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?
What are the most valuable Stoic ideas to keep in mind on a daily basis as a parent?
I thought about this question as I spoke with The Scotland Stoics recently. You can listen to my interview with host Robert Keenan on the podcast here (or anywhere you can find podcasts!):
In this post, I'd like to expand on three general concepts I mentioned in the podcast, ones that I turn back to over and over again to maintain balance and sanity. First, the dichotomy of control and acting on what’s in my power; second, using my spark of reason; and third, not taking things personally.
What’s in our power, and what’s not—as parents and kids
The dichotomy of control is a core principle of Stoic thought. Epictetus begins his Handbook—a manual of short summaries of Stoic ideas, also called the Enchiridion—with this:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Handbook, 1.1, Robin Hard translation)
Let’s add something to this list: our children’s behavior and actions are not within our power. We can guide them and teach them, and we have a duty to do so in our role as parents or guardians. But in fact, children of any age are not strictly under our control. And in fact, we owe it to them to try to help them learn as they grow to use their OWN power with wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Take a very small example of how little power we have: I have one child who is a night owl, and one who is an early riser. Did I choose for my one daughter to stay up late ever since she was a youngster and have trouble falling asleep at night, so she feels tired in the morning? And my other child to wake up at the crack of dawn? No. Similarly with all the other physical and personality/temperament elements of our children. We don't have that choice.
If we make efforts to understand at a deep level who are our children are and acknowledge their nature-given characteristics, we can work with them on their level—so that THEY can begin to understand what’s in their power. When they are old enough to realize that they are making choices and that their actions impact others, we can begin to teach them how to behave in a way that strives for the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
I think this is actually an act of “taking back our power” as parents and as children too. Stoic ideas can help us maximize our agency (according to modern Stoic thinker Lawrence Becker). I work regularly to figure out what’s in my power with my kids, and what is not; what’s within their power, and what is not.
Online learning is a good time to recall this. So much is outside of our control here in California, where public schools have been doing distance learning for about a year now. The situation is not in our power, but the way we respond is. As Epictetus said, “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them.” (Handbook, 1.5)
That’s not to say that there aren’t many mitigating factors for students who are not equipped to manage this situation. A myriad of things from age to learning differences to family situations and economic hardship impact what kids are going through right now.
My children are teens, and they have learned how to handle lots of screen time (both for fun and for school, activities, and volunteer work), so my husband and I leave it in their hands to organize their learning and their days. We know online learning at school is typically not very motivating, or fun. All the aspects of school they liked are missing (social interaction, sports, cafeteria pizza that looks and tastes like cardboard in my opinion!). But: they have it in their power to follow through in this learning situation.
If they ever say “I can’t do it,” I’m right there asking, “OK. Let’s think about what CAN you do? How can you make this work for you? How can you take back your power over what you can control on your end?”
(Sidenote: I hear lots and lots of alarms and dinging reminders going off in my house, among all the various online classes and schedules we have to adhere to these days! Also, isn’t it crazy how easy it is to lose your cell phone in your OWN house? “Find my Phone” is a favorite app.)
And when it comes to seeing our kids making mistakes or making us crazy by not following our guidance, we also have the power to say, “I did the best I could in that situation… I’ll talk to my child about how to handle this better when she calms down/is in a better mood/is more rested, etc.” (Of course, if the mistake is truly dangerous, we need to take quick action to stop it.)
I realize this sounds much easier than it is. But honestly, it’s the one thing that’s made me much less irritable and frustrated as a parent. And it’s helped put my children in the driver’s seat of their own futures.
Using our spark of reason to break through emotional barriers
On another note: Have you watched Frozen 2? Parents of younger children might be raising their hands right now. My daughters weren’t little anymore when it came out, but we still wanted to see it on the big screen because of all their memories of the first movie in the series from 2013. We went to the theater (pre-pandemic) and noticed a huge cadre of older teens and young twenties viewers who probably felt super nostalgic about the original Frozen movie.
In Frozen 2, there’s a particular song that stood out to me. Not just for its musical qualities (though it was good, and was sung by Kristen Bell, whom I love), but for its Stoic messages: “Do the Next Right Thing.” The Anna character feels abandoned. She has been left alone to find her path, and she’s scared and uncertain. But she figures out that one step at a time (literally, as she walks out of a deep cave-like hole), she can make good choices and carry on with her quest to find her sister.
Even when things are really rough, we can always “do the next right thing.” Even when we don’t know what lies ahead. Or when we’re dealing with awful things from the past. Stoic thinking is very much about the present, doing what you can in the current moment. Releasing the emotional baggage of what’s come before and just doing the next right thing.
My role as a mom is to try to guide my kids to learn for themselves how to decide what is the next right thing for them, how to assess their impressions, how to not make knee-jerk reactions but to judge their impressions with accuracy and wisdom. How to avoid getting weighted down by troubles and be able to keep acting in the present. We have a lot of conversations about why they do the things they do, and what they could do next.
This is a good lesson for kids and parents too. It’s easy to get carried away into cognitive distortions like catastrophizing about how a situation could play out badly. Those of us who get anxious do it constantly. It can paralyze our decision-making. If this had happened to Anna, she might still be stuck in that hole.
How to figure out the next right thing? In moments of uncertainty—very often during this pandemic—I try to recall that I have a spark of reason deep inside my brain, according to the Stoics. If I pause, I can figure out the next right thing, in most cases. Somehow, I can leverage my own sense of “is this really true? Is this wise? Is it brave? Is it just and fair?” and make those criteria for decisions.
It takes some of our unintended irrationality out of our choices. The irrational side of things is usually based on fears about things spiraling out of our control, or forms of anger or insecurity—bad passions in a Stoic sense.
I hope my kids can do this too.
Not taking it personally
This is another tough one, but critical. I’ve noticed that parents take dealing with their kids “too personally” in two circumstances: First, when we think our child’s actions are a reflection on us and our value as people; second, when we feel a sense of being disrespected or even disliked by our kids. I’ve often found myself doing this and I’m trying to be self-aware about it. This is another facet of taking back our power to decide how we want to feel and act.
What I’m getting at is the idea that we shouldn’t take it as a personal offense or affront when our kids don’t behave how we want them to... and we shouldn't view it as a failure on our part.
In a social setting, I recall being really embarrassed when my toddler had a meltdown in a public place (and this happened multiple times, naturally). But looking back, that was just a young kid being immersed in emotions, proto-passions that turn into raging negative feelings. My child was too young to control it. And I did the best I could: Taking my kid out of the situation where the tantrum would affect other people, explaining to her why this behavior isn’t the way we get what we want, and giving her time and tools to calm down.
The tantrum wasn’t a reflection on me or my parenting. And it wasn’t really reflective of anything important about my child, who was at a very typical waystation on a journey to learn how to manage negative emotions (like the rest of us, but just not so far along at that age!).
An added layer here is what happens on social media. We feel encouraged to share parenting experiences online, but then we are often judged for sharing. For example, a mom posts a question about her tween sneaking around with friends without her parents’ knowledge in a mother’s group; she then gets a lot of backlash and judgment from others about her concerns. Or a dad posts that he wants to learn about sleep training for his baby, and people start to question his parenting. These are the kinds of forums for judgment that I recommend avoiding.
There's another reason why we should ask ourselves if we are taking something that our kids do too personally. Some moms and dads grew up in homes where it wasn’t permitted to go against their own parents, and where they were supposed to be “seen and not heard” as kids. It's possible that, if you are used to that mindset, any kind of disobedience from children could raise a red flag.
We can use our reason to discern if a kid’s behavior is truly a worrying act of defiance that could cause serious consequences, a pattern of behavior that shows bad intentions and unethical tendencies—or just a minor or fleeting issue.
A case in point: Does it make sense to get super angry if your kid is rude to you? I have been there, and it’s not a good feeling. Expressing a ton of anger will likely backfire, as Seneca would surely tell us. We will get better results (and model better behavior) if we can say something calmly and firmly about everyone deserving respect and common courtesy. Rational consequences, such as privileges being lost temporarily until behavior reflects our values, may also be appropriate.
When the going gets tough, here are words from Epictetus:
With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it… if hard work lies in store for you, you’ll find endurance; if vilification, you’ll find forbearance. (Handbook, 1.10)
When our children are older, there may even come a time when we’ll look back and laugh at what went on when they were kids, as the cliché goes. Let’s do our best to make it to that moment together, relationships and sanity intact.
In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
My husband and I like to tell our kids stories about times when things didn’t work out quite as well as we had hoped—in a funny way. Looking back, we realize that we could have made a better choice. But because the consequences were pretty minor, or even silly, these tales are entertaining rather than painful. They might just teach something along the way.
A favorite one we harken back to happened early in our relationship, when my husband picked out a “romantic” bed and breakfast inn from a small ad on the still-young Internet, located a stone’s throw away from a national park we wanted to visit. We were excited as we drove up late at night to a large house, finally arriving after facing a ton of traffic and a longer-than-expected drive.
We were soon confronted, however, with the reality that the place was far from romantic. We were ushered inside to a heavily decorated room in the basement of an older couple’s home, complete with a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” singing fish affixed to the wall, and a noisy laundry station right outside the room’s door. Clearly the wife’s “fun” retirement project, the bedroom was filled with mismatched chintz.
The mistress of the house, irked at having to wait up late for us, had just one burning question: Would we like eggs and sausage or waffles and fruit for breakfast in the morning?
The next day we were greeted by her in the kitchen while her husband, in a gray undershirt and little else, sat nearby watching TV, his bare feet and unclipped toenails propped up on an ottoman in full view as we tried to eat…. clearly intent on ignoring the intruders in his house.
We headed into the park and took a hike that inadvertently lasted well into the dark as we rushed to find our way back without flashlights. Our stay was topped off by my husband’s scary hypothermia that evening.
These kinds of tales are called “Epic Fail" stories by our daughters, who often try to run from the room instead of hearing them. They find them cringe-worthy. But the “fail” is actually the point. It’s a way of examining what we’ve done well and not so well, figuring out how we could do better, and teaching them some things to avoid too. My husband especially enjoys sharing these, and to me, they’re pretty funny, even on repetition. (I try to restrain myself from giving away the ending!)
The story above, for example, contains a lot of valuable lessons. Don’t buy a singing bass fish and hang it up to decorate your new basement B&B. Another: Don’t book a room—or, much more importantly, don’t go to a school or accept a job or travel to a faraway destination—on the basis of a small, cute ad you find quickly online. Do your research!
It’s a valuable takeaway: You need to do due diligence in life. And if you do, and you still find you're stuck in a basement listening to a fish singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy," do your best to laugh at it.
Also: Don’t plan an 8+ mile summer hike in the mid-afternoon without quick-dry clothing or flashlights. (We have since become big fans of synthetic athletic shirts, and of starting early.)
Time and experience have taught us many life lessons, and we try to share those with our children. Stories are an ideal way to do that, since they are memorable and relatable. With the distance of a few years, what was really frustrating at the time now seems funny.
And the act of framing what happened to us, and our role in shaping it, is best done at a distance—looking back from a safe perch to see the full context. It's a good way to sneak in a little teaching with kids of any age... and even to remind ourselves of what to do differently next time.
Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “the greatest good is daily to converse about virtue,” and “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato’s Apology). We humans do need to talk, to share our stories, to probe all our experiences and our thoughts—to understand the choices we have made and the personal tendencies and real-life situations that pull us away from virtue. We do need to examine who we are, and what we do, on a regular basis, in order to improve our understanding and our choices. (For an interesting take on these quotes, see this Vermont Philosophy blog post.)
And, within reason, it is beneficial to share this practice with our children. Children, especially as they get older, need to learn how to fail, and how to get back up again after a reversal. Also, since our culture often misinforms them about what they should value and how they should behave in a tough situation, hearing a parent or trusted adult rationally review a mistake or even a difficult misfortune can teach them something, too.
It's helpful to review our actions for ourselves, either in writing or in our personal thoughts. Ancient Stoics looked back to Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, where he advocated reviewing our own behavior daily:
“Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
And if you have done any good, rejoice.”
It’s a practice I do in a sideways way, sifting through what’s on my mind through writing about my thoughts and challenges, especially by blogging. I also like jotting down a few lines of verse here and there in the evening, sometimes transforming a painful experience into a lyrical moment.
This all reminds me of a favorite possession in my family. When I went to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park several years ago, I got a baseball cap as a souvenir. The hat said “Seeker”—Harry’s position in the game of Quidditch. But for me, it held a deeper meaning. I’m constantly seeking to understand where we derive our value and moral worth, how we can examine and refine our intentions, and the way we live our lives. How we can be in harmony with our world, but also strive to bring good to our relationships and our communities. How to see things clearly in a world where emotional appeals (backed by cash) are used to constantly sell us products or even political candidates.
How to cut through the noise? By seeking the truth and pursuing the virtues in our daily engagements, and by recalling our “fails” and our successes through stories. Life is messy, and that's why this process will take all of our days. But that is what being human is all about.
I’ve since given the hat to my younger daughter, passing on this bit of wisdom.
The girl was dressed for a princess party, in a red flouncy gown. She and her family swept into the theater a few seconds into the musical opening of the first act of the performance I was attending with my family. About 5 years old, the girl, seated directly behind us, immediately started talking at full volume as the singing began. I think she was asking for a complete translation and explanation of the plot, characters, and songs. The sound of her and her family’s voices responding to her carried to the dozens of people seated around them in the large theater—each of whom had paid handsomely for a big night out to see this touring production.
Although this girl and her parents seemed to think that they were going to a princess show, in fact, the performance we were seeing was the musical Wicked. It is a re-telling of the backstory of the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz book and movie. She's mysteriously born green in a world that does not like "her kind," and she experiences hatred on an epic level. The plot focuses on what it means to be good, evil, and the whole range in-between, featuring infidelity, birth defects, parental emotional abuse, bullying, murder, discrimination, torture, friendship made and broken, popularity, teen love, betrayal, evil magic, deception, and more. Not exactly right for young kids.
All the people seated around this family said “shhhhh” with no real impact. Eventually, after the first hour, the full-volume talking became loud whispering, and then crunchy eating. Oh, and there was also the moment when they also seemed to laugh and joke about not making space for a smiling young woman to pass by them to get to her assigned spot, and their teen son constantly kicking my husband’s seat. Hmmmmm…
That’s certainly not an isolated reminder of people’s everyday lack of consideration for their fellow humans. Recently we took a family trip to Disneyland, and we all experienced encountering folks who didn’t show much respect for other people. The mothers looking down at phones or maps while pushing strollers right into oncoming pedestrians, and the motorized scooters that nearly took my toes off in a busy walkway. The woman in a crowd who jostled and called my 13-year-old daughter the “b” word (seriously?). The boy sitting next to me in a ride, who raised the middle finger at the Disney camera as it snapped a photo of us, earning him a big black spot over his hand in the final image. The young girl, around 8, glued to an iPad who refused to move over 5 inches to let my mom share her shady bench on a very hot afternoon, despite her own grandmother’s admonitions. Mature adults shoving over other people to capture photos, or angle their way ahead in line.
All this got me thinking. And then something popped up in my Facebook feed: In a Stoic parenting group, Brittany Polat asked this question:
Are you making the world better by being a Stoic parent? Seneca says, “It is not only the person who presents candidates for office and defends the accused, and gives his judgments on war and peace, who benefits the state; instead, whoever encourages the young; whoever, given the great scarcity of good instruction, instills virtue in minds... this person is doing public business in a private role.” (On Tranquility of Mind, 3.3) What do you think—are we helping not only our own families but also society when we teach our kids about virtue?
Though I may not be able to have an impact on whole swaths of society—or even on the inconsiderate people sitting right next to me—I still think I can make a difference as a Stoic mom. At the very least, I can have an influence on my children and on the other children I teach, lead, or mentor, and I can amplify that by volunteering.
I work with Girl Scouts and have also done other kinds of teaching in the schools with an anti-bullying program. Those two organizations work to instill virtues around honesty, fairness, compassion, courage, self-control, so I view them as in line with my life philosophy. (Check out the Girl Scout promise and law, and you can see for yourself how you think it relates to Stoic ideas or your own ethics.) My daughter worked with other scouts this year to complete a project designed to teach younger kids about pedestrian safety around cars, hoping to influence their community in a positive way. Their video was shared by our city's police and public safety departments, spreading the message much farther than they and their parents alone could do.
I think these organizations are influencing kids’ lives, and I can see clearly that the anti-bullying educational program launched by the YMCA, Project Cornerstone, has positively affected the thinking of local students. I have heard the kids walking out of class or hanging out on the playground using the language they learned in Project Cornerstone, such as “don’t take the bait” (don’t let a taunt get to you, and don’t respond on the same level) or “I was an Upstander today” (I helped another person who was being bullied or disrespected, by standing up for that person or helping somehow).
Kids aren’t born understanding/practicing the virtues, and we all (adults too) have a lot to learn. As the ancients pointed out, this is an ongoing process throughout our lives. In Girl Scouts events, for example, I’ve noticed some kids pair up, and other girls can feel left out. Parents can’t control this, as volunteers or as moms and dads. But we can continuously work on building a community of respect, fairness, caring, and mutual support in many other ways as kids work on service projects for their local neighborhoods, and as they learn about how to lead and project-manager towards larger goals outside of themselves.
So my thought is that if working with your own kids isn't completely overwhelming and draining (especially as they get older), and you have a bit of time, check into what other groups you can contribute to. Any groups or programs that teach and share basic messages about self-control, managing our wants and desires vs. others’, and being considerate human beings in society would be beneficial, since they focus on important elements of character that have an impact on other people.
When it comes to inconsiderate parents and/or children affecting others' experiences in very public places where we share the space—places where I am with my own children and trying to be a good influence on them—I often stop to think about how this behavior creates new generations of folks who don't respect others' common humanity.
We can’t solve the world’s problems by ourselves, and we can never force others to behave how we want them to (a bedrock Stoic principle). Of course I sometimes think about how great it would be if I could do more to influence those around me, and there are days when I despair of the direction our whole society is going. It can be tough and isolating to keep teaching the value of good character and of social service in a selfish era, when so many focus only on "I, me, mine"... It reminds me a little of the uphill battle that the Wicked Witch experienced in the show we saw, as she tried to help others and make the world better in her own way, while ultimately being labelled "wicked."
In fact, as a Stoic parent, you may feel isolated and misunderstood, much like the witch in Broadway's Wicked. These challenges are no reason to give up. It is valuable to keep working towards greater civility, respect for others, self-control, honesty, justice, and human wisdom within our spheres of influence, and to attempt to expand those spheres as much as possible… however our circumstances allow.
How about you? Do you have any suggestions for how to make a difference? Let’s brainstorm about how living our life philosophy, and sharing it with others, can contribute to our world.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.