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 the US, the COVID pandemic has made things tougher for parents than at any time in recent memory. The lockdowns have meant that childcare options have narrowed or in many cases completely eliminated. Many of our kids’ schools have closed, and students are trying to attend classes remotely, requiring a lot of supervision and support from other humans. It’s meant a lot of parents have had to take off time from work, reducing hours or even leaving their jobs, and the future remains uncertain.
In the context of all these challenges, I have continued to work on writing and speaking about Stoic parenting, hoping that these ideas could help other families just a bit as we struggle to get through these unusual times. Of course, Stoicism is not a panacea for all the problems we’re facing. But perhaps Stoic ideas can guide us to re-frame our challenges, and even serve as a bright spot... a means of finding some sort of silver lining within the constraints of our situation.
This is a good time for us to reconsider what helps us all thrive—parents and kids. In that spirit, I would like to share a few resources here on what I’ve been talking about lately outside of this blog.
Life Examined Radio Show and Podcast
I spoke about Stoic parenting with Jonathan Bastian, host of NPR member station KCRW’s Life Examined. Our conversation ranged from the value of developing kids’ character rather than exerting control, the pitfalls of intensive parenting, the importance of choice as a motivator for children, and finding Stoic role models who show us how to aim for wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control... as well as a few key quotes from Marcus Aurelius.
Here is a Life Examined article with a partial transcript of my interview. Here's the interview recording:
To hear the whole podcast of the Life Examined episode about Stoicism—including an interview with Ryan Holiday—check out the full-length recording on Apple podcasts:
Stoicism Today Blog: A Stoic Approach to Parenting
I contributed this post on the Stoicism Today blog focusing on how Stoic life philosophy can help both parents and kids thrive. I tried to capture insights I’ve learned in practicing this approach for more than four years. (The post covers a lot of ground, so feel free to use the headers to skip around to what interests you!)
Stoicon-X Midwest Talk on Stoic Parenting
The blog post linked above is a written summary of a talk I gave on Stoic parenting this fall. If you’d like to watch the YouTube recording of my talk at Stoicon-X Midwest, here it is.
Stoicon-X Midwest Panel Discussion
I was also glad to participate in a wide-ranging panel discussion at Stoicon-X Midwest. Here’s the YouTube video of that conversation.
The STOIC Magazine: Monthly Articles
This monthly online magazine, edited by Dr. Chuck Chakrapani, is a great source for ideas, inspiration, and a sense of community for those interested in applying the principles Stoic philosophy to their everyday lives. I contribute articles regularly, and readers can can subscribe for free. Here you can read The STOIC's most recent edition, and access a whole archive of articles. This page shows my contributions.
I hope we can all continue to think about how Stoic life philosophy can help us through the tough times, as parents, kids, and humans... and that we'll find new opportunities to thrive in 2021.
The lockdown continues. My family is now into our 6th week of working from home, and our daughters’ 5th week of school from home.
Here in my county in Northern California, around 50 cases of Covid-19 are being reported daily. Fortunately my family and friends are OK so far. (To learn more about what I’ve been up to, check out the Stoic Psychology podcast – described at the end of this post.)
One of the weirdest things about this lockdown is the consciousness whiplash I’m experiencing on a daily basis.
For me, my awareness of the Coronavirus crisis comes in waves. One minute I remember it, and fully know how bad it is for many people in many places. Another moment, I lose track of what’s happening and why I’m home.
My knowledge of the crisis temporarily lapses when I participate in a videocall for work, or even more, as I sit under the live oak tree in the backyard with my kids and take in the springtime air, scented with jasmine and lilac. Then I turn to a news website or Twitter and am confronted with the seriousness of things again.
Going back and forth this way is exhausting and strange, and extremely distracting. It’s as if something is always eating away at the edges of my consciousness.
I realize that I am incredibly fortunate to be able to put the crisis aside periodically in this way, but I feel a pit in my stomach when I recognize, once again, how difficult this is for many people who are sick or caring for the ill, or who are in essential jobs that put them at risk.
We are indeed the lucky ones, for now. I’ve heard from friends, too, that it’s difficult for them to enjoy the luxury of not having to commute through dense traffic, or the benefit of seeing their family more, while others are dealing with a pandemic much more directly and with dire consequences. And how we worry about not just those who are ill or treating them, but the many people who have lost their jobs and income.
Even for those not directly fighting the virus, there is a tremendous challenge. We are now all tasked with taking care of each other and ourselves on a new level. We are the direct caregivers of the young and the elderly in our households, and we are responsible for them, as well as for trying to keep ourselves well and sane. It’s a bit how I imagine life was like in small, remote homesteads in the old days: People cut off for weeks or months from contact, in charge of their own food supply, cooking, house work, brain work/education, and leisure activities (if indeed they had leisure). The amount of child care (or elder care) varies greatly from one household to another, but in any case, it’s new for many people to be providing an all-day supply of food, toilet paper (!), education, and activities around-the-clock.
Weirdly, another casualty of this lockdown is, temporarily, time. It’s not that time has completely lost its meaning. Rather, how we count time has changed because of the new way we’re living. A single day can feel very long, or very short, depending on how we spend it.
The silver lining in all this, for me, is time with family. Family that is usually too busy to spent much time together talking and cooking and playing and chatting during the week.
My husband and I are fortunate, now, to both still work full-time remotely, and our children are staying busy with online school assignments that they complete and hand in remotely. The chores do pile up—as one of our cousins put it, the lockdown has turned us into full-time restauranteurs at home, with a teen and tween needing frequent nourishment and no restaurants, diners, or school lunches on the horizon. So yes, despite this lockdown, we are busy!
Nevertheless, I think this time is one to re-assess what gives our lives meaning. Naturally, we all need to try to keep putting food on the table (literally, and in the sense of staying financially solvent). But beyond that, it’s important to have a purpose. Outside of work (housework or job-work), what motivates our days when all the busy-ness of the daily run-around goes away?
For my kids, it’s been a time of renewal, in a sense. They are developing and re-discovering interests that they never had a chance to explore as much before, when they were spending most hours at school or in sports/activities.
Some examples: Skateboarding. Learning pieces on the piano. Doing jigsaw puzzles. Creating a teen-oriented website. Throwing a virtual party for a friend who missed out on her birthday celebration due to the lockdown. Playing non-competitive Appleletters (a form kind of Scrabble). Baking bread, cookies, cupcakes. Preparing and serving tea with little sandwiches. (Did I mention eating was big at my house right now? Trying to avoid the "quarantine 15" though!)
And for me: I have more time to reflect and to sit quietly, not having to constantly be on the move. The stress of traffic and shuttling kids and making it to in-person work meetings is relieved.
Just one sign of that is that now, I’m finally getting a chance to participate in a podcast. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but couldn’t squeeze it into my schedule of full-time work, full-time parenting, and part-time writing/blogging.
Recently, I was interviewed for the Stoic Psychology podcast by Alex MacLellan from London. If you have a chance, please take a listen! Alex is doing a multi-part series with my interview that also includes his own introductory thoughts, along with his book discussion, and then features selections from my conversation with him. We touched on numerous aspects of being a Stoic parent and how Stoicism can best be shared with kids, and we talked about strategies for making it through the lockdown with our sanity and our life philosophy intact.
Speaking with Alex across continents felt, in a way, like a radical gesture of connection in this time of enormous interpersonal disconnecton. It reminded me that I am thankful for this Stoic community for continuing our links, our writing, our sharing, and for so many people’s efforts to forge ahead with this much-needed life philosophy in a difficult and unusual time. Fortune willing, things will brighten as spring ripens into summer.
Do you ever wish you could just KNOW what to say to your kids to guide and support them?
Lately, when I’m trying to help one of my daughters by saying something I think is supportive or giving some gentle guidance, it doesn't seem to go so well.
I don’t blame them for their frustrated responses. It’s all about perspective and how you interpret what’s being said.
For example, saying “You’re doing so well, that’s great!” when we were doing an athletic activity together sounded to my daughter like: “You’re a little kid who needs to be told how good she is.”
She asked, “Why are you so surprised I can do this? You don’t have to tell me that.” Good point. And I’m glad to see she wasn’t waiting for/dependent on my praise to know she’s got things covered.
“You’re kind of talking to me like a baby,” was her other comment. I know that for her, acting like a “baby” is probably one of the worst insults a person could throw at her. So I stopped to think. Maybe I hadn’t evolved how I talked to her to really meet her age, level, and self-reliant character?
And when I try to provide a little coaching about simple things like vocabulary words or piano practice, I get pushback. I thought I was helping. But I can see that my lessons on independence for my kids have actually sunk in, to the point where they really don't want that kind of intervention.
In general, my advice and “help” are not what my kids need to understand how they should think or feel about things. My daughters are in middle and high school now. They have to go through their own process of examining their impressions and discerning the right choices. They are of an age to internalize the lessons that I’ve shared with them about how to understand the world without blinders on—about how to question knee-jerk reactions and groupthink—and about striving towards virtues and moral guideposts such as courage, wisdom, justice, and self-control.
So my parenting now has to focus on teaching (and reinforcing) the PROCESS for how to navigate their world. It's a process that can enable teens to live without focusing exclusively on misguided externals, and to think through their choices using their "spark of reason" and good judgment.
You remember when you were taught to "Stop, Drop, and Roll" if you smelled smoke or a fire? The process is kind of like that, it just happens in our minds rather than our bodies as we respond to the world around us. Stop, drop, and question your impressions. Stop, drop, and tune into your reason and your ruling center, the part of your brain designed to help you navigate away from a deadly fire. Except instead of a fire, we're coping with an unhealthy emotion, or irrational belief, or any thought that just isn't in sync with reality and the nature of the universe.
Then, you can ask yourself: Is what I want to do next next wise, fair, brave, and common-sensical? Does it help others, not just me? Does it help me become the kind of person I want to be? Or does it just serve my own ego and my own biases?
These questions are a good place to start. It is undeniably hard for fast-moving children, but as they get older, they can begin to shape a well-informed process. And as I remind my daughters, a kind of shorthand for this: "Don't believe everything you think."
We can model that process in our own lives, and in how we talk through our own everyday activities and decision-making. None of this is simple for adults either! Personally, I find that I often let doubts creep in about choices… so I stay vigilant about what I say and do to undermine my own process.
Encouraging this process is analogous to our schools trying to teach students HOW to analyze and think for themselves, not WHAT to think or just memorize. Critical thinking and questioning are what philosophy is all about—we can recall how Socrates encouraged these things in his followers and students, and then Epictetus, and many other ancient philosophers. Don't wait for a teacher to guide you, Epictetus said: Once you've mastered the basic ideas for how to live, just go out there and do it.
And the same holds for adults, too.
As much as we might like to KNOW what to do, we cannot ask our philosophy for ALL the answers, written out for us to follow. Ultimately we all need to cultivate a powerful ruling center to help make choices, and to live with the choices we have made.
And that's hard! There's just no way to know all the ideal choices, all the right ways to approach our complex world. We have freedom, and we must make the best of it even when it feels like a tough burden to navigate our lives. Philosophy helps us find illuminated checkpoints in the fog... but the fog remains.
Even Stoic role models such as Marcus Aurelius would probably have been the first to admit that they didn’t know everything. And I think they would have been careful to avoid giving unwanted or unwarranted advice. Can you picture Socrates telling you which car to buy? Or which job to apply for?
No life philosophy is a decision tree showing specific steps. There's no flow chart with spelled-out answers for always doing the right thing. Anything that proscriptive would not allow people to be individuals, to think for themselves, or to get to know their own ruling center.
Instead, our life philosophy should equip us to discern the path towards eudaimonia... and with that process, we can bring a conscious, thoughtful faculty of choice to our decision-making, avoiding fires and other dangers along the way.
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.
Whenever you see someone in tears, distraught because they are parted from a child, or have met with some material loss, be careful lest the impression move you to believe that their circumstances are truly bad. Have ready the reflection that they are not upset by what happened—because other people are no upset when the same thing happens to them—but by their own view of the matter. Nevertheless, you should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief. But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.
– Epictetus, Handbook, Chapter 16
I am committed to Stoic principles, but this passage from Epictetus has always been very difficult for me. As a mother, I think of losing one of my children as the worstpossible thing, worse than losing my own life. These “circumstances” would leave me eviscerated.
I know I’ll never be a “Stoic sage” able to handle that kind of loss with equanimity, and in a way, I don’t want to be. Some people in my life are just too important to me—I wouldn’t be the same human being if I truly reached that state of mental discipline. I can’t image the sage-me.
Yet the second portion of this passage is even more important to me and holds a valuable key. “You should not disdain to sympathize with them, at least with comforting words, or even to the extent of sharing outwardly in their grief.” Indeed. We should all be there for the people in our lives going through pain and loss. Yet Epictetus is very wise to add this: “But do not commiserate with your whole heart and soul.”
What does this mean? It sounds rather heartless and cold at first, but I don’t think so. It gets at the heart of a thorny issue that I’ve wrestled with before: the difference between empathy and compassion.
A little history here. In 2016, at the same time as a I adopted Stoic ideas, I also became fascinated with the nature of compassion and the role it can play in making us better people. I took a course called Compassion Cultivation Training at Stanford University, part of a program combining science (from the Stanford School of Medicine) and meditation/contemplation (with the encouragement of the Dalai Lama).
One of my major takeaways was that while it is possible drain yourself psychologically through an excess of empathy, compassion--when cultivated with care-- is bottomless and, potentially, healing.
Here’s how my compassion training instructor described it. With empathy, you try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If that person is taken over by grief, loss, and sorrow, or other very powerful emotions, you begin to experience those same feelings yourself. You overidentify, to the point where you feel overwhelmed, almost as much as that person feels.
That is sustainable for a short period, say when coping with a colleague’s funeral or listening to a friend describe a divorce or a partner announce a job loss. But when that person is in a very close relationship with you, and is given over to sadness, grief, anger, or other suffering over a long period of time, their suffering can become your own suffering. You eventually find yourself exhausted by it, as it is shared over and over—with one of two outcomes. You might begin to experience the same emotion, wallowing in a pool of difficult feelings that you have no way to solve, or you might decide shut yourself off from that person and feeling after a time, just to survive psychologically.
Either path is not ideal, and it can lead to more suffering. The problem with empathetic pain at one remove is that you don’t even have the tools to help relieve the other person’s pain in any tangible way. It’s up to that person to cope. You can’t handle that for him or her. (This is reflected clearly in the Stoic dichotomy of control.)
On the other hand, if you cut off that suffering person from your life, you’ll miss out on a valuable relationship. And you’ll be hardening your own protective shell in ways that separate you from your common humanity.
Compassion, by contrast, is about accepting that people do experience pain. It emphasizes our ability to be near it, sit with it, and be a comfort and support to that person (or to yourself), without trying to solve it.
When we struggle, we feel alone. This practice combats that in a meaningful way. That's how it can be a source for healing and strength.
With loved ones who are going through grief or depression, it’s a constant balancing act to maintain compassion without falling into the same depths of negative emotion. We can picture ourselves as a loving flame. Those in pain can come close and can hold their hands up to the fiery warmth. In time this may help, or it may not, but it’s the best we can do under difficult circumstances.
With children who are struggling, it can be very hard because we want to help and heal them. Parents tend to think this way: wouldn’t it be better if we could just solve our kids’ problems for them, and thereby make them happy and whole again?
But that’s not the way it works, and as Stoics we can recognize that we have no control over how bullies or “frenemies” treat our children at school, how their teachers reprimand them (fairly or unfairly), what decisions they make on the playground, and what corrosive ideas they pick up from their friends, their classmates, and whatever they see online.
For a long time, one of my daughters was terrified of the movie “It.” I couldn’t figure out why, since we’d never let her watch a horror film about a vicious clown attacking kids. Then one day she admitted she’d seen imagery from the film in an online ad while watching an otherwise-harmless YouTube video aimed at tweens.
There was very little that we, her parents, could do. We tried to explain that no evil clown would come and kidnap her. We tried to explain it was all make-believe, intended for people who like to be scared around Halloween. In spite of all that, she cowered in bed, unable to sleep, images returning over and over again. Sometimes she’d run to our room, saying quickly, “I’m scared.”
I would sit at the edge of her bed, saying, “You’re OK. Everything is fine. I’m right here. We’re with you. We love you. We’ll do whatever we can to protect you.” That was the best I could do. I gave her a hug. And asked her to try to be strong. After months passed, she slowly conquered her fear and slept better.
Try compassion. The combination of knowing you can’t solve other’s problems with a loving heart is a powerful approach, and a solid support for our kids and our families—one not dependent on judging them or needing to repair them—can go a very long way.
Compassion is a muscle we can exercise. If you are like me, at first, it will feel really odd not trying to fix other people. But after a while, it feels even more loving and supportive to simply be there and to care.
This post summarizes three classic compassion-based meditations. The last one, Tonglen, is considered an advanced, challenging Tibetan Buddhist visualization practice—you breathe in darkness and suffering, and breathe out compassionate light.
Perhaps we could all work up to expressing this kind of compassion by allowing ourselves to sit with those going through hardship and pain. The goal: to just be with other people, sharing a sense of common humanity, offering steady support and a touchstone of tranquility. I will aim to do that. And I hope others could do so for me, too.
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.