Can Stoic thinking help us become better parents and people? Brittany Polat says yes. She has created the parenting blog Apparent Stoic, and her book, Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in January 2019. She shared her thoughts on how a Stoic perspective can help in guiding young children--and how it has made a difference for her as a mother.
How did you discover Stoic philosophy?
My journey into Stoicism began when I was feeling very depressed about not having a job, friends, or connections in my new town. I also felt pretty lost as a parent: I was unsure about the right way to raise my children, and I didn’t know where to turn to find answers. I went online and searched for books about wisdom, and eventually I came to William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. After that I was hooked. The more I read about Stoicism, the more I realized it was exactly what I needed to have a meaningful, happy life as a person and a parent. I hope other parents will benefit from learning about Stoicism, too!
What does ancient Stoic philosophy say about parenting (if anything)? Could you recommend a handful of key takeaways from the classic texts?
The ancient Stoics obviously didn’t provide many suggestions about raising children! The clearest parenting advice I’ve found comes from Musonius Rufus, in his lecture on educating children: “We must start by teaching children that this thing is good that thing is bad, that this thing is helpful and that thing is harmful, and that this thing must be done and that thing must not be done.” (Lecture 4.7) This sounds like really obvious advice, but I think it shows how we can start gently teaching Stoic virtue from a young age. The earlier you start teaching virtue, the more naturally it will come to your child.
I find it very helpful to remember that children are starting from a point of complete ignorance about the appropriate way to act. As Epictetus reminds us, no one knowingly does wrong. Kids are not trying to be bad, they are just doing what makes sense to them. It’s my job to teach them to be good people. Remembering this helps me stay calm and understanding as I correct them.
I also really like the Stoic ideal of lifelong development (oikeiosis). Not only am I teaching my children how to find virtue and happiness, but I am also continuously working toward those goals for myself. It helps me to stay humble and keep things in perspective when I think that I am still learning how to be a good person, too!
Are there specific ways in which Stoicism made your journey as a mother easier or better? How?
Definitely. I used to have so many negative emotions surrounding motherhood: anxiety, guilt, frustration, self-pity, not to mention feeling completely incompetent as a parent. Stoicism has been an incredible tool for weeding out these negative emotions. I think the very first step is understanding what you can and cannot control, and the next step is understanding that your emotions are caused by your beliefs about life. Once you understand that you can control your own thoughts and emotions, you have an amazing gift as a parent. You no longer have to be upset and angry. You can be calm and compassionate no matter what your child does.
Stoicism has also helped me find joy in those everyday moments with my kids. Everyone is always so busy and tired, so it can be hard to pause and really appreciate your child. I think the modern Stoic authors have some great suggestions for helping us stay present and engaged as parents. I love William Irvine’s recommendations for negative and projective visualization, and Donald Robertson’s ideas on Stoic mindfulness and cognitive distancing.
What do you think Stoic philosophy offers moms and dads that they can’t find elsewhere?
Stoicism offers a framework for making good decisions as a person and a parent. We are constantly making big and small decisions about how to raise our children, from basic discipline to the big-picture questions like what kind of person you want your child to be. Stoic philosophy can guide as as we make all these decisions. When I read most parenting advice, it seems superficial, and it’s often based on just one expert’s experience. In contrast, Stoicism is deep and ancient wisdom. I love that I can connect my parenting philosophy with my philosophy of life, so I feel like my decisions as a mom are based on what I truly believe is best for my kids.
Does Stoic thinking help handle kids’ big emotions? And have any Stoic ideas rubbed off on your kids (I realize they are young!)? Do you hear or observe them using any particular concepts?
Yes. I think we first have to make sure we are modelling the right way of dealing with emotions. If your child sees you getting upset over small things, she’s probably going to do the same. You might not think they are paying attention, but at some level they really are! Even though my kids are still little, I try to talk with them about how I’m processing my own emotions. I tell them, “I’m feeling frustrated right now, but I know this isn’t really a big problem. I can solve this problem.” I think this strategy is working. Last week, my 5-year-old’s teacher told me that when Clementine was facing a minor tragedy at school (I forgot to pack her snack that day!) she calmly said, “I feel like crying now, but I’m not crying because it’s ok. I can solve this problem.” And you know what? She did solve the problem.
Do you have a specific Stoic practice in your life? Have you tried Stoic meditations or “exercises”?
As every parent knows, it’s very hard to find time for thinking or meditation. One thing I’ve found very helpful is incorporating my Stoic reflection into my existing morning and evening routine. It sounds strange, but I decided to do a brief meditation whenever I’m brushing my teeth. I’ve found that if I try to do a separate meditation session, I’m always too busy or tired. But I have to brush my teeth twice a day. Even though it’s a very brief time, it helps me to reconnect with my Stoic intentions in the middle of my busy life--and I can’t skip it!
Have you encountered readers or people out there who do not understand what “Stoic” means when it comes to practice and parenting? How do you help counteract myths about Stoicism?
Yes, and I am still trying to figure out the best approach to sharing Stoicism with other parents. I have made some unsuccessful attempts to explain Stoic parenting to other moms who I thought would be receptive, but who ended up just smiling and backing away slowly. So far I think the best approach is through books and websites. It gives people a chance to explore the concept as a whole, and all the many wonderful, practical ideas associated with Stoic philosophy. I hope that the more writing and sharing we do as a Stoic community, the more accepted Stoic parenting will become.
What’s your favorite Stoic text (ancient or modern)?
I have never been able to pick a favorite--I think they are all valuable in their own ways! But I do have some favorite passages and ideas that I keep circling back to. This one from Epictetus helps me stay focused on the long term, and not expect my children to become virtuous overnight:
“Nothing great comes into being all at once, for that is not the case even with a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me now, 'I want a fig,' I’ll reply, 'That takes time.' Let the fig tree first come into blossom and then bring forth its fruit, and then let that fruit grow to ripeness. So even if the fruit of a fig tree doesn’t come to maturity all at once and in a single hour, would you seek to gather the fruit of a human mind such a short time and with such ease?” (Discourses, 1.15, 7-8)
Beautifully said, and I do feel more tranquil after this conversation! Thanks to Brittany for her parenting wisdom--and check out her blog, too.
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About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, 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.