Are you concerned about teens and social media?
I am. That’s why my ears perked up when I heard that Seattle Public Schools decided to sue social media companies over the harmful effects they are having on school children in their district. According to NPR, the suit targets:
"...TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the mental health crisis among youth. Seattle Public Schools filed the lawsuit [in January] in U.S. District Court. The 91-page complaint says the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children. It blames them for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to educate students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers."
I found their approach to be interesting—and promising. This comes two years after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. She released reams of internal research by the social media giant into the way Facebook products were impacting teens’ mental health in negative ways. Some social media company executives have long understood how harmful their services are for teens, and yet they seem to refuse to change the way they operate. Maybe lawsuits will apply the pressure needed to shift things?
This news comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced the results of a new survey of teens this week—one with very troubling findings. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the decade ending in 2021 showed that nearly 3 out of 5 high-school girls in the US reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. That was an increase of around 60% over the past decade. Both girls and boys said they have mental health challenges, but girls reported much more sadness/hopelessness (57% in girls vs. 29% in boys) and serious consideration of suicide (30% in girls—that is 1 in 3 girls—and 14% in boys) than boys. Overall, 41% of girls reported poor mental health in the previous 30 days, and 18% of boys did.
Social media was not the focus of this study in particular—but it did find that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be electronically bullied via text and social media. In the survey, 20% of girls reported being cyberbullied in the past year (and 11% of boys). Clearly this is one factor affecting our teens, and teen girls especially. It’s extremely sobering.
The survey included over 17,200 respondents and led to calls for more help from schools to support students’ mental health, and to improve “connectedness” with school communities. The federal researchers said that teen girls in particular are “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma,” according to The Washington Post.
This situation is all the more real to me because of my own daughters’ relationship with social media, especially Instagram, which is very prevalent among their peer group. My older daughter took a stand against Instagram a couple times, first as a young teen when she deleted the app because of all the distractions it caused. In her high school years, she felt she needed it to keep up with school, club, and student athletics news and with some of her friends and peer group.
But again last month, she deleted it from her phone once more, after explaining to me how detrimental the app is for teens. Top among its faults: The app’s constant pull towards social comparison, and a panoply of competitive achievements of one’s peers flashed right before your eyes.
If you think about it, what are two of the most judgmental places in the world? High school and social media! Combining these two together makes for an ultra-toxic environment. As my daughter pointed out, people showcase a very small sliver of their existence, which is meant to look exciting and amazing and enviable, and is often quite fake. On the other hand, those teens who try to show a bit of their “real” selves get really negative responses in the comments, simply because they post an unpolished video, or a share a creative project.
To top it all off, I’ve recently learned about incidents in our school community of cyberbullying, including body shaming, the use of stereotypes and defamatory language, and starting negative rumors about students. It’s all very worrying to see what’s happening with our teens online.
Here we should recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Food for thought.
As the Seattle lawsuit points out,
"Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants' social media platforms," the complaint said. "Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive ...."
But it’s hard to quit, and not just because the platforms are intentionally addictive. In a sense, we NEED to keep up with social media because of how reliant people at my kids’ school and local organizations are on social media to get the word out about everything from e-waste collections to sports team tryouts.
In the past two years, I have learned much more about my daughters’ campus and what’s happening there from the Instagram accounts of the student newspaper, clubs, and the athletics department than I have from reading any number of emails I receive. The news is fresher, pithier, and more clear, and I feel obliged to check Instagram stories to find out about school events and news.
My younger daughter is now in high school but hasn’t yet downloaded social media apps, by her own choice. She has to ask ME for information about her school sports teams because she literally does not get the updates they are sharing via Instagram. So I send her screenshots from social media! We have determined together that she may have to get Instagram soon, just to read these announcements… but with mixed emotions.
Is there a better way to get the information we need from our schools and activities? Without these money-making platforms that have super negative effects on student mental health and well-being?
Going back to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: She recently diagnosed the problems that develop the more time that teens (or anyone) spend on social media well in a recent roundtable discussion, summarized here:
"What we have seen from Facebook's own research is that Facebook knows that the products it makes are very engaging. They're designed to be engaging," she said. "Unfortunately, in the case of children and young adults, that can lead to very high rates of what we call 'problematic use.'"
Facebook's algorithms are not neutral, Haugen explained. Content that gets a reaction from people gets distributed more widely. That's how an innocent search for "healthy recipes" on Instagram might lead a teenager to eating disorder content instead.
Haugen said Instagram's algorithms can lead to addiction in its young users by creating "little dopamine loops." In the first ten minutes on Instagram, people will see content from their friends or pages they follow, she says. As they stay longer on the site, the algorithm will reach further to show them new and engaging content in an effort to keep them there.
"Once you get an hour or two in, Facebook's algorithms are the main thing that's choosing what you're focusing on," she said. "Now you're in the zone where you really are just putting yourselves in the algorithm's hands."
Do we really want our kids in those hands?
My daughter and I recently read and chatted about an article focusing on a “Luddite club” formed by high school students who decided to give up their smartphones and return to paper books and drawing pads, and to chatting together at the local park. She thought it sounded idyllic.
In a Stoic sense, I hope my kids will continue to question their impressions about social media and its impact on themselves and their peers… and that they will use their own judgment to guide how they use their time and where they get their dopamine—not rely on that of an algorithm on a money-making social media platform.
What do American parents care about today?
I am always interested in research about my fellow caregivers, so I just read a discussion of a new Pew Parents Study in a New York Times newsletter with interest. The study was summarized by opinion columnist Ross Douthat. My response here is not to the study itself, which you can find here, but to Douthat’s discussion of it—which focuses on what he calls “workism.” In fact, he has grimly titled his newsletter article “Is ‘Workism’ Dooming Civilization? Notes on the New Pew Parents Study.”
“When you ask [American parents] to give weight to professional aspirations versus personal ones, to compare the importance of their kids being ‘financially independent’ or happy in their work to their getting married or having kids, finances and jobs win out easily—and by an extraordinary margin, in fact. According to Pew, 88 percent of American parents rate financial success and professional happiness as either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important for their kids. Only about 20 percent give the same rating to eventual marriage and children.”
Douthat goes on to highlight “the general fertility decline” in the world and to decry the possibility that parents think “the essence of a valuable adulthood rests in work and money.” That’s the worldview he says is called “workism” by Derek Thompson.
Let me just say: This interpretation is myopic. The commentary above comes from a perspective completely outside the everyday struggles of today’s American parents. So let’s talk about the real question: Why do we, as parents, care so much about our children’s eventual jobs and work?
The answer is obvious: Because living in the US—as people, but especially as parents who are raising children—is incredibly expensive, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years. Naturally, if we want a good life for our children, given what we are experiencing, we want them to not just survive, but to be able to build a life without constant financial worry and precariousness, and that means finding decent jobs and work.
This has nothing to do with having bad values, or not caring about character, or our kids’ eventual happy family lives, etc. It’s just the reality on the ground!
I’ll paint you a picture of the financial concerns and risks plaguing parents—ones that I often think will be even tougher on our children as they grow into adulthood. Note: I will get to a few Stoic parent reflections at the end!
1. Childcare. Our kids’ lives start with sky-high childcare costs in the US. Where I live in California, it literally was going to cost me more to pay for my children’s full-time daycare than the income I would make from working full time. I pulled back on work during my kids’ younger years in order to try to balance both being a full-time mom and a part-time professional—working as a freelancer and consultant in evenings and during naptimes, and during part-time, part-day preschool, while actively parenting almost all of the time. I still did not make much income then, but I was fortunate my husband made more. This is a very difficult calculation for all the families I know! And many folks have to give up on work because of the cost of care, creating financial worries. (That’s not to even mention the dearth of paid parental leave nationally for new moms/dads caring for their infants!)
2. Education. Our elementary and secondary education systems have a range of problems, but here, let’s focus on higher education. For ambitious students who want to reap the rewards of the US’s top paid or most desirable jobs in many fields, our education system culminates in an insanely expensive college and/or grad student bill. Even public colleges are much more expensive than they used to be; I recently spoke with a man in his 70s who told me his family paid just a few hundred dollars for his whole education at the University of California. It’s mind blowing. A few students currently get free rides at universities for various reasons, and the competition for such benefits is fierce. But for most students, the education bills are so high that that virtually no one except the very wealthy can afford to pay. That means students and parents must shoulder loans, or students alone must take on loans; and someone will have to pay eventually. It creates decades of financial instability.
3. Health care. Health care is outrageously pricey in the US, and can cost a fortune even if you have a medical insurance plan. It is insanely costly (banktupingly so) is you don’t. People live in fear of getting really sick or needing surgery. Want mental health care? Hope you have a high paying job to afford to see a therapist. Many psychologists are not covered by insurance. The strain on parents supporting families with healthcare is high, especially if their children (or anyone in the family) has significant health needs.
4. Housing. In the US today, housing costs have gone through the roof. Rents are high; buying is prohibitive for many, scratching their “American dream” of home ownership. Alongside paying for other consumer goods that have risen in price with inflation, many families can’t afford their bills, and lots of parents have to hold down multiple jobs to make it work.
5. Lack of a safety net. There is little social safety net if folks fall off the path financially today. Can’t afford rent or mortgage for a couple months? We’ve all seen the tent cities in our major metropolitan areas. In today’s climate, we parents can imagine our kids struggling, without a home, if the worst happens. And that is mortifying. Community groups try to fill the gaps but the problems are huge. By the way, since adults are also struggling to save for retirement, we parents can’t necessarily keep supporting adult kids either—everyone is lacking a net to fall back on.
An important note on the safety net: During the pandemic, the American child tax credit was temporarily raised to provide relief to families with children. The child tax credit expansion increased payments to $3,000-3,600 per child for many. Some said this change was on track to cut child poverty in half in the US. But in late 2021, Congress failed to extend this legislation. The credit is now back down to $1,500-1,800, and poverty has increased again.
So….given all this, is it surprising that people want their children to grow up to get decent jobs and become financially stable? As parents we know how difficult it is to live without the income such jobs provide. We know how little tangible support there is for child rearing in general. Sure, we all love kids, but when it comes to the financial side—you’re on your own, folks! Maybe that’s why parents are hesitant to say that they insist that their kids to follow the same marriage/family path they did. (Or possibly, they also want their kids to choose their family lives for themselves! Again, independence and self-sufficiency!)
To dig a bit deeper, we need to ask ourselves: On a societal level, what is freedom in the US today? It means—in part—the kind of freedom of movement and action and respect of the body and mind that having financial stability can give us. If we want to be self-sufficient and able to make our own choices, and as free as possible from oppression by others, we need to gain a financial grounding for ourselves. That’s not my choice, that is just how our market-based society is structured. That is what American parents are facing—and that’s what parents want for their kids. (Unless we all decide to abandon being pro-social and become Greek Cynics like Diogenes and live in the street without even a cup to drink from, that is.)
Given everything I outlined above, blaming parents for instilling “workism” in children as Douthat does is unfair. Instead, how about asking how we can create real efforts to support parents and kids (with more than just words)? This doesn’t necessarily have to be government based—it’s possible see an upswell of support from private organizations. Could we look for ways to reduce the burdens on parents by putting funds towards preschool and childcare, by supporting tax credits that lift folks out of poverty, and by striving to make education more affordable at every level? Could we improve access to and costs of health care and mental health care (mental health representing parents’ highest concern in the Pew study, with four-in-ten U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point)? Could we find or build more housing for displaced families (which will be even more important if a recession sets in)?
In today’s world, and our current system, any good thing you want for your child comes with a price tag. And no matter how we feel about it, blaming parents and suggesting that financial independence should not be perceived as important really is not going to help.
One more thought is from a Stoic perspective. Stoics intend to become self-sufficient in all they do. That can include financial self-sufficiency, however you define it. It also relates to the question of our children’s ultimate success and happiness: In the end they are responsible for that. We’re trying to give them a proper foundation so that they can go out on their own, as humans, and find their own sense of human flourishing. Following a pro-social, clear-eyed, question-your-impressions Stoic approach, it would be short-sighted not to inform our kids about how the world around them works so that they can make their own choices for how they want to live. Ultimately, I hope my kids will find independence and self-sufficiency (not just financially but on every level!), as well as a sense of their own purpose and meaning, for themselves.
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What stressors are bothering you? What could you let go of in 2023?
One of my stressors is what other people think of me. I spend more time than I’d like to admit wondering about how others are judging me. All the people I encounter are potential judges, whether at home, work, with other parents, in my neighborhood, or in my online community—which is the entire world!
My Stoic practice is excellent for considering ways to defeat this way of thinking. Worldly “achievements” racked up to impress others have never mean much to Stoics, and what other people think is not at the top of the list of what we should care about.
This goes against decades of just the opposite way of thinking—cultivated by the society we live in. In particular, many women I know recognize that we have been trained by social pressures to think that we need to be universally liked and constantly seek approval for our behavior.
I would like to let go of this. If some people don’t like me, or don’t approve of me, why should I care?
I realize that as social creatures who evolved to live in groups with social hierarchies, humans may have an inherent fear of others’ judgments. But we can find inspiration for a different way of living by studying the ancient Greeks.
Above all, we should consider the Cynics, philosophers that Zeno learned from before he founded Stoicism, as a student of the Cynic Crates.
The Cynics deliberately exposed themselves to public embarrassment to rid themselves of the need to please others. They worked to inoculate themselves from others’ opinions regularly. The goal was not to focus energy on anything except the virtues and a return to what they saw as nature’s simple gifts.
The famous Greek Cynic Diogenes, who saw his society as corrupt and vicious, took to sleeping in the streets, in a large ceramic jar. He had no use for reputation, and he urinated and masturbated publicly. When Alexander the Great—the world’s most celebrated military leader at the time—came to visit him, he told him to move out of his rays of sun.
Later, when Zeno was studying philosophy with Crates (who had himself studied with Diogenes), the older man gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry around. To top off the embarrassment, Crates then cracked the pot, causing Zeno’s legs to be covered with soup—sparking shame, of which Crates tried to “cure” him through this kind of “exposure therapy.” Zeno, it is said, ran away, but he must have learned from the experience nevertheless.
Can you imagine anyone you know acting this way? Granted, Plato called Diogenes “a Socrates gone mad.” Most of us could agree that there seems to be something extreme in his behavior, and certainly, no parent who needs to take responsibility for their child should attempt even half of this.
But the point remains. What if we didn’t put energy into how others judge or see us, but instead, into how we cultivate our character and live by the virtues that we put stock in?
Could we try our own sort of exposure therapy, to get ourselves more comfortable with others judging or disagreeing with us, or even disliking our ideas or behaviors? And with being more true to actions and intentions that reflect our core values?
It could mean setting more boundaries. Let’s say someone asks you to volunteer for organizing an event at your kids’ school. Here is a chance to practice saying no and seeing how you feel about it— can you tolerate that feeling of being less likable, less helpful?
Now let’s say your boss asks you to finish a big project by Monday—which would mean you’d have to work all weekend and miss time with your kids. Here’s a chance to ask for a reasonable extension rather than fear for your reputation. Could you request to get it done by Wednesday instead? You’re risking being seen as less than perfect, but you’ve given yourself the time you need.
And what if your child is asking you for a last-minute ride to go to a friend’s place, when you’ve already signed up to go to an exercise class at that time? How about asking them to try to arrange a carpool, if they are old enough, or to consider taking a bus or transport? Suggesting these ideas, if your child is old enough/responsible enough, does not make you a bad mom or dad.
And how about other people—people who maybe look at your appearance or your home or your job or your ideas with suspicion or event outright dislike. Do you know people like this? Does it bother you what they think? It could help to recall the Stoic phrase, “It seemed right to him/her.” People tend to believe their own pre-conceived notions. We can’t control what others think, and for the most part, we can’t change it.
As long as those folks aren’t causing me or others harm, can I tolerate their opprobrium without letting it bother me? Could I keep my head high while I imagine others whispering about me behind my back?
When I think of Diogenes’ outrageous behavior, Crates’ effort to teach with soup, and the (self) respect they cultivated by sticking to their principles, I start to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could.
What about you?
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Happy New Year! Today, I’m taking a trip down memory lane to when my first child was born, and it’s reminding me about something that helped sustain me during those early days: new friendships that offered mutual support. It’s a side of parenting folks don’t talk about as much as childcare itself, but that definitely merits our attention. (Let’s not let ‘old acquaintance be forgot’!)
In the beginning, my mom friends and I always joked about how crazy it is that no one gives you a manual when you take home a newborn baby. As if a days-old infant is easier to handle than a microwave! On top of all the physical issues that come with giving birth to a newborn, new mothers also deal with a whole range of questions and concerns about how to keep their babies safe, fed, and rested.
And while some things about infant care feel intuitive, most of it is pretty confusing… and all of it is up for debate when you start reading books, magazines, and social media.
And on top of THAT, in our society, new parents and their newborns are often cut off from all they knew before. You have a baby and go on parental leave/stop working—and lose your work community (at least temporarily). You stop going out—and lose your local community (again, for a period). You stop seeing friends who don’t want to be around babies, and lose some of them for good. Your family may live far away, or may visit and then go away again.
So many reasons to feel that you’re isolated and alone with an infant needing round the clock care.
To counteract this isolation and sense of uncertainty, after my first child was born, I joined a moms’ club. And then I quickly joined a second one. (I would have been happy to be part of any parent or caregiver organization, but when my child was born—a child who is a teen now—mothers’ groups were what I could find locally.) In my small living room, I hosted about 10 other mothers and their infants, all spread out in a circle on their tummies on the carpet. We compared notes on how we were surviving with 24/7 care needs, how nursing was going (or not going) and how we were dealing with our own physical recovery.
The group I spent the most time with was Las Madres, a longstanding local moms’ club in my neck of the woods. I recall my first club meeting. I found myself with my infant in a carrier walking into a Las Madres meeting in another parent’s home, and seeing folks cradling their infants in various stages of wakefulness. I walked up to another mom holding a baby that looked about 3 months older than my little one. It turned out hers (a boy) was about 6 months old, and mine (a girl) was about 3 months old. We started to talk, and later formed part of a playgroup for our infants and then toddlers. The babies were too young to interact at first—parallel play or just playing with their own feet was the extent of it. Later on they started sharing toys. But really, the playdates were for the parents. That mom has since become one of my closest friends for the past 17 years.
The bonding among new parents extended to “Moms’ Night Out” evenings organized by club members at local inexpensive eateries or cafes. We’d leave our infants at home with another caregiver, and join the group chatting about anything and everything, but mostly about our babies. I looked around at the people at the table, realizing how unusual it was to be part of a social group with folks I had nothing in common with other than our babies were born around the same time. The group encompassed a cross-section of mothers with questions like my own. The bonding was real—we were in the trenches of new parenthood, and there for each other to talk about sleep patterns, breastfeeding tricks, fighting off infections, coping with returning to work, and more.
Today I look back on those days with nostalgia. I’m thankful for that time. I am not sure if the mothers’ clubs I was part of a number of years back are as vibrant today, now that social media has grown even more prevalent for answering our baby-related questions, and since the pandemic stifled so many social activities for a long period. But I hope they are, and that they encompass any new parent or caregiver who wants mutual support.
All this leads me to say that we owe it to ourselves to form these kinds of friendships if we can. As Stoics, we don’t rely on other people exclusively to get us through tough times—we do that for ourselves. But there is a very important value to making and keeping friends through difficult times. We seek to find those people who inspire us to become even better.
As Epictetus said, we should keep company with those who uplift us, and “whose presence calls forth your best.” The friends I made as a new mother did that, and the handful of folks I’ve kept ties with from that period have been there over the long haul—through medical challenges and house moves and changing jobs and shifting relationships and everything else.
Over the years, the questions about our kids change, and so do our lives as we move past infant care into many other phases. But the desire for this kind of friendship persists, and those who have been with us through the parenting journey occupy a special place.
As Seneca put it:
Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship, but when you have decided to admit her, welcome her with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with her as with yourself… Regard her as loyal, and you will make her loyal.
- Moral Letters, “On True and False Friendship,” adapted by me
Here’s to a new year of old friends—and new ones! Please feel free to share your parenting friendship stories in the comments, and wishing you a happy and healthy 2023!
Inner dialogue… and the inner citadel
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“What are you thinking?”
This infamous question has torpedoed many a new romantic relationship. People famously hate answering it. It feels like someone else is trying to get into our mind when we’re lost in thought.
But here’s a different take on it: I think we should be asking ourselves this question, frequently, to get a sense for how we are actually using our mental energy. And, in a Stoic sense, this question can help us practice some home improvement on our inner citadels—the place we can retreat to inside our minds, as described by Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus also reminds that “the soul becomes dyed by the color of its thoughts.” In other words, to some extent, “you are what you think.”
To test how I’m doing on this, I asked myself recently in a more serious way: What am I thinking? What’s occupying my mind?
I wasn’t too pleased by the answer.
Let me explain. This fall, I attended a meditation workshop (I wrote about it in The STOIC magazine’s November 2022 edition). As I sat for meditation sessions of 20 minutes, I inquired what was going on in my mind.
It turned out to be simple, but devastating: I was thinking of my endless mental to-do list, filled with reminders, admonishments, and a sense of dread at not being able to get it done.
It often felt impossible to detach myself from “here’s what I have to do next, for whom, by when, and all the obstacles I’ll face in trying to get it done.”
Over the next couple weeks, I realized I needed to take a closer listen to my inner dialogue. I resolved to take a listen the very next morning. As I woke up with my mind filled with all the work I needed to do for my family and my colleagues, I was shocked by how limiting that inner dialogue felt, and how stressful.
Why am I occupying my entire brain with a to-do list?
Believe me, this isn’t a to-do list of fun things. It’s about me figuring out how to help folks get crap done. Largely, stuff that they don’t want to do… stuff I’m either stepping in to do, to remind them to do, or to worry about no one successfully doing.
Case in point. I’ve gotten on my kids’ cases umpteen times in the past weeks about getting things done in their schedules. Have they responded to the Girl Scout meeting invitation? Have they figured out which students to carpool with to basketball? Have they checked with their teachers about making up the tests from when they were out sick? Have they filled in that scholarship application they mentioned last week, and sent in their transcript by the deadline?
My kids are teens, and they are perfectly capable of handling many of these things, for the most part on their own. But habit is strong, I guess. I’m still “the mom” who is checking if everything is going smoothly for everyone else in my family. I still put myself mentally in charge of checking stuff has gotten done , and making the up the difference if they don’t. I find myself doing this with—and to—my husband, too. Again, he’s capable. But yet I feel responsible for making sure things happen, on time and without headaches that result from forgotten things.
For my work, too, I tend to goad myself with reminders throughout the day, not fun or pleasant ones, but ones filled with dread about the next tasks to come—especially the ones I don’t think I’ll have time to finish by the necessary deadlines.
I can’t help but think that I’d be better able to set long-term goals and be more creative about achieving them if I could get unstuck from this to-do list attitude and this mental load. Saying all this stuff inside my head, about what I need to do for other people, is stressful in part because much of it is outside my control (again, a helpful Stoic reminder). That increases the burden and the frustration.
It feels like a cloud is hanging over my days—the cloud of the never-ending to-do list of tasks that invades my every moment. To be clear, I know I’m fortunate to not be suffering from something truly awful or distressing. My situation is just busy and stretched very thin, with everyday stress and a demanding job on top of teenage kids and volunteer work. I know I shouldn’t really be complaining. And that means that now I have to add to my to-do list: “Remember to stop complaining.” (This resonates with Stoicism, and also with my meditation teacher who has been posting on Instagram about a month-long no complaining challenge… and yet, the way I frame that as another add-on to my list, too, is a bit problematic…. right?!?)
How to get out from under this cloud? I have to begin with an unlearning of habits of taking on “mental load” over the years. Even younger kids can do more than we often give them credit for. Did you hear about the Japanese TV show sensation Old Enough!, focused on giving toddlers important tasks and setting them loose to handle things on their own? We’re talking about 2- and 3-year-olds!
I could take a page from my older daughter, a role model for how to think imaginatively and creatively outside of a to-do list mentality. Despite a crushing load of schoolwork as a high school senior, she is working on a fantasy novel, and participated in November’s NaNoWriMo. She spends her free time wondering how to evolve her plot and characters, and putting creative words on the page. And I spend time trying to keep my to-do list fresh in my head so I will remember to get stuff done for other people. Hmmmm.
I used to do a lot more creative writing, and I still write poetry when I can find the time. (Check out a Marcus Aurelius-inspired poem I wrote here.) But these days, I find it very hard to access that part of my contemplative brain.
One promising technique that could help is actually a very old-fashioned one, with a new-fangled name: “Cognitive off-loading.”
The concept really simple. Take that to-do list out of your brain and WRITE IT DOWN! That way, you’ve loaded it onto an external vehicle outside your brain, like a simple notebook, or your notes app in your phone, or any one of a million apps with reminder functions. Keep it somewhere you can find it. This lessens the mental load, and could increase access to creativity and to restful downtime.
Aristotle and other ancient thinkers advocated devoting time to contemplation. Ancient Romans from well-heeled backgrounds spent their free time on “otium,” leisure time that often included the pursuit of culture and ideas.
Granted, most people in history, aside from the very wealthy, haven’t had a lot of contemplative free time. But having some mental space could be a goal for those of us with access to labor-saving appliances and computers to help us with our tasks. We’ll never get that to that place if we are constantly overworked, overbooked, and burned out with our to-do lists.
This winter, I’ll be chipping away at my inner dialogue one day at a time, asking myself what I’m thinking. And I’ll be using lists that store to-dos outside of my brain, and will tell my brain to refer to those instead of keep its whole bandwidth fraught with tasks.
As I work on this myself, I challenge you to build your own inner citadel this way, to try to carve out a mental space unburdened by the to-list’s mental load.
Ask yourself what you’re thinking. Is it a to-do list?
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!
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.