“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated–tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom [or philosophers] who say that only the educated are free” ~ Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.21-23a
Most of us remember panicking before taking a test in school. The stress made these kinds of questions pop into our minds: Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? What if I forget what I learned? What if I get confused and make mistakes? What if I get a headache and can’t focus? What if my brain is too tired to do this?
My kids experience this kind of stress daily, especially my high schooler. And some tests are bigger than others. My 11th grader is getting ready to take the SAT, and even though some schools aren’t requiring it anymore, it’s been an anxiety-producing right of passage for college applicants for decades.
But what if you didn’t have to “do” school and testing this way? What if the high-stakes testing approach taken by most high schools isn’t working for the bulk of the students… and what if there were a better way?
I’m no expert on education, but I’ve spent a while observing my children’s public school experiences, and I’ve reflected on my own schools. I’ve also worked in the past with education professors, to learn about how they teach teachers and what kinds of teaching methods they promote.
What I’m coming to see is that so much of the current system is just not functioning for so many students. During the pandemic, a lot of failures in the way students are taught and assessed came to light, especially for those in underserved or underfunded districts and those dealing with challenges at home. Students got report cards filled with Ds and Fs, and were forced into summer school. They hadn’t learned the material, but then again, the teaching approach hadn’t given them much of a chance once they fell behind or missed tests due to tough online learning conditions.
That’s why teachers and school districts are starting to downplay testing and even grading via rigid points systems. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, teachers and administrators described the changes they were making as the pandemic and school closures severely affected student performance—and as they began to see academic differences among groups. The story describes
… a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Los Angeles and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined—have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.
My kids got a taste of this kind of approach in their middle school, when their math teacher offered them a chance to retake tests to improve their scores. It greatly lessened their stress about individual tests without dimming their desire to learn the material. In fact, they learned more overall by retaking tests that at first seemed daunting, and by studying the material for longer, in greater depth.
Unfortunately, in the local high school, courses don’t work this way. Students are thrown into midterms and finals and high points value final projects where they don’t even know how they’re being assessed until their semester grades are entered into the official grade book—too late to change anything or learn anything new for that particular unit.
It’s painful. It’s arbitrary. And it doesn’t give students a chance to actually improve if something goes wrong.
My high school daughter explains that many of her teachers are “teaching to the test.” She says they want students can do well enough to pass final exams—but that they are not teaching in a way that prepares her and her classmates for the next class in the series. That’s been particularly tough with the unevenness of teaching and class environments during the pandemic.
On top of the mercurial and stressful nature of testing and grading this way, there’s the added element of the many inequities in education that are now being put under the microscope. For both reasons, a new approach is needed. It’s something that I think Epictetus would agree with: He was clear that all people deserved to be educated to become free in their minds—not just the few. All people should have a chance at liberating themselves through learning… no matter the circumstances.
Standardized tests have also been a thorn in the side of teachers for decades, as teacher performance as graded based on testing. To quote Daniel Koretz of Harvard Graduate School of Education,
To undo the problems created by test-based accountability, teachers must refocus instruction on teaching the underlying knowledge and skills that any good test should reflect, rather than spending time preparing kids for the specific test used for accountability.
Again, the argument comes down to helping students master a body of knowledge and skills, rather than assessing a single snapshop of what students memorized and could spit back out onto the page on a specific day.
Side note: This is not to say that student behavior such as tardiness or attendance issues, missing assignments, etc., shouldn’t have any impact or any measurement. In fact, some schools working on mastery approaches are adopting a “citizenship” grading system to capture some of these elements, separate from the typical transcript. It wouldn’t be part of students’ GPA.
Here in Northern California, a local independent school near my home uses a “mastery-based learning model,” which they explain this way: “Students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of all competencies and skills identified in a course before moving on, thereby reducing the number of ‘gaps’ in their education. Academic progress in a discipline is decoupled from age… While the time it takes a student to finish a course may vary, the depth of mastery remains constant.” When their students apply to colleges, they submit a mastery transcript, rather than one full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds.
In some California schools, districts expect students to know 80% of the material before they can move on from a unit; they aren’t allowed to pass through without demonstrating competency.
This approach is already well underway far outside of California, too, and larger districts or even states have already adopted it—showing it isn’t only an option for small or private schools.
Mastery-based education, also known as competency-based education, has taken root in the state of Idaho, for example. The Idaho state department of education website says that the Idaho legislature voted to move towards this style of teaching in 2014, and that
Mastery-based education empowers students, personalizes learning, supports the demonstration of competencies (the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that lead to success), and recognizes mastery by allowing students to advance as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace.
With Mastery-Based Education, failure is not an option. Mastery systems give students the opportunities they need to demonstrate their competency with appropriate pacing and supports. Assessments are purposeful and demonstrate what students can do, not just what they know. Learning is flexible, self-paced, engaging, and focused on building skills critical to college, career, and life…
The most promising thing I’ve taken away from this approach is the quote above: "Failure is not an option."
This way of thinking, to me, embodies a Stoic message: It’s through adversity that we can learn the most, and that we have the chance to build and deploy our virtues. It’s by learning skills for the sake of understanding and growth that we better ourselves and exercise our human excellence, not simply cramming to prove ourselves to others or compete with them. It’s when we fail that we see we could do better and keep going, acting on what is in power at any given moment. It’s our intention to learn and improve as humans that powers us forward.
This idea of working at it until you master something is difficult for many students, and it may seem easier to assign a grade (even if it's low) and move on... but shouldn't we give students the chance to build real skills?
This is a timely concept. In a period when many, many students received Ds and Fs during online learning in 2020-21, and when many classes and instructors weren’t able to adequately help students understand the subject matter, we have to re-think what it means to “fail” students.
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?
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.
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.