Many decisions in raising our kids feel as if they take place “between a rock and a hard place.” This old saying recalls Odysseus’ journey through the narrow waterways on his ship as he was heading home. In the legend, Odysseus had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, both sea monsters. The hero chose the “lesser of two evils,” sailing closer to Scylla, where he would lose fewer sailors and not risk his whole ship going down. (Today, we believe that the real-world equivalent of this journey would have been the the Strait of Messina between the island of Sicily and the coast of Calabria in Italy.)
So many moments of being a mom or dad feel like this kind of a choice, though, we hope, with less deadly consequences. As we celebrate Father’s Day, it’s a good time to remember that many dads and moms are facing tough questions every day.
For instance, a toddler acts out at a playground, disrupting other kids. Do you remove her from the situation? Do you distract her? Lecture her? Do you let her learn the hard way that other kids may hit back?
Or a teen says he wants to go to a distant concert with friends you don’t know. Do you let him go? Or do you force him to stay home, knowing that he might just sneak out next time you aren’t looking? Should you trust his friends to drive safely, and to go to safe places? Then again, should you deny your teen contact with his peers and risk social isolation? Learning the hard way here could be risky, but in the long run, so could being perceived as “mean” mom or dad whose decisions are to be evaded or avoided.
Many parents begin their voyage into child-rearing hoping to find “rules” for parenting. That’s why we buy so many books and read so many blogs. These kinds of writing flourish, and yet they cannot provide proscriptive wisdom. There is no rule book, no manual (even though I still have a funny “baby owner’s manual” book that someone gave me when I had infants!) for raising kids.
What you really do need, rather than rules, is a philosophy. And “before you can have a parenting philosophy, you need a life philosophy,” says Stoic author Brittany Polat, who talked about this topic during the Practical Paths to Flourishing Stoicon-X event held earlier this month. She’s right. It’s key to set our own ethical, moral, and psychological house in order, to become the best parents—and best humans—that we can be. By developing our own character, and our virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, we can set a good example. What is more, we can feel some certainty, some rock to stand on, as we question the crazy world around us when it comes to raising kids from babies to young adults.
That is why I turned to Stoic life philosophy in the first place. Surrounded by the hyper-competitive parents of Silicon Valley, trying to raise two girls with good values, working to create a supportive, healthy home with my husband, every choice seemed loaded with anxiety-producing questions and pressures. Knowing that an age-old ethical philosophy was perfectly in line with my grounded, common-sense approach to being a mother and to fighting the pull towards a superficial vision of status and “success” made it not just tolerable, but meaningful, to guide my kids… and then watch them become independent guides for themselves.
There’s another layer here. Being a mom or dad is about navigating this journey between a rock and a hard place, with your own values and ethics as the lighthouse showing you the way. What complicates things is that it’s not just you guiding your children. It’s much more. In addition to individual decisions parents have to make, you also face larger Scyllas and Charybdises as we pilot your family ship.
Some of these are:
These are all rocks that our ship could founder upon. What’s difficult is that many of these things are outside of our control. These factors require constant shifting and readjusting through narrow, constrained waterways, as new challenges arise. It’s not smooth sailing, no matter how much energy and love you put into it.
For my part, while I say that there are no rules in parenting, I would clarify that by suggesting that there are important rules, or approaches, to teach our kids. Here are some key ones:
May your ship successfully navigate the rough waters and rocky passages of parenthood!
Change is upon us again. There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel in the pandemic. As more adults receive Covid-19 vaccines, and case numbers begin to fall, we are seeing a return to in-person education, work, and activities.
This spring, more schools are either open or have plans to re-open for in-person classes. Sometimes they are offering “hybrid” options: At our local public schools this month, students who agree to attend in person will be brought back for 2 days a week and will learn remotely the rest of the time. The classroom setup and rules are still being worked out. No matter what’s decided, the new arrangement will only be in place for the last 6 weeks of the school year.
And as more business re-open or expand in-person offerings again, we as adults are also experiencing change. We’ll have more opportunities to work together in real life. We’ll also have more expectations to commute, to travel, or to participate in events, to go back to the crammed-full days.
The bottom line: Our kids will need to adapt to new schedules, social interactions, and changed environments, and so will we.
This should be an unmitigated positive, right? Getting back to our regular lives is good, isn’t it? Yes…. and no. First, there are still dangers in this pandemic. The Covid-19 variants circulating are virulent. Many adults haven’t gotten vaccines yet. And there’s still no vaccine approved for kids under 16; though children’s cases are usually mild, they can still suffer from Covid.
Second, we’ve gotten very used to our lockdown lives over the past year in California. Since my husband and I have been fortunate to be working online from home, we no longer had the obligation to rush for kid drop offs or pickups or for congestion-heavy commutes. Instead, our time has been more fluid. We have worked online more hours overall, but we’ve also had more time together as a family. We’ve been able to have family dinners and snack breaks. We’ve had much more homework helping time. More conversations. And less time stuck battling stressful traffic and crowds, and racing to get to events or appointments or meetings or extracurriculars.
Despite all the difficult times, I did find myself experiencing a few silver linings during lockdowns. The pandemic shutdowns did a lot to alleviate my own FOMO—"Fear of Missing Out." I often have felt I could or should be doing more, either for my own development or my work, and for that of my children. The lifting of that pressure for a short time helped me understand that some of my thinking about what I “should” do was off-base. We are only human, and we can only do so much. And rushing to squeeze it all in without focus or depth isn’t really good. The shutdowns reminded me of this fact. But even though one burden lifted temporarily, the dangers and fears inherent in living in a pandemic where thousands have been dying and our economy fell into collapse instilled a sense of sadness and uncertainty. So many days this past spring, summer, and winter I woke up with a pit in my stomach for all the suffering happening around the world.
Interestingly, research has shown that some silver linings existed for our children, in some cases. The social distancing and richer home life of the lockdowns actually helped certain kids. Even though the majority of children studied have experienced a decline in their mental health during pandemic lockdowns, a subset of kids have actually seen a rise in their psychological wellbeing. That’s especially true of those who suffer from social anxiety or related diagnoses, researchers said.
According to a recent New York Times article, a percentage of kids did “better” during the pandemic’s closures—perhaps due to less exposure to causes of stress at school and more help from their parents generally. Here’s how the Times described recent research on this: “A study published in February in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at the mental health impact on 1,000 young people in Canada during the pandemic, and found that 70 percent of study subjects aged 6 to 18 reported some negative impact. But 19.5 percent in that age group saw some improvement, leading the authors to conclude of the impact: ‘Mostly worse; occasionally better.’”
Many adults, too, dread going “back” to all the pressures of the lives they’d built prior to the pandemic. People are re-assessing. Some are finding an increasing sense of anxiety, according to the Times story and another article in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal noted that many people realized just how many things they were happier not doing during the lockdowns, and that those people could now learn to set new boundaries around the things they preferred not to do (even including visiting with extended family). Other people experienced better work lives by working online and remotely, especially those with social anxiety, finding breakthroughs that they could potentially build upon in the future.
Humans have very different reactions to change. Some people embrace it, and even seek it out. Others experience fear or anxiety. The Stoic approach here is to emphasize the importance of how we respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s not the change itself that bothers us; it’s our reaction to it. Often, it’s the many “what if” questions that we ask ourselves that leads us down a rabbit hole of worry or dread. And in an ongoing pandemic that’s not over yet, there is still a lot to ask “what if” about, both for parents and children. About the virus, about school arrangements and expectations, about group gatherings and kids socializing.
For all these things, it is a balancing of risks and rewards. Of fears and opportunities.
And it’s a readjustment. We will need to give ourselves time for that. For most kids, school is exhausting. For many working parents, commuting to jobs and working long days in meetings, trainings, and events is draining. We’ll need to give ourselves the chance to be aware of how we feel in the moment, and to care for our needs, rather than pushing ourselves and our kids beyond their limits.
From a Stoic perspective, you can live through anything and still make a good life. But we also have a renewed opportunity to think about the things we can and can’t control, and the things we do and do not want to do.
Rather than be pressured to “do it all” we can make deliberate choices about how we spend our time, to make the best of our possibilities (knowing that we still need to work to put food on the table for our families). That pertains to our working hours, our work raising our kids, and also our leisure time.
What are you concerned about readjusting to? What are you most looking forward to? What about your families or kids? Please feel free to leave your comments below!
What are the most valuable Stoic ideas to keep in mind on a daily basis as a parent?
I thought about this question as I spoke with The Scotland Stoics recently. You can listen to my interview with host Robert Keenan on the podcast here (or anywhere you can find podcasts!):
In this post, I'd like to expand on three general concepts I mentioned in the podcast, ones that I turn back to over and over again to maintain balance and sanity. First, the dichotomy of control and acting on what’s in my power; second, using my spark of reason; and third, not taking things personally.
What’s in our power, and what’s not—as parents and kids
The dichotomy of control is a core principle of Stoic thought. Epictetus begins his Handbook—a manual of short summaries of Stoic ideas, also called the Enchiridion—with this:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Handbook, 1.1, Robin Hard translation)
Let’s add something to this list: our children’s behavior and actions are not within our power. We can guide them and teach them, and we have a duty to do so in our role as parents or guardians. But in fact, children of any age are not strictly under our control. And in fact, we owe it to them to try to help them learn as they grow to use their OWN power with wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Take a very small example of how little power we have: I have one child who is a night owl, and one who is an early riser. Did I choose for my one daughter to stay up late ever since she was a youngster and have trouble falling asleep at night, so she feels tired in the morning? And my other child to wake up at the crack of dawn? No. Similarly with all the other physical and personality/temperament elements of our children. We don't have that choice.
If we make efforts to understand at a deep level who are our children are and acknowledge their nature-given characteristics, we can work with them on their level—so that THEY can begin to understand what’s in their power. When they are old enough to realize that they are making choices and that their actions impact others, we can begin to teach them how to behave in a way that strives for the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
I think this is actually an act of “taking back our power” as parents and as children too. Stoic ideas can help us maximize our agency (according to modern Stoic thinker Lawrence Becker). I work regularly to figure out what’s in my power with my kids, and what is not; what’s within their power, and what is not.
Online learning is a good time to recall this. So much is outside of our control here in California, where public schools have been doing distance learning for about a year now. The situation is not in our power, but the way we respond is. As Epictetus said, “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them.” (Handbook, 1.5)
That’s not to say that there aren’t many mitigating factors for students who are not equipped to manage this situation. A myriad of things from age to learning differences to family situations and economic hardship impact what kids are going through right now.
My children are teens, and they have learned how to handle lots of screen time (both for fun and for school, activities, and volunteer work), so my husband and I leave it in their hands to organize their learning and their days. We know online learning at school is typically not very motivating, or fun. All the aspects of school they liked are missing (social interaction, sports, cafeteria pizza that looks and tastes like cardboard in my opinion!). But: they have it in their power to follow through in this learning situation.
If they ever say “I can’t do it,” I’m right there asking, “OK. Let’s think about what CAN you do? How can you make this work for you? How can you take back your power over what you can control on your end?”
(Sidenote: I hear lots and lots of alarms and dinging reminders going off in my house, among all the various online classes and schedules we have to adhere to these days! Also, isn’t it crazy how easy it is to lose your cell phone in your OWN house? “Find my Phone” is a favorite app.)
And when it comes to seeing our kids making mistakes or making us crazy by not following our guidance, we also have the power to say, “I did the best I could in that situation… I’ll talk to my child about how to handle this better when she calms down/is in a better mood/is more rested, etc.” (Of course, if the mistake is truly dangerous, we need to take quick action to stop it.)
I realize this sounds much easier than it is. But honestly, it’s the one thing that’s made me much less irritable and frustrated as a parent. And it’s helped put my children in the driver’s seat of their own futures.
Using our spark of reason to break through emotional barriers
On another note: Have you watched Frozen 2? Parents of younger children might be raising their hands right now. My daughters weren’t little anymore when it came out, but we still wanted to see it on the big screen because of all their memories of the first movie in the series from 2013. We went to the theater (pre-pandemic) and noticed a huge cadre of older teens and young twenties viewers who probably felt super nostalgic about the original Frozen movie.
In Frozen 2, there’s a particular song that stood out to me. Not just for its musical qualities (though it was good, and was sung by Kristen Bell, whom I love), but for its Stoic messages: “Do the Next Right Thing.” The Anna character feels abandoned. She has been left alone to find her path, and she’s scared and uncertain. But she figures out that one step at a time (literally, as she walks out of a deep cave-like hole), she can make good choices and carry on with her quest to find her sister.
Even when things are really rough, we can always “do the next right thing.” Even when we don’t know what lies ahead. Or when we’re dealing with awful things from the past. Stoic thinking is very much about the present, doing what you can in the current moment. Releasing the emotional baggage of what’s come before and just doing the next right thing.
My role as a mom is to try to guide my kids to learn for themselves how to decide what is the next right thing for them, how to assess their impressions, how to not make knee-jerk reactions but to judge their impressions with accuracy and wisdom. How to avoid getting weighted down by troubles and be able to keep acting in the present. We have a lot of conversations about why they do the things they do, and what they could do next.
This is a good lesson for kids and parents too. It’s easy to get carried away into cognitive distortions like catastrophizing about how a situation could play out badly. Those of us who get anxious do it constantly. It can paralyze our decision-making. If this had happened to Anna, she might still be stuck in that hole.
How to figure out the next right thing? In moments of uncertainty—very often during this pandemic—I try to recall that I have a spark of reason deep inside my brain, according to the Stoics. If I pause, I can figure out the next right thing, in most cases. Somehow, I can leverage my own sense of “is this really true? Is this wise? Is it brave? Is it just and fair?” and make those criteria for decisions.
It takes some of our unintended irrationality out of our choices. The irrational side of things is usually based on fears about things spiraling out of our control, or forms of anger or insecurity—bad passions in a Stoic sense.
I hope my kids can do this too.
Not taking it personally
This is another tough one, but critical. I’ve noticed that parents take dealing with their kids “too personally” in two circumstances: First, when we think our child’s actions are a reflection on us and our value as people; second, when we feel a sense of being disrespected or even disliked by our kids. I’ve often found myself doing this and I’m trying to be self-aware about it. This is another facet of taking back our power to decide how we want to feel and act.
What I’m getting at is the idea that we shouldn’t take it as a personal offense or affront when our kids don’t behave how we want them to... and we shouldn't view it as a failure on our part.
In a social setting, I recall being really embarrassed when my toddler had a meltdown in a public place (and this happened multiple times, naturally). But looking back, that was just a young kid being immersed in emotions, proto-passions that turn into raging negative feelings. My child was too young to control it. And I did the best I could: Taking my kid out of the situation where the tantrum would affect other people, explaining to her why this behavior isn’t the way we get what we want, and giving her time and tools to calm down.
The tantrum wasn’t a reflection on me or my parenting. And it wasn’t really reflective of anything important about my child, who was at a very typical waystation on a journey to learn how to manage negative emotions (like the rest of us, but just not so far along at that age!).
An added layer here is what happens on social media. We feel encouraged to share parenting experiences online, but then we are often judged for sharing. For example, a mom posts a question about her tween sneaking around with friends without her parents’ knowledge in a mother’s group; she then gets a lot of backlash and judgment from others about her concerns. Or a dad posts that he wants to learn about sleep training for his baby, and people start to question his parenting. These are the kinds of forums for judgment that I recommend avoiding.
There's another reason why we should ask ourselves if we are taking something that our kids do too personally. Some moms and dads grew up in homes where it wasn’t permitted to go against their own parents, and where they were supposed to be “seen and not heard” as kids. It's possible that, if you are used to that mindset, any kind of disobedience from children could raise a red flag.
We can use our reason to discern if a kid’s behavior is truly a worrying act of defiance that could cause serious consequences, a pattern of behavior that shows bad intentions and unethical tendencies—or just a minor or fleeting issue.
A case in point: Does it make sense to get super angry if your kid is rude to you? I have been there, and it’s not a good feeling. Expressing a ton of anger will likely backfire, as Seneca would surely tell us. We will get better results (and model better behavior) if we can say something calmly and firmly about everyone deserving respect and common courtesy. Rational consequences, such as privileges being lost temporarily until behavior reflects our values, may also be appropriate.
When the going gets tough, here are words from Epictetus:
With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it… if hard work lies in store for you, you’ll find endurance; if vilification, you’ll find forbearance. (Handbook, 1.10)
When our children are older, there may even come a time when we’ll look back and laugh at what went on when they were kids, as the cliché goes. Let’s do our best to make it to that moment together, relationships and sanity intact.
In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
“I don’t know how to take compliments, Mom,” one of my daughters said. When someone praises her—even one of her parents—she often looks distinctly uncomfortable. She says she doesn’t know what to do in response to our words. “It makes me feel embarrassed.”
I’ve asked her about this, and I discovered that part of her reaction comes from the fact that she does not want other people to feel less-than compared to herself. Also, she’s genuinely concerned that the praise might just come from others “being nice” to her, rather than making objectively true statements.
In this sense, she is quite unlike a lot of adults. Most of us love to hear “great job” or “you’re awesome” or “you’re better than the rest.” We don’t necessarily stop to question the praise.
Why are we so taken in by flattery? Why is it so easy to sway our minds with compliments? Perhaps as we get older—as we suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in our daily lives—we’re just happy for any kind words that come our way?
I’ve wondered about this question for quite a while. And my recent close reading of Stoic writer and Roman statesman Seneca has given me even more food for thought when it comes to flattery and what it can lead us to think—and do. This is particularly relevant in today’s political landscape.
In letter 59, Seneca focuses on “Why does stupidity have so firm a hold over us?” He goes on to say this about why we can’t shake free of “stupidity” (underlining below is my own):
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good people, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods; we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behavior. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture, ‘most generous’ while he is plundering, and ‘most abstinent’ in the midst of drunkenness and lust. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
This passage fascinates me, in part because it’s still so true today. We are happy to think we’re already top-notch and don’t need improvement. The Stoic project of “making progress” only appeals to those who feel they want to do and be better.
And taking an even closer look at Seneca’s words, they made me think back over the 2020 US presidential election, and the violence last week at the US Capitol. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of extreme behavior has been fostered by “shamelessly heaped” flattery, especially by those who “often utter many falsehoods.” The soon-to-be-former president knows how to use flattery as a tool expertly. The day of the storming of the Capitol, he said this to the assembled audience, some of whom soon became rioters: “But just remember this. You’re stronger, you’re smarter. You’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to do with us, and you’re the real people. You’re the people that built this nation. You’re not the people that tore down our nation.”
There is irony there, given what the crowd went on to do at the US Capitol right after this speech—tear down the fences guarding the Capitol building, attack police officers, break windows and doors, destroy and loot government property, and send Congress members (as well as the vice president) and their staffs into hiding to avoid the violence. My daughters and I watched it happening on TV in shock. Now teens, my children are old enough to grasp the importance of what happened. Across America, parents have been explaining these unheard-of events to their kids.
It was a day that Americans won’t soon forget, and rioters are now being tracked down by law enforcement and arrested for their illegal actions.
Congress members are now quoting the words of an American framer of the constitution, Alexander Hamilton, on his warning against would-be despots who use flattery and chaos to gain power. Hamilton wrote about his fears in a letter to George Washington. Here’s the full quote (note the passage using the word "flatter," in my underlining):
“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits — despotic in his ordinary demeanour — known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty — when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity — to join in the cry of danger to liberty — to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion — to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day — It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’”
This description suits current situation well. Fortunately, many leaders have been quick to condemn the current devolution into violent “storm” as well as the person “directing the whirlwind.”
Since these events, I’ve done more reading on why flattery works—even if it is not based on the truth. Psychologists point out that when a person delivers a compliment, the automatic response of most individuals is to feel more positive towards the one delivering it. A 1978 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “The Extra Credit Effect in Interpersonal Attraction,” demonstrated that subjects liked the people who praised them more than other people, a phenomenon they called “return liking.” This was true even when the subjects realized that the flattery might be a means of getting something from them, and/or it was obviously inaccurate. A psychology professor, Bob Cialdini, put it this way in describing the research: “Positive comments produced just as much liking for the flatterer when they were untrue as when they were true. That’s how powerful praise and compliments and statements of liking [are] for us.”
So let’s take our cue from Seneca. Like my daughter, we should beware of compliments—and especially, beware the flatterer telling us what we’d like to hear, rather than what’s true. Remember: The person whispering in our ear might just be manipulating us into liking him or her, despite his or her own bad motives or flaws, and our own. We need to keep a clear-eyed, rational grounding in reality and combat being swayed by flattery.
My family learned this week that our children’s schools will begin completely online this year. With the coronavirus on the rise in California as in much of the US, the circumstances just won’t be safe enough for in-person classes in late August. And we have no idea when the pandemic will be under control.
Along with the decrease in learning that most families anticipate with remote school, there are lost opportunities for the sports, arts, and social activities that make school more appealing to so many young people. My daughters sorely missed completing their sports seasons when the lockdown hit. That’s just one example of the rich school-based experiences that they can't pursue right now, because they could pose significant risks to students, teachers, coaches, staff, and their families. And on top of that, kids feel isolated from their friends, which doesn't improve their ability to cope.
So with the virus, what is also growing is a sense of frustration and, some days, sadness and anger. The situation goes far, far beyond school, of course. Frustration and anger at a raging pandemic. At so many suffering, often from things that could possibly have been prevented. At systems that seem broken, with deadly consequences. At a huge range of things outside our individual control.
While Stoic ideas have helped me manage my frustration as an adult, we also need to support our kids through this difficult time by focusing on their difficult emotions. Maybe this tough period could be a chance for them to grow their own resilience. Some kids are mature enough or self-aware enough to begin to understand when and why they become frustrated or angry, and to take active steps to cope.
In this post, I’d like to explore how to handle kids’ frustration and anger from a Stoic perspective as we continue to live under Covid-19 limitations. There are some simple ideas and actions that could help our children with frustration. These aren’t meant to be a silver bullet—there will still be lots of trying times, and this is just a brief overview. (This post won't focus on educating children at home during the pandemic, but maybe a future post will delve into that!)
Kids’ Proto Passions and Bad Passions
Kids are feeling the pain of lockdowns, and some are experiencing much more serious issues, such as people around them becoming ill or losing their jobs. Many children have spent months without the in-person support of peers, teachers, coaches, and extended family.
For all children, frustration builds quickly now that they are stuck in their homes so much of the time, and subject to new rules and restrictions.
Children often experience what ancient Stoics thought of as “proto passions”—involuntary emotional responses that arise from deep within. Young kids, especially those younger than 7, haven’t yet learned the tools for controlling these emotions. They can’t access their sense of reason effectively. Their strong feelings turn into “bad passions” much more readily than in most adults. Parents sometimes call kids’ rising emotions the “red zone”: When emotions run so hot that children start to have tantrums. This is not a teachable moment for any child. Words alone can’t resolve these kinds of overwhelming feelings.
Fortunately, many of the Stoic-inspired actions/approaches for coping with anger for adults can apply to children, too.
A Few Stoic-Inspired Strategies for Frustration
First of all, the Stoics believed that to deal with frustration and anger, we need to first notice it is happening. There are physical signs that we can pick up on, and we can help children learn to watch out for. For instance, tightness in our chest, flushing of our cheeks, tenseness of shoulder muscles, pain in our stomach, sweaty palms, dry throat or mouth.
Also, consider "naming and taming" big feelings, as some psychologists advocate. One of my kids began to pinpoint her negative emotions around age 7. She started to feel them physically and think of them as characters. She gave them names (kind of like in the movie Inside Out), and by identifying them, she made these feelings more manageable.
Second, many straightforward Stoic methods for coping with anger can help kids today. These include:
Essentially, children need a break to re-activate their reasoning mind. Even if you call this a “time out,” it should be geared to help calm the child’s racing brain and rising emotional temperature, rather than viewed as a punishment or painful isolation for a “misbehaving” youngster.
Instead of Taking It Personally, Take Back Your Power
Another lesson from Stoicism for our kids: To try not to take things too personally. This is extremely hard for children as well as adults. Yet it is a critical lesson, if we’re to avoid having a victim mentality as we go through our days.
For instance, if a child is losing a game, she might think: “Other people are cheating. This game is rigged. It’s not fair.” But in fact, she might just be having bad luck. This is how the world often works, too (although if you see genuine bias or prejudice, you should call that out).
The essential idea that we can emphasize to our children: Even when things don’t go your way, you control how you respond. Take back your own power to react to a situation in a way you can feel proud of, rather than let it take over you and hijack your emotions.
And one more tactic to remember for frustrated kids. When something goes wrong, try again. Failing at a game, sport, activity, or test is not a sign of a personal shortcomings as a human being, or an indicator of low personal worth.
Many factors outside our control create failures big and small. If we can have the self-compassion to pick ourselves up and try again, we train ourselves to become more resilient. It’s a major indicator for success in life overall, one that’s discussed in Grit by Angela Duckworth and other books.
My daughter was baking a cake the other day, and she was experimenting with multiple layers of cake and frosting. While placing frosting onto the outside, the whole thing began to crumble. Queue the tears, and a completely understandable outburst of sadness and frustration. Her perfect plan and several hours’ work was being destroyed right before her eyes, through no fault of her own! The chef in my family, my husband, stepped in to provide moral support and actual advice for how to fix this “failure.” The cake could be remade differently, and the crumbling might even be stopped with more refrigeration.
Not all failures are as “sweet” as this one. Many have serious consequences. But by starting small with minor failures at home and school, kids can learn to handle failure. They could move on, motivate themselves to understand better, and try again in a new way in the future. The concept of cultivating a “growth mindset” rather than a fixed notion of a “talent” or “ability” in an area can also encourage kids to keep trying and learning rather than giving up (this approach was made popular by psychologist Carol Dweck, who distinguished a growth mindset from a fixed mindset).
Frustration and Reason
In today’s pandemic, parents of younger kids are the ones juggling the most intense parenting, with the fewest breaks. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel as young ones get older: At around ages 7 to 9, kids begin to lay down the structure for reasoning in their brains, and these areas grow significantly at age 13.
As children are able to use their rational brains more effectively, the Stoic guidance for frustration centers around building self-awareness and taking a break from proto emotions to return to reason. Kids, as they get older, can train themselves to spot problems before they enter a full-blown meltdown. Older kids, especially teens, can also keep this in mind: The virtues can always be our guide. Before you do something, ask, "Is it wise, just, brave, and demonstrating self-control?"
All of these approaches could help break down frustrations into smaller packages, that can be flagged and managed with increasing skill. Most often, it is parent role models who can make the difference in showing kids how to deal with big emotions. I’m not at all perfect here myself—I am definitely no Stoic sage!
Still, I think that gentle reminders that we can handle our frustration calmly, and demonstrations of how to do so, can provide a healthy reality check for kids who may view their problems as both enormous and permanent. Try to think back to a time when, as a kid, you felt that “everything is terrible and nothing will ever change.” Do you remember how overwhelming that seemed?
Fortunately, Stoic ideas can also help us recall that all things are fleeting in our much bigger universe, including those that frustrate, annoy, or anger us. Whether we view it as a positive or as a negative, change is the only constant. Which means that ultimately, this pandemic will also pass. And no matter what comes our way, we can look forward to more opportunities to practice our Stoic approaches with new challenges.
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.