Stoic parenting fail
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I’ve been watching the History channel series Colosseum, which explores how the huge arena played a role in solidifying power and influence in ancient Rome. The show is filled with computer-generated imagery of ancient Rome, actors playing gladiators and gladiatrixes, beast masters, Roman leaders, and victims of the Colosseum’s violence, with historians to give it all context.
What I did not expect to find in this depiction of Roman “bread and circuses” was a glaring example of a Stoic parenting fail: The Emperor Commodus, son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His story is a cautionary tale to all Stoic parents.
Marcus Aurelius was the model Stoic. He had been educated by Stoic teachers. He personified the Stoic virtues, and his poetic and personal writing about his effort to implement Stoic ideals in the Meditations still resonates with people who read it today, just as it has done throughout the centuries.
But when it came to his son Commodus, Marcus’ philosophy could not save him.
Marcus was the last of the so-called “five good emperors” of Rome during the empire’s Golden Age. He took his obligations and responsibilities extremely seriously when it came to managing the government and was celebrated for his wise judgment. He fought invaders attacking Roman holdings as well as the plague attacking his citizens. But his efforts to raise Commodus, his only son to live to adulthood and the young man who took over the empire after his death, had disastrous results.
Commodus bankrupted Rome’s treasury on elaborate, bloody contests at the Colosseum (including his own performance as a gladiator, for which he paid himself the equivalent of millions of today’s dollars), made peace with warlike enemies who promptly re-invaded Italy, and tortured and killed members of the Senate. He escaped the city when the plague ran wild, and his corrupt delegates caused an economic meltdown and famine, causing many deaths. His paranoia about being assassinated led to countless murders upon his orders. Commodus even wielded a club like his hero the mythological Hercules and used it to clobber victims brought into the Colosseum during his violent “games.”
After so much destruction, Commodus was, in fact, assassinated—killed by his own wrestling trainer on the orders of other Roman leaders who witnessed his descent into madness. (If you saw the movie The Gladiator, Commodus was the evil emperor depicted there in a fictionalized retelling, in some ways less bad than the original.) Historians point to Commodus’ rule as the dividing line between an ascendant Rome in its golden age and its long decline.
How is it possible that Commodus could have turned out to be so awful—despite being the son of such a wise father?
Whether or not Marcus thought of himself as a “Stoic parent,” he definitely wanted his son to be well educated and he surely wished to leave the empire in good hands. But he had a tough time. Even while working nonstop to fight wars on Rome’s behalf, Marcus took pains to provide excellent tutors to educate Commodus. He brought Commodus along to the military base during the wars, exposing him to what it was like to defend the empire, and then asked the great physician Galen to help protect the boy from the raging plague. Marcus also took Commodus with him on a trip to the Eastern provinces and to Athens, where they were initiated together into the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret religious tradition.
But Commodus still turned out to be an irresponsible, corrupt, and murderous emperor. His temperament played a role. Commodus was a deeply flawed young man whose character was completely different from his father’s—volatile and, according to some Romans, cowardly, as well as averse to hard work. He was easily swayed by people around him. Some contemporaries in Rome thought he must have been the product of a different father, pointing out that Marcus’ wife was allegedly having affairs with gladiators.
Could Marcus have played a different and better role in his son’s upbringing? That is one of those what-if situations we’ll never really know about. He did a great deal to educate and influence Commodus, all the while managing the most powerful Mediterranean empire the world has ever seen through war and plague (which likely killed him). And it’s easy to imagine how Commodus’ enormous power went to his head as a teenage boy, no matter his upbringing. He was only 18 when his father died, leaving the empire in his hands.
I think this story demonstrates three things: First, how little control we have over our children’s temperament. Second, how much external influences outside our power can shape our offspring. Both of these elements should be familiar to Stoics: We have limits on what we are able to change, and we need to come to terms with that.
And third, this story shows that no matter how busy or preoccupied we become with work and our own callings, we should attempt to make the time needed to raise our kids to be decent human beings. (As a corollary, we should forgive ourselves if we fail.)
Marcus did what he could to train Commodus, especially when he was a teen. But I’m sure that the pressures and responsibilities of running the Roman Empire at its height left little time for really getting to know and influence his son, causing him (like anyone in his role, surely) to rely instead on tutors and assistants.
My personal takeaway from the Marcus and Commodus story is to remember to take a step back from work whenever I can to be there for my children and family. Many parents and caregivers I know have changed from full-time to part-time employment, left jobs, or opted for full-time positions that offer stability and limited hours to be able to take care of children during their formative years (realizing that not everyone has the financial flexibility or option to do so). For those who can make it work, spending time with kids in their younger years can demonstrate the value of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control… instill caring about and helping other people (encouraging our pro-social nature as humans)… and model how to question what we think we know, and understand what’s going on below the surface (stop, drop, and question your impressions!).
All this is well and good, you may say, but how much is enough, and how much is too much time and influence on our children? During the pandemic, some parents learned the limits of what they could and wanted to do. The shutdown of many schools and daycare services demanded that caregivers spend more time teaching and helping our kids—which was sometimes very demanding, especially to parents stretched thin by many responsibilities. It was made all the more tough when in-person social contact was cut off.
In the ideal world, we’d find a middle ground. We wouldn’t leave our kids to learn everything from school and other kids and YouTube and TikTok – we’d be there to teach our values. We also wouldn’t be stuck at home continuously with our kids, serving as their only influence, cut off from everyone else. Instead, we would balance our community’s educational and social influences with family- and caregiver-instilled virtues and values.
There are lots of ways to find this path, and there’s no one right answer, but simply searching for this middle-ground way forward—and prioritizing sharing our life philosophy with ours kids and our communities in the time we do have—seems to be the rational approach to working to shape our kids into good human beings. We can also acknowledge that kids are individuals, with their own temperaments and characters, and there are limits to what parents can do to form and educate them.
Please share your thoughts on this, and any other aspects of Stoic parenting in the comments!
Back to school jitters, part 13
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Whenever my kids are heading back to school, I have an early warning system: My stomach kicks into action, summersaulting and twisting, and I start popping Tums like there’s no tomorrow.
(The candy-colored coated chewy ones don’t taste sooooo bad. I’ve recently used up a full jar of the stuff and am becoming a connoisseur of orange vs. pink vs. yellow. Beware the less-soft generic brands that threaten your dental work!)
This all started back when my older daughter had her very first week of kindergarten 13 years ago. I can hardly believe that as I type this: 13 years ago!
That was before I turned to modern Stoic thinking, which I’ve now been practicing for the last 6+ years. Stoicism has definitely helped, but not completely solved these nervous feelings, which is why I’m still writing about them today.
She was a young student for kindergarten, only 4 years old. But she was bright and imaginative and bored with her part-time preschool. Plus, she made the public school kindergarten age cutoff back then (now, she wouldn’t), so we figured she would benefit from starting “real” school.
But that first morning, when I heard my daughter’s kindergarten teacher’s voice booming at the small children and watched the door closed behind her, as unsmiling parents standing around turned away from me, uninterested in any kind of mutual support—I felt a distinct churning inside.
Our local public school, it turned out, was mostly stick and just a little carrot for the students. Treatment of kids could be harsh or humiliating. Parents were viewed by administrators as unreliable or even problematic. Communication with families was an afterthought, and conditions weren’t always supportive or even safe. At the back to school night, where “childcare would be provided” so parents could sit through a lecture about the school’s rules and regulations, care consisted of stuffing dozens of kids under the age of 6 into a single sweltering room with one person to watch them, a TV set showing a cartoon drowned out by raucous voices.
I know that the early school experience was tough on my daughters. As young kids, elementary students can't always explain what's going on. They can't always tell us their teachers are not supportive or caring, or that they feel singled out. I wish I could protect my children from everything tough, but I haven't been able to do that with their school experiences. It's hard to hear about their ups and downs (especially hearing about it much later, when there's nothing at all that can be done). But when I take a step back, I hope these tough times have been character building and strengthening for them in some ways.
But why do I feel it so much physically? As my older child starts her senior year of high school and my younger daughter begins high school this month, why do I wake up with twisting intestines? Are other parents experiencing this?
Just the other night, my younger daughter came to my room at nearly midnight. She is generally an early to bed, early to rise person, so I was surprised. She was having trouble sleeping the night before her freshman orientation at high school. Guess what? So was I!
We chatted for a while. Nothing I said helped. But at least we could visit for a few minutes to distract our worrying minds and tense bodies. She borrowed my weighted blanket and went back to her room. In the morning, dressed in her new jeans and ready to go, she said the blanket helped her sleep. And that she felt fine. More than I can say for myself as I went back to sit down and doubled over again.
Sending our kids to school is very stressful. It starts with the page after page after page of paperwork required of families just to start the school year, along with activities and sports, in our district—which I’ve been making my way through.
When classes actually begin, students encounter a lot of challenging stuff. It’s outside our control, setting up a classic case-in-point of how a Stoic should respond: By not wasting time and energy worrying about it. By not overidentifying. By not focusing on all the things outside our control, and staying on top of our character and that of our children. As Epictetus put it in his spitting-truth way, “When I see an anxious person, I ask myself, what do they want? For if a person wasn’t wanting something outside of their own control, why would they be stricken by anxiety?” (Discourses, 2.13.1)
This is the crux of Stoic parenting—trying to prepare our kids to be the best versions of themselves when coping with unpredictable and chaotic situations, and steeling ourselves to handle whatever the universe throws at us. What we want is learning, growth, enrichment, and positive social connections for our kids at school, but we have to accept that so much else may come instead—or along with it.
So it’s not easy. Most of what I think about is how will they adjust. Will it be something they can effectively handle or something that actually harms them? Also, is it safe? Not just safe from disease (including Covid, which I’m concerned could spike with all the kids in classrooms together) but also from violence? That is not a given at American schools, especially if you watch the news these days. In our system, an added layer of concern is that I am not sure what kinds of support students get at school if things do go wrong.
I recently noticed a book title at my local store called something like “I Don’t Want to Be an Empath Anymore.” It made me chuckle and shake my head. There are days it’s just too much. Often I think I feel more stressed out for them than they feel for themselves!
On some level, maybe I am having subtle flashbacks of my own awkward and anxious back to school days… (Maybe this is why I’ve always disliked fall, and loved spring. Subconscious brain at work?)
When I line up all the unknowables and sources of uncertainty or danger, my Stoic-aspiring brain reels. It makes me consider my options. Would my kids be better off homeschooled? It’s possible, but I got a taste of that during the pandemic lockdowns, and the answer for my family was no. Both my children seem to get their energy from interacting with other humans, not just their parents. They hated being at home in the pandemic. Plus I know I don’t have the ability (or time) to teach Calculus BC (though my husband helps!).
So to school it is.
And now, on top of that, my older daughter has spent some of her summer preparing to apply to colleges. Some of the schools she is aiming for are very far away. She is excited and nervous and scared and stressed. Can you guess how I feel? Another ambivalent mess. I want her to pursue her goals, but also know I’ll have some worries. I will remind myself that we are all just moving through this universe of impermanence, in the best way we can, and that we’ve prepared our kids to the best of our abilities. I turn back to Marcus Aurelius and other ancient writers for wisdom.
Do you have kids in your life going back to school? Please share your thoughts on back to school jitters for you or your kid(s) or the challenges of starting new schools!
What Can I DO in Tough Times?
“Are we going to be OK?” I could see the look in my daughter’s eyes turn fearful as she lay on her bed holding her pillow to her chest, a distinct note of anxiety in her voice. So many things to worry about... so many concerns for a teen girl becoming a young woman to face. I felt sadness welling within me. I didn’t know how to answer, but I said, “Yes, we’ll be OK.” I needed to reassure her, though in truth I could use the reassurance myself. I, too, was struggling with how to move forward in a positive way.
It has been a tough few months—years, honestly—in the US. Whether I’m talking to my teen daughters as they look with concern to the future, reading the newspaper with its page after page of stories of violence (here and abroad), or having coffee with friends who are despairing about the direction of our country, it has been challenging.
In the wake of so much turmoil, I often wonder about this question: What can I do? How can my family and I make a difference when there are so many powerful forces at play and so many reasons to worry?
We all know that the dichotomy of control is fundamental to the Stoic world view. There are certain things that are in our power, and many, many others that are not. When it comes to political power structures in Washington, for one, individuals have frustratingly little influence. We should vote, of course, and we should encourage others to vote. We should support causes we care about, and try our best to protect our rights and our safety by raising our voices to our leaders.
In reality, we can only create change in the small ways that are available to us. So let’s talk about that. In some ways, I’m writing this post to help myself and my family find a path forward with meaning and virtue. I hope you’ll read it as an effort to make even the smallest of differences.
Here’s what I think we can do:
I turn back to my Stoic ideas to remind myself not to get swept along by fears and sorrows about current events. While I can’t dismiss all my feelings as mere impressions—I’m not a sage yet—I can take a deep breath and ground myself in the real here and now with my daughters and husband, with my community, and with those whose work I read and take inspiration from (both ancient and very modern).
Stoicism is an evergreen philosophy that takes us out of judgment and hatred and violence, and into virtue and action and practical wisdom. Let’s make it our guide as we fortify our minds and energies, and seek to make a world that welcomes and supports human flourishing for all.
“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated–tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom [or philosophers] who say that only the educated are free” ~ Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.21-23a
Most of us remember panicking before taking a test in school. The stress made these kinds of questions pop into our minds: Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? What if I forget what I learned? What if I get confused and make mistakes? What if I get a headache and can’t focus? What if my brain is too tired to do this?
My kids experience this kind of stress daily, especially my high schooler. And some tests are bigger than others. My 11th grader is getting ready to take the SAT, and even though some schools aren’t requiring it anymore, it’s been an anxiety-producing right of passage for college applicants for decades.
But what if you didn’t have to “do” school and testing this way? What if the high-stakes testing approach taken by most high schools isn’t working for the bulk of the students… and what if there were a better way?
I’m no expert on education, but I’ve spent a while observing my children’s public school experiences, and I’ve reflected on my own schools. I’ve also worked in the past with education professors, to learn about how they teach teachers and what kinds of teaching methods they promote.
What I’m coming to see is that so much of the current system is just not functioning for so many students. During the pandemic, a lot of failures in the way students are taught and assessed came to light, especially for those in underserved or underfunded districts and those dealing with challenges at home. Students got report cards filled with Ds and Fs, and were forced into summer school. They hadn’t learned the material, but then again, the teaching approach hadn’t given them much of a chance once they fell behind or missed tests due to tough online learning conditions.
That’s why teachers and school districts are starting to downplay testing and even grading via rigid points systems. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, teachers and administrators described the changes they were making as the pandemic and school closures severely affected student performance—and as they began to see academic differences among groups. The story describes
… a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Los Angeles and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined—have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.
My kids got a taste of this kind of approach in their middle school, when their math teacher offered them a chance to retake tests to improve their scores. It greatly lessened their stress about individual tests without dimming their desire to learn the material. In fact, they learned more overall by retaking tests that at first seemed daunting, and by studying the material for longer, in greater depth.
Unfortunately, in the local high school, courses don’t work this way. Students are thrown into midterms and finals and high points value final projects where they don’t even know how they’re being assessed until their semester grades are entered into the official grade book—too late to change anything or learn anything new for that particular unit.
It’s painful. It’s arbitrary. And it doesn’t give students a chance to actually improve if something goes wrong.
My high school daughter explains that many of her teachers are “teaching to the test.” She says they want students can do well enough to pass final exams—but that they are not teaching in a way that prepares her and her classmates for the next class in the series. That’s been particularly tough with the unevenness of teaching and class environments during the pandemic.
On top of the mercurial and stressful nature of testing and grading this way, there’s the added element of the many inequities in education that are now being put under the microscope. For both reasons, a new approach is needed. It’s something that I think Epictetus would agree with: He was clear that all people deserved to be educated to become free in their minds—not just the few. All people should have a chance at liberating themselves through learning… no matter the circumstances.
Standardized tests have also been a thorn in the side of teachers for decades, as teacher performance as graded based on testing. To quote Daniel Koretz of Harvard Graduate School of Education,
To undo the problems created by test-based accountability, teachers must refocus instruction on teaching the underlying knowledge and skills that any good test should reflect, rather than spending time preparing kids for the specific test used for accountability.
Again, the argument comes down to helping students master a body of knowledge and skills, rather than assessing a single snapshop of what students memorized and could spit back out onto the page on a specific day.
Side note: This is not to say that student behavior such as tardiness or attendance issues, missing assignments, etc., shouldn’t have any impact or any measurement. In fact, some schools working on mastery approaches are adopting a “citizenship” grading system to capture some of these elements, separate from the typical transcript. It wouldn’t be part of students’ GPA.
Here in Northern California, a local independent school near my home uses a “mastery-based learning model,” which they explain this way: “Students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of all competencies and skills identified in a course before moving on, thereby reducing the number of ‘gaps’ in their education. Academic progress in a discipline is decoupled from age… While the time it takes a student to finish a course may vary, the depth of mastery remains constant.” When their students apply to colleges, they submit a mastery transcript, rather than one full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds.
In some California schools, districts expect students to know 80% of the material before they can move on from a unit; they aren’t allowed to pass through without demonstrating competency.
This approach is already well underway far outside of California, too, and larger districts or even states have already adopted it—showing it isn’t only an option for small or private schools.
Mastery-based education, also known as competency-based education, has taken root in the state of Idaho, for example. The Idaho state department of education website says that the Idaho legislature voted to move towards this style of teaching in 2014, and that
Mastery-based education empowers students, personalizes learning, supports the demonstration of competencies (the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that lead to success), and recognizes mastery by allowing students to advance as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace.
With Mastery-Based Education, failure is not an option. Mastery systems give students the opportunities they need to demonstrate their competency with appropriate pacing and supports. Assessments are purposeful and demonstrate what students can do, not just what they know. Learning is flexible, self-paced, engaging, and focused on building skills critical to college, career, and life…
The most promising thing I’ve taken away from this approach is the quote above: "Failure is not an option."
This way of thinking, to me, embodies a Stoic message: It’s through adversity that we can learn the most, and that we have the chance to build and deploy our virtues. It’s by learning skills for the sake of understanding and growth that we better ourselves and exercise our human excellence, not simply cramming to prove ourselves to others or compete with them. It’s when we fail that we see we could do better and keep going, acting on what is in power at any given moment. It’s our intention to learn and improve as humans that powers us forward.
This idea of working at it until you master something is difficult for many students, and it may seem easier to assign a grade (even if it's low) and move on... but shouldn't we give students the chance to build real skills?
This is a timely concept. In a period when many, many students received Ds and Fs during online learning in 2020-21, and when many classes and instructors weren’t able to adequately help students understand the subject matter, we have to re-think what it means to “fail” students.
My Journey as a Girl Scout Leader
One of the best decisions I made as a mom was to become a Girl Scout leader. Now, it is the end of an era… I’m retiring from this volunteer role with 10 years total service to the Girl Scouts (across 2 different troops).
After all these years, our troop finally disbanded after the girls got older, moved, left our school district, etc. We have now officially transferred the remaining girls out of our troop and into another one.
Over the years, I hope I’ve made a difference, even a small one, with this volunteering. It changed me, at least: Working with kids starting from first grade onwards helped me evolve as a mom and a volunteer.
This effort is on my mind now as I write from the perspective of a Stoic parent—largely because of a critique I keep hearing about Stoicism.
Stoics are blamed for not engaging in, or even caring about, the world around us. People say that Stoic life philosophy isn’t a good influence because Stoics just focus on themselves and their own inner peace… that they block themselves off from everything, and are heartless jerks, living without emotion or ties to others. In other words: Stoics are obsessed with their own “inner citadel,” at the expense of problems and issues in the world “out there.” That seems to be the argument of a recent article in Philosophy Now, among others.
To that I say: Wrong! (Perhaps my strong response is not particularly Stoic, but it is honest!)
Another leader and I launched our Girl Scout troop before I adopted a Stoic life philosophy, but this way of thinking has surely helped me as I moved forward in leading of young people.
How? Being a Girl Scout leader—like many forms of teaching and volunteering with younger kids—is about learning how to share control with young people. You need to engage the children you’re working with and provide a framework for girls to grow, while encouraging them to explore things on their own and figure out their way of making it fun or interesting. After all, this program is supposed to be "girl led." As a leader, you are tasked with ensuring that the girls start making decisions as soon as they can.
In the moment, lots of things will go wrong or just be plain messy. That’s OK, in the Stoic worldview. Those moments do not define you as a teacher, volunteer, or person. Just keep on going moment to moment, role modeling the virtues that Stoics promote—fairness, practical wisdom, courage, and self-discipline.
Beginning with first-graders in Girl Scouts meant LOTS of sticky glue projects and bickering over marker colors and antsy kids who didn’t always get along in the early days. There was a less-than-scintillating curriculum about animals that my co-leader and I worked through. There were songs that got endlessly stuck in our heads (even if they were cute at first) and loud carpools and camping trips resulting in sore backs.
In fact, given that there will always be occasional adversity along the way, Stoic thinking actually makes me want to engage more with the world, and reduces my qualms or thoughts of “imposter syndrome” about having something to offer other people as a volunteer.
And now, I can see the payoff. Over the past year, and with the support of both co-founding leaders, the girls in our troop partnered together to complete a Silver Award. They created an online webinar designed for younger kids (2nd to 5th graders) during the pandemic. Their presentations, videos, quizzes, and website focused on health, with units covering Covid-19 safety, bicycle safety, and nutrition—all top-of-mind topics for young kids and their parents during lockdowns.
In addition, a couple years back, a group of three girls in our troop did their Bronze Award project about how to be a good and safe pedestrian—a vital lesson here in California where pedestrians are in danger, even in seemingly quiet suburban neighborhoods.
As a leader, I helped to guide these efforts. Working with the girls in our troop required less and less from the adults, and more and more leadership from the girls, with each passing year (though the amount of paperwork needed never diminished, and I owe a huge debt to the other leader who co-founded the troop for handling that!).
That evolution has been an important way of building the girls’ confidence and skills, as well as their desire to address real-world problems, as they now prepare for high school next year. It's been really remarkable to see them grow from young kids focused on drawing with their favorite color marker to adolescents who care about helping and teaching other people.
To learn more about how Stoic-inspired living can inspire us to improve the world around us, check out the book Being Better by Kai Whiting and Leonidas Konstantakos. It highlights numerous opportunities to make a positive impact on our societies and communities.
This counter argument against the anti-Stoic nay-sayers is quite clear when you look at famous Stoics from history, most of all Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor of Rome. He clearly could not just withdraw from public life and ignore making important decisions about the external world... nor did he shy away from it. We don’t either.
Every year when my daughters go back to school, I find myself feeling queasy, a nervous pit in my stomach and a pounding in my head.
I’m sure a lot of parents remember the first time they dropped off a child at kindergarten and the trepidation of putting your kid in the hands of an unknown teacher and unfamiliar school. For me, that feeling is now multiplied times two (both my kids) and, really, times twelve (the number of classes and teachers my kids now have as middle and high schoolers).
And on top of all that, the pandemic. Younger kids don't yet have the option of getting vaccinated, and that creates layers of worry. Older kids, even if vaccinated, could bring home breakthrough infections caught at school.
And on top of all THAT, what the students have gone through during these 15 months of closure or semi-closure of schools during lockdowns. It's been a time of massive emotional upheaval for people of all ages, but even more critical for developing minds.
All students have been utterly changed by this experience. Never in modern American history have kids had to spend so much time sitting at home—separated physically from their peers—and ruminating on their experiences, their challenges, their identities. Never have they shown up to school so anxious, from what I’ve seen, and yet so hungry for social interaction and human contact. News story after story document the anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other mental and emotional challenges that students have been going through, not to mention the educational setbacks caused by a lack of in-person education in many areas across the country.
Research is demonstrating the impact. A study published in September 2020 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that of 195 students surveyed, "71% indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors were identified that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic), difficulty in concentrating (89%), disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%), decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%), and increased concerns on academic performance (82%)."
In the same vein, a Penn State teen anxiety study from late 2020 showed an increase in anxiety severity of 29%, with generalized anxiety up 46% and school anxiety up 143%.
Teachers are feeling it too. I’ve read alarming statistics about the number of teachers who have recently quit or are considering quitting. It’s been a nearly impossible burden for them to manage online learning and in-class hybrid learning and their own lives. Now, with our schools in California back to fully in-person teaching, I hope it will begin to return to something resembling the profession that they chose. But my daughters have reported that even mild-mannered teachers expressed frustration with students and classroom management in the first days back. So this adjustment period is going to take time for both teachers and students.
And it is also a major adjustment and a scary time for parents. For the first time in 15 months, both my kids were at in-person public school for the past few weeks, away from home for long stretches. I miss the feeling of sheltering from the storm together in our home fortress, where we could still find glimmers of fun and mutual support among all the dirty dishes and piles of dirty face masks and orphan socks. Even knowing how bad things have been, and still are, made us feel that we had to be strong together.
Now, it’s back to a new reality that echoes the old school days, but with a difference. We have been receiving frequent notifications of Covid exposures at the local high and middle schools. We’re doing home tests we bought at Walgreens much more often than I thought we would. We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. But I wonder if there is no real “best” in this situation.
During the day while my kids are at school, I picture them fighting the crowds in the halls and passageways of their overcrowded public schools, places built for a fraction of the current enrollment; I picture them encountering classmates who have radically changed their attitude and appearance in a multitude of ways in these past months on their journey through adolescence, older but not always wiser after extended isolation; I picture them trying to get along with teachers and students who are equally shellshocked by the past year and a half’s experience; I picture them at their sports practices, trying to get back skills and teamwork lost in lockdowns; I picture them at mandatory pep rallies, with hundreds of yelling students standing next to them (is this a good idea in a pandemic? They did move the recent rally outdoors after massive student protest at the high school... this move happening “for the first time in 10 years,” according to the student newspaper).
Odd things have indeed been happening on campus: A freshman boy brought a gun my daughter's high school campus last week, and the police descended after it was reported to administrators (luckily no one was hurt). And students have been stealing the soap dispensers and other fixtures from student bathrooms at the middle school, part of a TikTok challenge, just at a time when kids need to practice good hygiene. Teachers are now monitoring and checking in students at bathroom doors.
Despite all this, the parents I talk to are happy that in-person school is back so their kids will have a real learning experience and get to see their peers. (Not to mention so that we can work and go about our adult lives.)
But that doesn't make everything simple and easy and "normal" again. The moms and dads I know have been under tremendous pressure in the time of Covid and it hasn't stopped yet. It's even harder on parents who want to get the kids vaccinated, but they still aren't old enough to qualify.
An article in The Atlantic summed up the emotional situation well. Writer Dan Sinker titles his piece “Parents Are Not Okay.” He writes about the back-to-school he’s facing with his kids, ages 16 and 6: “It’s enough to bring a parent to tears, except that every parent I know ran out a long time ago—I know I did. Ran out of tears, ran out of energy, ran out of patience. Through these grinding 18 months, we’ve managed our kids’ lives as best we could while abandoning our own. It was unsustainable then, it’s unsustainable now, and no matter what fresh hell this school year brings, it’ll still be unsustainable. All this and parents are somehow expected to be okay… Parents aren’t even at a breaking point anymore. We’re broken. And yet we’ll go on because that’s what we do: We sweep up all our pieces and put them back together as best we can.”
As a mom, I want to protect my children; I want to fight for them; I want to prevent their suffering and help shape a healthy mindset in them, inspired by Stoic ideas. But now that they are teens living through a pandemic, they need to do all this for themselves. It’s a time for releasing them into the wild, with much higher stakes due to Covid and its impact on students.
I remind myself that they will make the best choices that they can. My husband and I have tried to give our children the tools to cope with this uncertain world. They know about being brave in a rough situation and sticking it out when things are hard. They want to be fair and value other humans. They care about doing the right thing, if they can figure out what that is in the confusing world. I hope the lessons of self-control have sunk in, too; that's not always easy for anyone. Like everything else, all of this is about balancing risks with rewards, dangers with common-sense courage.
It's also a test of all that our children have learned about how to handle an unstable situation with unpredictable humans all around them. I find myself recalling Marcus Aurelius' acknowledgement that other people aren't always aware of what's right/wrong and that their behavior reflects that, yet we still need to work with them. He wrote: "I can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together..." (Meditations 2:1).
As teens, my kids have to make their own choices on how to navigate school. Those choices will be their own, and to a large extent their levels of stress will too. In fact, there’s a very good chance they will handle their feelings better than I will my own, as their mom! That is reassuring. After seeing them off, I popped some Tylenol with a big gulp of water, and turned back to my copy of the Meditations, and to my own work.
If my Stoic practice teaches me anything, it’s that we can all do more to question and reframe our experiences of mental distress, to notice and shape these responses in ways that bring out our courage and wisdom rather than fear and anger. We can continuously work on letting go of the things outside our control that cause us to spiral into worry, and on improving the things we can choose for ourselves. Ultimately, our kids will carve their path using the tools we have given them as a guide… and, fortune willing, they will adapt to find a good flow of life in this chaotic world.
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.