Even now as Stoicism has spread in a resurgence around the world, many people still think of it as a “stiff upper lip.” Some see it as a tough, uncompromising ideology that can turn us into modern-day Spartans, impervious to our own pain and unconcerned with the suffering of others.
But these views are narrow and inaccurate. In my vision of Stoic thinking and practice, it’s a way of cultivating our inner resources to make us stronger and better humans, more capable of living fully in the world, and more realistic and reasonable about our place in it.
And that’s why I believe that you can be a Stoic and cultivate compassion for the suffering of other human beings (as well as yourself). In other words: Stoic compassion is not an oxymoron!
I recently gave a talk about how the two approaches—Stoicism and compassion cultivation—can work together side-by-side for the Stoics Care conference. I’d like to share a few highlights of that talk here. You can also check out the video here:
Why Stoic compassion?
Why did I turn to both Stoicism and compassion cultivation, and combine them together in my own life? A number of years ago, I went through a period when I was very stressed. I experienced stress at work, the stress of family needs, financial stress, everyday life stress. And politics played a big role—the divisions and rancor that grew in the public sphere in the US in 2016 was off the charts, and this situation hasn’t subsided since. I felt disconnected and sad and wanted to have a more positive connection with other people. I started practicing Stoicism and then in fall 2016 I took a course on Compassion Cultivation that has influenced me ever since.
The word compassion comes from Latin for “with suffering.” It begins with acknowledging that people face pain, loss, and adversity. The core of compassion is “being there” for others, wishing them happiness and peace. Put simply: “Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of another, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering,” according to James Doty, a co-founder of Compassion Cultivation Training. This 8-week training program that originated at Stanford University in 2009 focuses on insights from psychology, neuroscience, and contemplative practice. It aims to build calm and resilience in the practitioner, and to give techniques to learn how to grow a compassion muscle in ourselves so that we can spread compassion to others.
Compassion allows us to be with another person’s pain without absorbing it into our own being—preserving our sense of inner strength. Compassion for others is a resource that won’t run out, as long as we take care of our own internal resources.
Some people think that if Stoics truly follow their philosophy, they won’t suffer themselves, and perhaps there is nothing that they can do for the suffering of others. I have two things to say to that: first off, we all know many other loved ones, friends, colleagues who are not Stoics and who suffer. And it is our duty as humans—and as Stoics who believe in common humanity, cosmopolitanism, and that need for pro-social interactions inborn in all people—to care about these others and to support them. Second, we ourselves are not Stoic sages and are imperfect beings. That means we are bound to feel negative emotions and suffering, and we must also support and tend to ourselves.
What do Stoicism and compassion have in common?
Now let’s get to the heart of what Stoicism and compassion cultivation have in common.
Both are inexhaustible inner resources. Once you build and maintain these mindsets within yourself, they will never run out! That’s really the key here. You grow Stoic approaches and compassion in your mindset, attitude, and personal practices. Through mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness practices, journaling to encourage and analyze your approach, reading to re-set your mind, and new ways of being with other people, you light this fire within yourself. I will share a bit more about some of these practices at the end of this post.
I like to think of my Stoic and compassion practices like a flame within me. I can use that flame to improve relationships with other people and myself.
In this way, compassion can be the “missing piece” that connects your Stoic practice to other humans. In other words, you can unite your Stoic ruling center with a compassionate ability to support other people and yourself through adversity.
To build Stoic compassion, keep in mind these Stoic and compassionate concepts:
In a future blog post, I’ll dive deeper into self-compassion. For now, I’d like to briefly address how Stoic compassion is different from our typical concept of empathy, and why it is preferable.
Stoic compassion vs. empathy
Most often, people approach others’ suffering through the lens of empathy and emotional identification with pain. It sounds OK in theory, but empathy has flaws. Empathy (or emotional empathy) usually means putting yourself in the shoes of the suffering person. It can lead to feeling emotionally drained and experiencing “empathy fatigue”—especially for caregivers or medical professionals.
Often, empathy leads to entangling your response with negative emotions stemming from the other person (fear, anger, hurt, remorse, jealousy, etc.). You try to help but feel yourself becoming overwhelmed. You may experience a sense of powerlessness or guilt when you realize you can’t fix the other person’s problems, or make different choices for him or her. Ultimately, this could lead to you withdrawing from the suffering person due to frustration, fatigue, or despair.
The ancient Stoics understood the pitfalls of empathy and taught a form of compassion that avoided emotional over-identification. Both Stoicism and Compassion Cultivation acknowledge that only certain things are up to up and that we need to stop trying to control or fix other people.
Epictetus said that “you should not disdain to sympathize” with people who are suffering, “at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” He then added: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.” (Enchiridion, Chapter 16)
This sounds harsh to our ears, yet I think it’s a reflection of a form of compassion, one in which we share sympathy and loving expressions, but we do not give our soul over to the other’s pain. We maintain the integrity of our own hearts in order to stay strong for others in a more sustainable, long-term way.
Exercises to build Stoic compassion
Here are a few exercises for building Stoic compassion:
Mindfulness meditation is not specific to compassion cultivation training, but it is a practice widely accepted to calm and center the mind. We sit quietly, follow our breath, and let our chaotic thoughts flow out of our minds. (You’ll still have thoughts occur to you, of course, but you’ll be able to let them go more easily—and observe them less judgmentally—if you practice this kind of meditation regularly.) Once we are more grounded and relaxed, we are more open to experiencing compassion.
Loving-kindness meditation is a classic practice derived from Buddhism (where it is called metta) that plays a strong role in encouraging compassion towards ourselves and others. The focus is to feel compassion without any sense of judgment, and without wanting anything in return. Here is a quick review of how it works:
A more advanced type of compassion-oriented meditation is called tonglen, which originated in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It’s not recommended for beginners because it can sometimes bring up tough emotions or negativity.
Here’s a quick explanation of tonglen, if you feel ready to try it:
In addition to meditating, journaling is another excellent way to combine compassion training and Stoic practice. It’s a Stoic tradition dating back centuries.
You can write in your journal how your meditations are going and what aspects are hard for you, exploring why. You can investigate challenges in your life and share supportive thoughts to “be there” as a friend for yourself.
You can also use your journal to cultivate gratitude, recognizing what you love and appreciate about other people. You can also write about aspects of their lives that you’d like to build compassion for, even if you disagree with the person’s decisions or approach. A more advanced practice would be to journal about those who are tough to feel compassion for, and imagine their inner struggles.
All of these are ways to grow connection and feelings of kindness, benevolence, and support for others—in other words, compassion—in alignment with your Stoic mindset. When combined, these two practices are incredibly powerful to the individual, and to all those around her/him who benefit from that bright flame within.
They say that in the old days, people cursed their enemies with this wish: “May you live in interesting times.”
Today, we are surely living in “interesting times.” That has been made clear in the pandemic and now the advent of the first major land war in Europe in decades. On top of that, to those of us here in the US, there often seems to be more to divide us than unify us. We hear constant partisan battles raging across our media (both traditional and social) and our politics. Everywhere you turn, it seems that someone is judging you for what you do or how you think or who you are. The atmosphere is filled with negativity, and hate is spewed for even the smallest of transgressions.
But despite all this, we carry on. Throughout history, people have looked for inspiration during difficult or dark periods. As things grow bleaker we need this even more. So now, I think it’s time to look at life a different way.
I was inspired by a friend to propose this new approach: Rather than being dragged down by everyone’s flaws and shortcomings, let’s try turning to our friends and family as role models.
My friend points out that her own circle of friends have demonstrated remarkable strengths. They are capable of doing hard things, and showing the way—inspiring others for how to live, if you just take a look.
For example, one friend coped with the illness of her parent, while still taking care of a young child. Another friend found herself with a tough diagnosis while enduring a stressful job and a teen struggling with depression. Another friend re-entered the workforce after a break for raising her family, and took on new responsibilities. Other friends have endured personal losses and difficult training programs and housing issues and more.
There are also so many examples in the wider world of people doing extraordinary things. Right now we are seeing brave regular citizens standing up and fighting for their sovereignty on the streets in an unprovoked war they didn’t want. They are willing to sacrifice everything.
This idea of learning and being inspired by others struck me as the polar opposite of how most of us view our friends, neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and classmates. We’re usually so competitive. Our thoughts and comments dwell on someone not doing well enough or not doing what we would do. Failing us in some way, in how to live well.
But what if we could be less judgy of others—while still staying focused on our personal virtues as individuals?
What if we could think of each other as naturally good and at least at heart reasonable people? That’s at the core of Stoicism. We are social beings, and we are all endowed with reason.
To build on this is: What if we could focus on Epictetus’ concept that the only thing we can control are our own judgments? So by resisting the urge to judge and condemn people for small failings, we could actually train our own sense of choice and recognize the good more clearly? And instead, we could valorize other people's practical wisdom, for our own benefit?
There’s so much potential in this approach. Instead of tribalism and looking at other people as the other or the enemy, we could view them as fellow humans who are struggling to do what they think is right.
Socrates famously said that some people act wrongly because they possessed wrong-headed judgments and ill-conceived ideals, not that they were “evil.” They were mistaken and misled. The Stoics took that up, with Epictetus reminding us that when we disagree, to recall that a person did what he or she thought was right. What's more, Stoics believed in finding a mentor to learn from; why not a friend or a person you admire in your own world?
Of course, I reserve the right to identify and fight against unjust people who are harming others and making others’ lives worse. But everyone else should have a chance to live out their own ideals, as long as no one is being hurt.
I have some amazing family members, friends, and colleagues—and they are and continue to be my role models for how to:
I want to learn from them. I want to treasure them and admire them. Not compete with and judge them.
Even kids can be role models this way. They certainly show great examples of emotional intelligence, and my children, in addition to my mom and husband, help me gain a sense of perspective. We can seek the good in all our interactions.
“Say no” to using moral righteousness to bash people in our lives. That’s what social media is for ;)
Instead, let’s say “heck yeah!” to building true and real connections with other people—and learning from them.
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.
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?
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!
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.