The college admissions scandal has exposed wealthy parents for transforming their kids into "perfect" college candidates by lying and cheating—by illegally manipulating a system that’s supposed to be outside their influence.
Many people were not terribly surprised: In the service of “what’s best for our children,” we are all tempted to go to outrageous lengths. As a parent, I, too, have sometimes felt the desire to control my children’s lives and pave the way for their success (though never using illegal means).
But I have realized that this is an impossible—and misguided—task. Ultimately, I have found a way to handle my frustration without falling into the trap of trying to control everything.
I found ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism. And I think all parents could benefit from a dose of Stoic philosophy.
Here’s the central reason it can help parents: Stoicism’s core tenant, "the dichotomy of control," teaches us to stop trying to exert control over things that are outside our power.
One of the defining experiences of parenting is loss of control. From the moment I became pregnant, my body was doing things I had zero power over. And when my first daughter was born, and then my second, I quickly realized that they were unique human beings whose personalities and behaviors seemed inborn. They acted in ways I couldn’t manage, organize, or keep to a “proper” schedule. When I tried, the tantrums got worse, and the anxiety increased for me, making me so irritable that my ability to make good decisions faltered.
But by taking a Stoic approach, I focus on things I cancontrol—my own thoughts, emotions, actions—and on recognizing that others’ judgments of me and my family are just not that important. What matters is cultivating an ethical character and doing the right thing, even in the face of criticism, doubt, and fear.
For three years now, Stoic ideas have helped me become a better parent and person. I have absorbed original ancient texts by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, and I’ve read modern interpretations. Stoic philosophy has given me a new acceptance of my lack of control over my children’s behaviors, preferences, and interests. And it’s helped me set my kids on a path of well-reasoned choices that, I hope, will serve them long beyond college.
And now, as a teen and a preteen, my daughters still do their own thing. Though they look like me, they often do not do what I would, and do things I’d never do. It’s still hard to accept, but I do my best.
I’m sure when college applications roll around, I’ll be a basketcase, too. The admissions process tests people’s sanity. It’s the same challenge that we have with our kids in general, but writ large: The process is (or is supposed to be) completely outside our control, it is capricious, and it is largely impenetrable.
We wish the admissions system were clear, and yet, we want schools to assess the “whole student,” not just a score on one high stakes test like in some other countries’ systems. (Americans want to have it both ways in that sense.)
With the new criminal case, we have seen searing examples of well-heeled parents’ desire to control both their kids and the process. These parents believed that money can and should exert control over what seems uncontrollable to others. It’s all crashing down now.
So are there lessons we can learn from Stoic philosophy about how parents (and kids) could approach college admissions differently?
First, we must stop pretending the we can, or should, control other people, whether that’s our children or admissions officers.
Studying Stoicism has reminded me that kids are not cars or computers or robots—nor are they performing circus animals who happen to live in my house. Parents can’t manage kids’ intelligence or how much they apply themselves in school. We can’t force them to become talented athletes. And obviously we can’t change their SAT scores or pretend that they are something they’re not for the sake of applications or awards.
This is hard to swallow because our society is forever telling us that as parents, we need to give our kids the very best in life. We are also reminded that we are responsible for our kids’ success—and that it reflects on us and our own achievements.
But let’s try to remember that our children have to be allowed to be themselves. Not everyone is a competition-winning water polo player. Students should be able to exercise freedom, even if it leads to missteps along the way. That means parents letting go of everything from the sense of “I should be able to stop my kid’s tantrum” to “I should be able to get my kid into a prestigious school.”
In the service of control, the indicted parents used money to impose their will on the system. And in the process, they took autonomy and personhood away from their children.
Second, in contrast to controlling our children and their circumstances, we can encourage our kids to find the right path “in accord with nature.” In Stoic thought, this means using your own sense of right and wrong—a sense embedded in all humans—combined with an understanding of the reality we live in, to make good judgments and decisions.
This approach doesn’t mean letting kids do whatever they want. We can model good choices and set high standards, demonstrating how to live inspired by the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. We can guide. Kids who ignore this will face their own consequences.
One more note on choices: Key to Stoicism is ignoring others’ judgments of you, your status, prestige, wealth, looks, etc., because those things have no real value (they are mere “preferred indifferents”). All parents want a great education for their kids, but the prestige of a particular university is not what really matters.
And third, we should all (parents and kids alike) keep in mind our common humanity, and with that, a sense of fairness and justice.
Though we all make choices individually, we aren’t isolated. Ancient Stoics emphasized that all humans belong to the same family. By that reasoning, we should aim to help one another, collaborating to solve mutual problems.
It’s not easy, though. We are all “patients in the same hospital,” as Seneca put it. We all have troubles, we all seek answers, and we all struggle. There’s no mythical doctor coming to cure us. But some patients, Seneca suggests, have been aware of their ailments longer, and can help others make progress.
Maybe we could find a silver lining to this admissions scandal if universities and parents, along with regulators, worked together to find more rational approaches to the college admissions process. We’d all benefit from changes that would minimize the insane competition and financial pressure that applicants and their families experience—forces that drive so many schemes, legal and not, to manufacture ideal college candidates.
Until that happens, it’s absolutely essential to become a Stoic mom (or dad).
Can Stoic practice help you live a happier life? I say yes, and I've been writing about why.
I’m happy to highlight two recent posts featuring my work on Stoicism and happiness, and a free upcoming online event that can help anyone interested learn more about how to "live like a Stoic."
The first post, "Stoic Happiness in this Fleeting Moment," is a piece I contributed to the Modern Stoicism blog as part of a series on Stoic ideas and happiness. Please take a look if you haven't already done so!
Also, if you'd like to test your Romance language skills, some news: an Italian translation of the same article appeared as a post in The Notebook, an Italian language blog, where I’m known as “La Mamma Stoica.” (Thanks to the blog's author for translating and sharing this.)
Last, I'd like to spotlight Stoic Week. Every fall, the Modern Stoicism group offers a free chance to follow along with online educational material that helps you "live like a Stoic" for the week, and then to reflect on it afterwards. This year it begins on October 1. I recommend making the effort to try this if you can, even for just a few days. Participating in Stoic Week helped me start to internalize the practices of this highly practical philosophy!
This is part two of my conversation with author, trainer, and teacher Donald Robertson. Read on for his thoughts on Stoicism and parenting, and on how Stoic philosophy can help us question our own values.
Add to the discussion in the comments… and share your questions and suggestions for future posts and interviews.
Q: How can Stoic philosophy help me become a better parent? And how should I begin teaching Stoic values to my kids?
A: The best way to teach is through role modeling. Stoic philosophers did lecture and wrote books, but they also thought that the best thing to do is to set a good example. To start by improving our own character.
Accepting that our children and our students are not under our direct control is critical. Even Socrates had bad students who went off the rails. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model. Sometimes it’s in the hands of fate.
We need to work on accepting these limits and not getting frustrated with them.
The ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids than we are today. They believed that character is instilled through exercise, sport, and work.
Today, many parents express their love through consumerism, buying toys, taking kids out to places for entertainment. But in Stoicism, it’s more important what we give them to DO, rather than possessions. The way we invest our time is a more appropriate gift – and to have them do things that require effort. We develop virtue through hard work.
Q: Parents today get competitive about their children’s success in academics, sports, careers, everything. How can we re-think that with Stoicism?
I live in quiet Nova Scotia. That’s not as obvious here. The competitiveness of parents varies a lot.
As Stoics, our goal isn’t to give our kids skills that would make them externally successful. Stoicism challenges some of our culture’s values that way. Stoics believed that what they were proposing should upset people. It’s an “epistrophe” in Greek–like a U-turn. Part of that is questioning consumerism and narcissism.
Stoics would say – what is Success in LIFE? Will a degree and a good job make our children good people? Is our priority to make our children materially successful, or more rounded people?
Sometime pursuit of wealth is obstacle. Epictetus says you can’t serve two masters. If you pursue a successful career, you can earn wealth. Some career paths suck you into a certain type of character and values, which is not necessarily good. External success is not same as virtue.
Instead, we should ask: Do our children have wisdom? Integrity? Are they true to themselves? Are they living in a way consistent with rational values?
Q: Interesting. Could we apply these same questions to ourselves, as people and as parents?
A: Yes. In Stoic week, we do an exercise known as “values clarification.” It’s Socratic. Rather than saying “these are the values,” this approach asks you a bunch of questions. It asks you to figure out what you care about and reflect on those values. The Socratic method can expose contradictions between our beliefs and actions.
Another approach is the double standard strategy. You think about what you want for yourself. Then you make a list of what you admire most in other people. Then you ask: What if I did what I admire in others? What would it be like to apply that in practice?
We have a Stoic model for this: Marcus Aurelius. In Book 1 of his Meditations, all he does is describe others’ virtues. It’s a huge list.
As parents, we could ask: What do you spend most of your time doing with your kids? What are things you most admire about other parents? What if you could do what they do?
Q: Let’s go back to the source material for a moment. Much of the language and emphasis in ancient Stoicism is masculine. Discussions focus on “the wise man” and on “manly” attributes. How did the Stoics of Greece and Rome view women?
A: Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, wrote a book called The Republic that we only have fragments of now. It was a critique of Plato’s Republic. He said that everything would be equal in the Republic. That implies no slavery, and that men and women would be equal.
Ancient Cynics also seemed to have believed there was an equality between men and women. The idea was shocking then. And maybe only Cynics would think this—they were known for saying shocking and anarchic things.
We believe that Cleanthes wrote on the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women, but we know nothing about what he said.
Then 400 years later, Musonius Rufus’ lectures argue that virtues are the same in men and women, and he argues that girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys. Women should be able to practice philosophy.
Next time: ANGER rears its ugly head. And it is indeed ugly, as Donald Robertson tells us in part three of our interview. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments!
My younger daughter slightly injured my older daughter in the pool today. The injury faded very quickly—but the daughter responsible had much more trouble with the emotional consequences of her mistake.
She immediately apologized for the minor pain she’d caused, but she did not like the response she received. “That hurt,” her older sister said, “Ouch… why did you do that?” It wasn’t the “I accept your apology” that she wanted.
My younger child acted like the one wronged and in pain, crying furiously.
I knelt poolside and tried to impart some of the wisdom of the Stoic philosophy I’ve been studying. “You can’t control how other people react to you,” I said to her. “Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, people will respond in ways you don’t appreciate or even understand. It may seem hurtful. But you can't make her change how she feels or what she says.”
“But I want her to forgive me, I want her to be OK with me, and to not be angry with me,” she said between sobs.
“Unfortunately, It’s not possible to force someone to be OK with you.” I tried to get past her tears. “It may feel hurtful, I know. But the only person who can change that hurt is you. You have to try to learn how to act when you make a mistake. We all make them," I said.
"To me, all you can do when you make a mistake is to apologize. To try to make it better and fix whatever you caused--like if you spilled all the milk, clean it up, and then go out and buy new milk. After that, work on moving past it.
"Others' emotions can't be controlled or fixed. You can’t make her happy with you right now. And as hard as that is to accept, it's just how things work.”
Eventually the sobbing subsided. And soon they were friends again, doing a vague semblance of synchronized swimming together.
In our perfectionistic society—our culture that privileges flawless behavior and looks, and that celebrates outward success that appears immune to criticism—mistakes are simply not accepted by many people.
In my experience, you can have one or two reactions to a mistake. Either deny it completely (a la our president, who never acknowledges doing anything wrong), or say you’re sorry and try to make things whole again as best you can.
When you apologize and try to make it right, you hope to start fresh. But that is the tricky part. You want to make sure you are still loved and accepted by those around you—but you simply are not in charge of other people’s thoughts and feelings.
That’s where my daughter fell apart. And maybe that’s why so many people deny their mistakes, errors, failings to begin with.
Stoicism offers a good way to frame how to respond when we make a mistake, do something wrong, or when others see us fail at something. In our usual fantasy of control over the world, it's hard to acknowledge a basic fact: that we can only master ourselves.
Do you remember when you were a kid - and you constantly asked ‘why’? Most children do.
Fun questions about the world, like,
Why is the sky blue?
Why do clouds look like cotton candy?
Why do fish open their mouths underwater?
Why do bees sting?
Or questions about everyday things, like,
Why do I need to take a bath?
Why do I have to eat vegetables?
Why do I need to clean my room?
Why do I have to wear a jacket outside?
Why can’t I eat all my Halloween candy at once?
Why do I have to change my socks/underwear/clothes every day?
The list goes on and on.
I’ve tried to bring reason and logic to my kids’ lives by explaining why in many, many cases. It’s time consuming and sometimes even annoying. But I think it is worth it.
That's based on my own experience. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have explainer parents, not “because I said so” parents. This made me a more independent and responsible adult than I might have been otherwise. I kept asking questions, but as I got older, I always tried to do my own thinking to come up with reasonable answers.
I’m going to call this “why” parenting. I think the Stoic philosophers would heartily approve of this style of relating to kids. Ancient Stoic thinkers believed that we all have a “share of the divine” within us—and that is our reason. It is what provides us our ability to think logically. We can use it to understand our world and our actions in it.
“Why” parenting helps kids—and the adults they grow into—become more rational and willing to use their own internal power of reason to figure things out. Rather than blindly look to authority figures or tradition or habit as the source for all knowledge and action, asking why grows a person’s ability to think things through and decide what’s right. And, I hope, the backbone to stand behind that decision.
So the extra minutes a parent spends explaining things to a kid are valuable. So, too, are those times when adults let kids just try out things to discover the "why" themselves. (Within reason, of course. Nothing too dangerous!)
If I explain that you need to wear a jacket because you’ll be freezing cold outside…. Well, it’s OK if you try going outside for a few minutes and see what it feels like. Or if you want to eat all your Halloween candy at once…. You will likely feel a stomach ache after the first pile. Or if you think your dirty socks are just fine…. Maybe try smelling them closely. That’ll wake up your inner germaphobe!
As kids get older, they understand cause and effect much more readily. But starting young doesn’t hurt. It develops the mind. And that’s really the point of all this philosophy and education stuff, isn’t it?
I promised I’d post about how the 8 and 9-year-olds responded to my mindfulness and contemplation training for a small group of girls at a local elementary school. My daughter participated, which gave me a good sense for how things were going (she can be brutally honest about her opinions!). The program was more successful than I’d imagined and motivated me to keep thinking about how to share these ideas locally and beyond.
I wanted the kids to understand the context for why this matters—and how we can influence how our brains work. We all began by thinking back to the time when the human brain first evolved. What was the world like? The students chimed in with a lot of reasons why humans would be afraid of things like lightning and wooly mammoths and running out of food. (Although one girl’s claim that people were fearful that they would be eaten by dinosaurs had to be quickly discounted!) The students grasped how hard life must have been.
I asked them to try to understand that nowadays, we view the small annoyances and setbacks of modern Western existence as if they were equally life-threatening dangers. And that we can develop bad habits of the mind as a result. I used the example of my response to someone not replying to my email – was my message stupid? Will that person tell other folks that I’m an idiot? Could I be fired from my job because I’m not smart enough? Will I then starve? This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing. It’s common in my brain and seems to happen to a lot of us.
(If you’ve seen the short film called Inner Workings that is now showing before the movie Moana, you’ll understand that it is a perfect example of what I mean. The main character, a guy whose body we can peer into like in an anatomy textbook, is pulled by the lure of fun things like eating a big delicious breakfast and going swimming or surfing in the ocean. But his brain keeps pointing out all the threatening, dangerous things that could happen to him if he chases fun. These possibilities always lead to an illustration of an early grave in his mind’s eye.)
Next, I explained to the students how to do a personal weather report about how they feel. I liked this idea because it’s such a neutral, non-judgmental way to think about our own emotions. In the same way that you can’t change or control the weather, you can’t always change your feelings—but you can notice them and be aware. I had all the students close their eyes and ask themselves quietly if they felt stormy, rainy, snowy, sunny, cloudy, tropical, etc., in their own minds. My daughter thought this was a useful exercise.
I included a few other metaphors that didn’t register as well with the third graders. For instance, the notion of “surfing your emotions” turned out to be pretty abstract to them. I got a few vacant stares and quickly moved on.
We did a five-minute guided meditation using a recording from the UCLA online center. It focuses on calming the mind and gently breathing, but not much else—just a very simple pause. Most of the girls engaged with it. A few kept giggling, and one said she thought it was creepy. I asked that girl afterwards to explain what she meant, but she wouldn't respond. Possibly it was the recorded voice—which was a sort of monotone. I found it soothing, but kids might not all agree. Next time, I would try to bring in a bell or a block to strike when the meditation time is over. The students would pay attention to an intriguing sound, I think, and I could use my own voice rather than a recording.
At the session’s end, I briefly explained that we could use meditation to develop compassion and loving-kindness towards others and ourselves. The girls closed their eyes and thought of a friend or family member, repeating to themselves, “May she/he find joy and peace.” They did the same with themselves: “May I find joy and peace.”
Feedback on this session has been positive. I’d like to pursue more testing of this teaching soon. More to do in 2017!
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.