Human flourishing is the primary goal of Stoicism, but we don’t often talk about what it really means, and it feels pretty abstract. We need to examine this concept and how it can be achieved in adults, and in our kids. Since it’s back to school season, this post will focus on our children—many of whom are now returning for the first time in a year and a half to more “normal” school schedules (as the pandemic allows). Later, I’ll write more about our flourishing as adults.
As our kids re-enter the halls of learning, I think we need to take the time to think about how their school environments can promote their ability to be and act as humans—from the simplest physical needs to bigger-picture topics around learning, creativity, and innovative thinking.
I’ve often observed that children, when they become students at school, seem to be expected to behave in non-human ways. Case in point: They are glued to chairs at small tables and desks from a young age, fed academic learning and instructions at rapid-fire.
And the homework. I couldn’t believe the amount of homework my older daughter would bring back in her backpack as a kindergartener, first grader, and second grader in our local public schools. She was young for her class, starting as a 4-year-old kindergartner, and super smart. But understandably, she just didn’t want to sit there doing reams of dull pages of busywork after having sat for hours in school with heavy academic expectations. I remember hovering over her as she sat at her little craft table in our back room, trying desperately to get her to focus on the assignments she found so dull. She wanted to be off imagining stories about magical creatures and mythical gods and goddesses, but there she was, trying her best to do numerous math problems and remember how to spell words to prepare for tests in class.
And the tests! My God the tests. Why do schools constantly test kids so young? I am not a professional educator, but I can say from personal experience that this is heartbreaking both for the children being tested and the parents who try to help them at home. I found it especially unnerving since I also volunteered in the classroom and saw numerous students falling behind. Many didn’t get help at home, and their academic gap was getting wider by the day as the expectations grew on these 4, 5, and 6-year-olds. My daughter had a teacher who announced student test scores out loud, in class, for all to hear. Was this an effort to publicly shame kids into knowing how to spell words? The humiliation was just awful.
If my kids, whose parents are focused on their learning and help them as much as possible, have found school expectations burdensome, traumatic, and often dull, how do you expect that many other students with less support at home have felt in this situation? My daughter has described to me how she saw students lose enthusiasm and just stop caring, especially during middle school.
And it’s not just academic performance, of course. It’s the expectations that kids will behave in certain ways in a standard school setting. I completely understand, and agree, that students need to be respectful to teachers and other students, and not interfere with the learning of others. Having done volunteer teaching, I sympathize with teachers’ needs. Sitting still is really hard for some young kids, and I have observed teachers make accommodations for some students to move around more.
But real problems persist at school with students’ most basic physical needs. For example: why prevent kids from using the bathroom? I was shocked when one of my daughters talked about her teacher limiting student bathroom breaks and scolding the students for needing to go. Sure, the kids should get a hall pass, let their teacher know, etc. However, they need to do basic human functions! And to add to that, when they get to the bathroom, it’s important that they have the basics of toilet paper and soap. Those things were missing from my kids’ middle school for long stretches. (I think the pandemic emphasis on hygiene may have changed this—we will see when my younger daughter starts class again next week.)
And they need to eat lunch, too. Both my daughters were up in arms this week when they discovered that their middle and high schools had shortened their lunch periods for the back to in-person school schedule starting this month. Having a 30 minute lunch break in the midst of tons of academic classes is really not enough for students to eat, have a brief social interaction, and use the restroom, and get to their next class. Especially since many students in our district use the free lunch service, and have to wait in line for food—they just won’t have a real break at all.
On top of that, the local public high school has now decided that in-person 95 minute classes would be a great idea for all high school students. Really? Recent studies have shown that most people can’t focus well in meetings longer than about 30 minutes. This is 3 times that long. It’s going to be tough on both the students, and, I think, the teachers.
All this to say that it sometimes seems that our kids are expected to perform as learning robots, performance machines that speed through math and language arts and reading and science. Their performance on tests and competitions is being carefully monitored from the age of 4. The ability to follow rules and commands is highly prized. Physical needs are constrained, and those who fall outside the typical standards are often marked as disruptive or underperforming. Teachers, too, are assessed on the performance and behavior of their students, and they can only do so much within systems that require huge amounts of testing.
Is this the best way to help our children flourish as humans? To help them discover a “good flow of life” in the Stoic sense, by learning and growing and finding a path into a future careers? In truth, the system has its own intrinsic rewards and punishments, and they are quite far from promoting a good life philosophy aiming towards courage, justice, wisdom, and self-control. (The virtue most emphasized in our schools for the younger grades is self-control, but that’s possibly the hardest for them to master.)
The current system is an OK way to mold students for a certain kind of performance and achievement. It’s perhaps not a bad means for them to learn aspects of discipline, but it’s also not a great approach for finding a meaningful path forward for students’ individual interests and talents, and their character-building.
I think it’s clear that the system could use more humanity. Our students are people, individuals with their own strengths and gifts, and their own areas needing improvement. They have minds, and the ability to think, question, and explore. They need real-world experiences, and it would benefit both students and the world if they were also able to do public service as part of their learning.
And let’s remember that they can’t be expected to be perfect, and they need to be themselves.
As parents, we have learned to tailor our parenting and relationship to each of our children as individuals—we all know that the methods that work with one child, won’t work with another. So that’s what I hope our children’s education can also enable and empower. They can learn, and in fact they can perform on assignments and even tests, while at the same time being kids and human beings. What we need to add to the mix of schooling is the expectation and the celebration of students’ human flourishing, of their advancement not just in learning but in character.
Socrates got in trouble in ancient Athens for corrupting the youth. I hope I wouldn’t be accused of the same thing merely for pointing out ways for our schools to help our children be human.
So: How could schools be more respectful of students’ humanity? Here are a few ideas I've been thinking about from where I sit:
I’m sure that there’s a lot more that could be done, but I am seeking reasonable changes within the system that we are now a part of. That’s a Stoic approach: Examine what’s working and what’s not in the moment, and find openings where our choices and actions matter.
How about you? What are you seeing in your kids’ education that is limiting their humanity, and how do you think it could be changed?
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.
Stoicism: A Quick Intro
This past week was Stoicon 2020, the biggest annual gathering of the modern Stoic community. As I tuned in to this year’s virtual talks – and as I gave one on Stoic Parenting at Stoicon-X Midwest (video coming soon!) – I thought about the core principles that first drew me to this way of thinking and living.
I’d like to share my intro to modern Stoicism here for anyone just getting started or as a brief review for anyone who has practiced for a while. And this quick summary could potentially help older kids or teens get a sense for what Stoic life philosophy is all about.
Here are the Stoic ideas that I use to stay grounded in my family life, confident in my work, and resilient in coping with my challenges:
First: Remember what you can and can’t control. Take the time to discern the difference, and then act on what is within your power.
Stoicism’s most famous principle is the “dichotomy of control”: some things are in our power, including our thoughts, choices, judgment, actions, and beliefs; some things are not in our power, basically everything else, including our health, wealth, physical appearance, and reputation, as well as how other people behave. Mixing up what’s “our business” with the externals that we cannot control is crazy-making. It causes us to place our focus and sense of personal worth onto things that don’t really matter for a truly good life, in the Stoic sense of accessing human excellence.
Not being able to control an outcome doesn’t mean we can’t do something about a problem. We can “act with a reserve clause” as Marcus Aurelius pointed out: The reserve clause tells us that we may not succeed in having an impact, but we can still do what’s within our own power to try to make a difference. So we should go full-speed ahead on what is within our control, even if things may seem nearly impossible to change. Also, we need to be able to steel ourselves to ignore or forget about the rest: the fear, anger, guilt, frustration, put-downs from others. I try to tell myself: “This is my life. I’ll what’s within my power to make it an excellent one.”
Second: Question your impressions and focus on making good moral judgments.
What are impressions? They are the knee-jerk reactions to what we experience in the world. We all have them. It’s what we do with those reactions that determines our future. If we could stop and think, and tap into our inner spark of reason that the Stoics believe we all have inside of us, we could make better choices—ones that are free from anger, hate, fear, anxiety. At every step, with everything we’re about to say or do, we have to question it on some level. And this approach is reflected in modern cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – questioning our misguided beliefs and our thoughts. CBT derives many fundamental ideas from Stoicism.
Thankfully, humans can access their reason to question these instantaneous reactions, and we can learn to tune out a lot of the distractions and temptations around us, to focus on making good judgments.
How can we tell if a judgment is good? We ask ourselves if it aligns to the Stoic virtues. The key virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control or moderation. These are our yardsticks for how we’re developing our character… and for what’s truly good in this world. With each action or behavior or statement, you ask, does it meet the standards of the four Stoic virtues: Is it wise? Is it just? Is it brave? Does it demonstrate moderation / self-control? All of these concepts are open to interpretation. But our personal moral progress/development demands that we try to answer these questions. The more practice we have in thinking this way, the more we’ll learn. This is our Stoic education!
Put another way: In Stoicism, happiness or well-being (eudaimonia in Greek) is the highest aim of moral thought and conduct,and aiming to practice the virtues (aretê, which can also translate as excellence) provide the skills and character development needed to attain it.
Remember the importance of choice here too (the Greek prohairesis). By exerting the power of choice, it is possible to make virtuous choices, aiming towards an overall moral good. Epictetus said: “You yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful.”
Third: Focus on the facts.
You may have heard that living “in accord with nature” is a Stoic goal. For ancient Stoics this meant living in sync with our own human nature, including heeding the spark of reason that’s inside each human, and connecting with and helping other people as our brothers and sisters. More modern interpretations, for instance by the late Lawrence Becker, that say living in accord with nature means following the facts, and making fact- and science-based judgments.
Although our abilities to research and understand the facts of our universe have greatly increased since ancient times, we see that the facts of science are still being disputed in some quarters. We should elevate facts whenever possible. We can ask: Is it true? What’s the evidence?
Let’s take a real-world example: If some people say they don’t believe the latest scientific research on coronavirus, and don’t think there’s a reason for social distancing, here’s a way to think about it. First, you could conclude that they are separated from their reason and can't analyze the facts in a rational way. Second, as a Stoic, you could still express compassion for those people as human beings, despite their misguided beliefs: you can recall our common humanity, try to be a good role model, and keep doing what you can do to make things better. Inside us, there is potential to become a fully realized, excellent human being, and there is also an inborn, constant connection to our common humanity with other people.
Fourth: Make peace with mortality.
I include mortality because of its central place in Stoic thinking. Ancients Stoics believed that if you accept death and aren’t afraid of it, you won’t act out of fear and anxiety in your life.
This principle isn’t easy; everyone wants to keep living as long and as well as we can. It is particularly tough to talk about in a society that worships youth and hides or diminishes death. But if we can acknowledge and accept the reality that there’s a beginning, middle, and end to life, we can become more capable of living in the present, less burdened by anxiety about our trajectory in this world.
A parting thought: I use these principles of Stoic life philosophy as a framework to guide me forward. I’m no Stoic sage, so I can tell you that I don’t always adhere to all these ideas in my daily life—but they give me something to aim for, to work towards. When I succeed in applying these concepts, I feel a sense of progress; when I don’t, I recall that I’m doing the best I can. For me, the act of living is a way of learning, too.
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.
Lockdown Whiplash … and Podcast
The lockdown continues. My family is now into our 6th week of working from home, and our daughters’ 5th week of school from home.
Here in my county in Northern California, around 50 cases of Covid-19 are being reported daily. Fortunately my family and friends are OK so far. (To learn more about what I’ve been up to, check out the Stoic Psychology podcast – described at the end of this post.)
One of the weirdest things about this lockdown is the consciousness whiplash I’m experiencing on a daily basis.
For me, my awareness of the Coronavirus crisis comes in waves. One minute I remember it, and fully know how bad it is for many people in many places. Another moment, I lose track of what’s happening and why I’m home.
My knowledge of the crisis temporarily lapses when I participate in a videocall for work, or even more, as I sit under the live oak tree in the backyard with my kids and take in the springtime air, scented with jasmine and lilac. Then I turn to a news website or Twitter and am confronted with the seriousness of things again.
Going back and forth this way is exhausting and strange, and extremely distracting. It’s as if something is always eating away at the edges of my consciousness.
I realize that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to put the crisis aside periodically in this way, but I feel a pit in my stomach when I recognize, once again, how difficult this is for many people who are sick or caring for the ill, or who are in essential jobs that put them at risk.
We are indeed the lucky ones, for now. I’ve heard from friends, too, that it’s difficult for them to enjoy the luxury of not having to commute through dense traffic, or the benefit of seeing their family more, while others are dealing with a pandemic much more directly and with dire consequences. And how we worry about not just those who are ill or treating them, but the many people who have lost their jobs and income.
Even for those not directly fighting the virus, there is a tremendous challenge. We are now all tasked with taking care of each other and ourselves on a new level. We are the direct caregivers of the young and the elderly in our households, and we are responsible for them, as well as for trying to keep ourselves well and sane. It’s a bit how I imagine life was like in small, remote homesteads in the old days: People cut off for weeks or months from contact, in charge of their own food supply, cooking, house work, brain work/education, and leisure activities (if indeed they had leisure). The amount of child care (or elder care) varies greatly from one household to another, but in any case, it’s new for many people to be providing an all-day supply of food, toilet paper (!), education, and activities around-the-clock.
Weirdly, another casualty of this lockdown is, temporarily, time. It’s not that time has completely lost its meaning. Rather, how we count time has changed because of the new way we’re living. A single day can feel very long, or very short, depending on how we spend it.
The silver lining in all this, for me, is time with family. Family that is usually too busy to spent much time together talking and cooking and playing and chatting during the week.
My husband and I are fortunate, now, to both still work full-time remotely, and our children are staying busy with online school assignments that they complete and hand in remotely. The chores do pile up—as one of our cousins put it, the lockdown has turned us into full-time restauranteurs at home, with a teen and tween needing frequent nourishment and no restaurants, diners, or school lunches on the horizon. So yes, despite this lockdown, we are busy!
Nevertheless, I think this time is one to re-assess what gives our lives meaning. Naturally, we all need to try to keep putting food on the table (literally, and in the sense of staying financially solvent). But beyond that, it’s important to have a purpose. Outside of work (housework or job-work), what motivates our days when all the busy-ness of the daily run-around goes away?
For my kids, it’s been a time of renewal, in a sense. They are developing and re-discovering interests that they never had a chance to explore as much before, when they were spending most hours at school or in sports/activities.
Some examples: Skateboarding. Learning pieces on the piano. Doing jigsaw puzzles. Creating a teen-oriented website. Throwing a virtual party for a friend who missed out on her birthday celebration due to the lockdown. Playing non-competitive Appleletters (a form kind of Scrabble). Baking bread, cookies, cupcakes. Preparing and serving tea with little sandwiches. (Did I mention eating was big at my house right now? Trying to avoid the "quarantine 15" though!)
And for me: I have more time to reflect and to sit quietly, not having to constantly be on the move. The stress of traffic and shuttling kids and making it to in-person work meetings is relieved.
Just one sign of that is that now, I’m finally getting a chance to participate in a podcast. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule of full-time work, full-time parenting, and part-time writing/blogging.
Recently, I was interviewed for the Stoic Psychology podcast by Alex MacLellan from London. If you have a chance, please take a listen! Alex is doing a multi-part series with my interview that also includes his own introductory thoughts, along with his book discussion, and then features selections from my conversation with him. We touched on numerous aspects of being a Stoic parent and how Stoicism can best be shared with kids, and we talked about strategies for making it through the lockdown with our sanity and our life philosophy intact.
Speaking with Alex across continents felt, in a way, like a radical gesture of connection in this time of enormous interpersonal disconnecton. It reminded me that I am thankful for this Stoic community for continuing our links, our writing, our sharing, and for so many people’s efforts to forge ahead with this much-needed life philosophy in a difficult and unusual time. Fortune willing, things will brighten as spring ripens into summer.
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.