on how a Stoic perspective can help in guiding young children--and how it has made a difference for her as a mother.
How did you discover Stoic philosophy?
My journey into Stoicism began when I was feeling very depressed about not having a job, friends, or connections in my new town. I also felt pretty lost as a parent: I was unsure about the right way to raise my children, and I didn’t know where to turn to find answers. I went online and searched for books about wisdom, and eventually I came to William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. After that I was hooked. The more I read about Stoicism, the more I realized it was exactly what I needed to have a meaningful, happy life as a person and a parent. I hope other parents will benefit from learning about Stoicism, too!
What does ancient Stoic philosophy say about parenting (if anything)? Could you recommend a handful of key takeaways from the classic texts?
The ancient Stoics obviously didn’t provide many suggestions about raising children! The clearest parenting advice I’ve found comes from Musonius Rufus, in his lecture on educating children: “We must start by teaching children that this thing is good that thing is bad, that this thing is helpful and that thing is harmful, and that this thing must be done and that thing must not be done.” (Lecture 4.7) This sounds like really obvious advice, but I think it shows how we can start gently teaching Stoic virtue from a young age. The earlier you start teaching virtue, the more naturally it will come to your child.
I find it very helpful to remember that children are starting from a point of complete ignorance about the appropriate way to act. As Epictetus reminds us, no one knowingly does wrong. Kids are not trying to be bad, they are just doing what makes sense to them. It’s my job to teach them to be good people. Remembering this helps me stay calm and understanding as I correct them.
I also really like the Stoic ideal of lifelong development (oikeiosis). Not only am I teaching my children how to find virtue and happiness, but I am also continuously working toward those goals for myself. It helps me to stay humble and keep things in perspective when I think that I am still learning how to be a good person, too!
Are there specific ways in which Stoicism made your journey as a mother easier or better? How?
Definitely. I used to have so many negative emotions surrounding motherhood: anxiety, guilt, frustration, self-pity, not to mention feeling completely incompetent as a parent. Stoicism has been an incredible tool for weeding out these negative emotions. I think the very first step is understanding what you can and cannot control, and the next step is understanding that your emotions are caused by your beliefs about life. Once you understand that you can control your own thoughts and emotions, you have an amazing gift as a parent. You no longer have to be upset and angry. You can be calm and compassionate no matter what your child does.
Stoicism has also helped me find joy in those everyday moments with my kids. Everyone is always so busy and tired, so it can be hard to pause and really appreciate your child. I think the modern Stoic authors have some great suggestions for helping us stay present and engaged as parents. I love William Irvine’s recommendations for negative and projective visualization, and Donald Robertson’s ideas on Stoic mindfulness and cognitive distancing.
What do you think Stoic philosophy offers moms and dads that they can’t find elsewhere?
Stoicism offers a framework for making good decisions as a person and a parent. We are constantly making big and small decisions about how to raise our children, from basic discipline to the big-picture questions like what kind of person you want your child to be. Stoic philosophy can guide as as we make all these decisions. When I read most parenting advice, it seems superficial, and it’s often based on just one expert’s experience. In contrast, Stoicism is deep and ancient wisdom. I love that I can connect my parenting philosophy with my philosophy of life, so I feel like my decisions as a mom are based on what I truly believe is best for my kids.
Does Stoic thinking help handle kids’ big emotions? And have any Stoic ideas rubbed off on your kids (I realize they are young!)? Do you hear or observe them using any particular concepts?
Yes. I think we first have to make sure we are modelling the right way of dealing with emotions. If your child sees you getting upset over small things, she’s probably going to do the same. You might not think they are paying attention, but at some level they really are! Even though my kids are still little, I try to talk with them about how I’m processing my own emotions. I tell them, “I’m feeling frustrated right now, but I know this isn’t really a big problem. I can solve this problem.” I think this strategy is working. Last week, my 5-year-old’s teacher told me that when Clementine was facing a minor tragedy at school (I forgot to pack her snack that day!) she calmly said, “I feel like crying now, but I’m not crying because it’s ok. I can solve this problem.” And you know what? She did solve the problem.
Do you have a specific Stoic practice in your life? Have you tried Stoic meditations or “exercises”?
As every parent knows, it’s very hard to find time for thinking or meditation. One thing I’ve found very helpful is incorporating my Stoic reflection into my existing morning and evening routine. It sounds strange, but I decided to do a brief meditation whenever I’m brushing my teeth. I’ve found that if I try to do a separate meditation session, I’m always too busy or tired. But I have to brush my teeth twice a day. Even though it’s a very brief time, it helps me to reconnect with my Stoic intentions in the middle of my busy life--and I can’t skip it!
Have you encountered readers or people out there who do not understand what “Stoic” means when it comes to practice and parenting? How do you help counteract myths about Stoicism?
Yes, and I am still trying to figure out the best approach to sharing Stoicism with other parents. I have made some unsuccessful attempts to explain Stoic parenting to other moms who I thought would be receptive, but who ended up just smiling and backing away slowly. So far I think the best approach is through books and websites. It gives people a chance to explore the concept as a whole, and all the many wonderful, practical ideas associated with Stoic philosophy. I hope that the more writing and sharing we do as a Stoic community, the more accepted Stoic parenting will become.
What’s your favorite Stoic text (ancient or modern)?
I have never been able to pick a favorite--I think they are all valuable in their own ways! But I do have some favorite passages and ideas that I keep circling back to. This one from Epictetus helps me stay focused on the long term, and not expect my children to become virtuous overnight:
“Nothing great comes into being all at once, for that is not the case even with a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me now, 'I want a fig,' I’ll reply, 'That takes time.' Let the fig tree first come into blossom and then bring forth its fruit, and then let that fruit grow to ripeness. So even if the fruit of a fig tree doesn’t come to maturity all at once and in a single hour, would you seek to gather the fruit of a human mind such a short time and with such ease?” (Discourses, 1.15, 7-8)
Beautifully said, and I do feel more tranquil after this conversation! Thanks to Brittany for her parenting wisdom--and check out her blog, too.
Please leave your comments or questions here and share with your network.
When my future boss was interviewing me, she asked me how I liked to be managed. How could I best work with a supervisor to be successful in this role? My answer: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
I had given this a lot of thought, though I didn’t dream I’d be asked about it in such an open way (and I viewed the question itself as a very good sign). I had worked before as a writer and editor, both on staff at publications and freelance. I felt that I knew what it took to get the job done independently.
In fact, that’s what first drew me to working as a journalist.
You might start with an editor’s tip or an idea, but then it was all on you: the reporter goes out, finds sources, gets the story, and writes it as she thinks it should be written. Then after I produced a first draft, an editor might come along and change some things, but usually the story turned out better with a wise hand gently guiding it at the end. That was the check-in. Someone was there to question your assumptions, to make sure you’d thought through your sources’ potential agendas, to ensure you weren’t leaving out a crucial piece of information.
(Very often, stories I read in publications today are missing something: a date, a figure that would flesh out the story, even a quoted source’s first name or title or relationship to the information. News orgs have ceased employing both writers and especially editors at alarming rates.)
So when I was asked by my potential employer about my ideal management style, I was quite clear. “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
This approach resonates with my practice of Stoicism. Stoic thinkers emphasized that we are only truly responsible for—and in control of—our own choices, which emanate from our sense of reason. Using our autonomy to its fullest is an opportunity to embrace the things we can pursue on our own and feel pride in achieving, without waiting for others to recognize our good works.
Autonomy is a key concept in ancient Stoic texts. Princeton professor John M. Cooper has written about the Stoic view of autonomy and compared it ideas advanced by later philosophers such as Kant. He points out that “autonomy” is a classical Greek term. Ancient Stoics, he says, believed autonomy meant adhering to laws of one’s own making, “not mere self-direction or self-governance, which might, of course, be quite arbitrary, unprincipled, and inconsistent.” Rather, autonomy has as its heart “reason itself.”
Cooper explains that ancient Stoic autonomy is somewhat neglected by scholars and deserves more study. After all, it is “a deeply interesting conception of human nature, human rationality, and the basis of morality.” (For more on this, see Cooper's book Knowledge, Nature, and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy.)
Of course, practicing Stoics (ancient and modern) such as Marcus Aurelius knew full well that as soon as we go out into the wider world with our ideas and choices, we will inevitably encounter resistance from others. People who think they know better will try to block you. As the famous quote from Marcus’ Meditations, Book 2, Section 1, goes:
"Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad." (Robin Hard translation)
But if you have a solid life philosophy on the one hand, and a mentor or role model, a strong friend, a caring spouse, or close-knit community on the other, you have the means to check in. These are the critical ingredients we need to fall back, no matter what befalls us.
“Autonomy, with check-ins” is also how I try to parent my children, especially now that they are 10 and 12.
When they were very small, it was mostly all check-ins from me and their dad, with a lot less autonomy for them. But even then, we tried to give them limited choices. Peas or carrots? Sandbox or swing? It gave us a chance to figure out their likes and dislikes. They could try new things and make decisions about their activities and the time they spent on non-essential pursuits, ones where they could have a choice.
(Granted, I wouldn’t overwhelm them with more than two or three options in most cases. More than that could prove tough. I saw the paralysis that picking from a whole toy store elicited on birthday shopping trips.)
And as time has gone on, we’ve reaped the benefits of this approach. My daughters are growing up, and I feel I can trust them—in public, to get information, and to speak confidently with people they don’t know… in school, to perform to their best in academics, respect the learning environment, while navigating the complex social situations they encounter… after school, to decide which extra-curriculars to do, and to help get to said activities on time and prepared (at least minimally)… in life, to develop their own interests, whether it’s in pop music, guitar, piano, coding, animated movies, theater, Lego, running, writing, art, basketball, constructing with glue guns, or Tae Kwon Do.
I could never have been a “Tiger Mom.” I have no interest in constantly making decisions for my kids and propelling them forward towards “success” with high-pressure activities. That kind of management may seem to work in the short term with certain (pliable) kids, but in the long term, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly not how I want to connect with my family, my relationships, or my own career.
My kids’ sense of autonomous responsibility has mushroomed over the past year. Both my daughters took the initiative on a few things lately I never quite thought I’d see. Each may be small, but the overall effect adds up. They quite thoroughly cleaned out their bedrooms when my husband and I were busy with other projects one afternoon, much to our astonishment. They went from dawdling over the smallest things (like putting on shoes—I can’t count the number of hours I have wasted waiting for my kids to put on shoes!) to being very concerned about arriving to their classes on time. When teachers allow it, they voluntarily make up or re-take tests that they’ve made mistakes on to earn more points.
But we still check in on them all the time, offering guidance and help and love and unsolicited advice and exposure to super-old movies that every American should know.
So next time you think about how you’d like to relate to your boss or even your kids, consider this: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
“Those whose bodies are in good condition can endure both heat and cold; and so, likewise, those whose souls are in fine condition can endure anger, and grief, and every other emotion.” – Epictetus (Fragments, 20, Robin Hard translation)
My husband took part in an event that put runners through extreme challenges and obstacles—including climbing walls, rolling barriers floating in pools, and electrified wires dangling down through your path. You work with others to overcome everything the course throws at you to reach the finish line. And in this case, you run through lots of mud along the way.
Though I didn’t participate, I applauded him. Both my husband and I have tried to get into better shape physically in the past few years. He’s taken on a regular training routine at a gym. Though my athletic activity is less regular, I’ve worked at staying active. Training matters, as any gym-goer could tell you.
You’ll find tons of websites, books, and magazines devoted to physical training, and numerous regimens for how to stay physically fit are being hawked to the American public. Seems that every celebrity has her or his own workout. I recently watched Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg do her gym exercises with comedian Stephen Colbert, and I heard Tom Brady interviewed on NPR about his book on how to train and eat to be fit.
What we don’t hear about in our popular culture is how to train your soul.
Certainly, religious institutions have much to say about it from their own particular points of view. There is great value there, but it often hinges on accepting a certain faith and a set of beliefs. That's not what everyone choses to do.
For the large group of secular Americans, there’s a big gap in what we’re reading and hearing about on a daily basis and our souls’ well-being.
In fact, much of our news and culture seems to drain rather than restore our inner resources. And even our friends are often no help, if we relate to them on social media. I’m really tired of being directed to Facebook updates that seem targeted to generate jealousy, competition, and a feeling of being left out. How to strengthen our souls? How to prepare them for life’s ups and downs?
We will all have challenges, up to and including our own demise. To quote Michael Crichton, “no one escapes from life alive.”
I have tried a bunch of approaches, from Western to Eastern spirituality, from organized religion to mindfulness classes, from psychology study to counseling.
Right now, I think the answer is Epictetus. His words can help us train for the real run, the run for our lives and our moral character. It’s not a run we can “win,” exactly. And it lasts our whole lives.
In his Discourses 4.6, the Stoic thinker delves into politics versus philosophy. He is having a discussion with a student who complains that he is not respected—even pitied—by powerful men in political office. Why can’t he play an important role in politics, too? Epictetus points out all the effort that the politician has gone to in order to achieve his “success” in government. He callsmout the attention the politician has given to flattering, pleasing, and lying to get ahead with others.
Those who care about their souls have a different approach, he says. The follower of philosophy should ask herself upon waking up,
"What have I still to do to achieve freedom from passion? To achieve peace of mind? Who am I? Surely not a mere body? Or possessions, or reputation? None of these things. But what? I’m a rational living being."
From there, her daily training begins. She questions herself further, “’Where have I gone wrong’ with regard to achieving happiness? ‘What did I do’ that was unfriendly, or unsociable, or inconsiderate? ‘What have I not done that I should do’…?”(Discourses 4.6.34 – 35, Robin Hard translation)
The very act of asking these questions of ourselves is a way to keep ourselves nimble in our ethical lives. Self-reflection creates the right circumstances for improving how we treat other people and ourselves.
Stoic exercises can also help us cope with the many sad things we’ll be confronted with in our daily lives. In my study of Buddhism, I’ve encountered the idea that life is suffering. There is truth there.
As Stoics, we can strengthen ourselves by training our inner rational being to prepare for the tough times.
We can train by imagining being strong facing difficulty. We can picture looking down, as if from above, on our lives. We can try to keep a broad perspective on each little moment, knowing it is one of many moments lived by many individuals across many lands.
And every day, we can question our own thoughts, knowing that these “impressions” so often lead us down the wrong path. That is true all around us, both for our unavoidable difficulties and for our personal challenges. If everyone just relied on their first impressions of the Spartan-style run’s course, the place would be a ghost town. Instead, people ask themselves, “How could I train to do this? What skills would I need? Why shouldn’t I crawl through mud to get that cool T-shirt (and to know I have achieved finishing this thing)?”
I personally would still avoid the mud. But I won’t shirk from working on my inner “genius”—as the ancients called it.
And ultimately, I will keep on striving to do my best to represent courage and wisdom, and to privilege that rational part of myself. I know I won’t always succeed and will stumble. But that’s not the point. I’ll still keep running.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.