Many decisions in raising our kids feel as if they take place “between a rock and a hard place.” This old saying recalls Odysseus’ journey through the narrow waterways on his ship as he was heading home. In the legend, Odysseus had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, both sea monsters. The hero chose the “lesser of two evils,” sailing closer to Scylla, where he would lose fewer sailors and not risk his whole ship going down. (Today, we believe that the real-world equivalent of this journey would have been the the Strait of Messina between the island of Sicily and the coast of Calabria in Italy.)
So many moments of being a mom or dad feel like this kind of a choice, though, we hope, with less deadly consequences. As we celebrate Father’s Day, it’s a good time to remember that many dads and moms are facing tough questions every day.
For instance, a toddler acts out at a playground, disrupting other kids. Do you remove her from the situation? Do you distract her? Lecture her? Do you let her learn the hard way that other kids may hit back?
Or a teen says he wants to go to a distant concert with friends you don’t know. Do you let him go? Or do you force him to stay home, knowing that he might just sneak out next time you aren’t looking? Should you trust his friends to drive safely, and to go to safe places? Then again, should you deny your teen contact with his peers and risk social isolation? Learning the hard way here could be risky, but in the long run, so could being perceived as “mean” mom or dad whose decisions are to be evaded or avoided.
Many parents begin their voyage into child-rearing hoping to find “rules” for parenting. That’s why we buy so many books and read so many blogs. These kinds of writing flourish, and yet they cannot provide proscriptive wisdom. There is no rule book, no manual (even though I still have a funny “baby owner’s manual” book that someone gave me when I had infants!) for raising kids.
What you really do need, rather than rules, is a philosophy. And “before you can have a parenting philosophy, you need a life philosophy,” says Stoic author Brittany Polat, who talked about this topic during the Practical Paths to Flourishing Stoicon-X event held earlier this month. She’s right. It’s key to set our own ethical, moral, and psychological house in order, to become the best parents—and best humans—that we can be. By developing our own character, and our virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance, we can set a good example. What is more, we can feel some certainty, some rock to stand on, as we question the crazy world around us when it comes to raising kids from babies to young adults.
That is why I turned to Stoic life philosophy in the first place. Surrounded by the hyper-competitive parents of Silicon Valley, trying to raise two girls with good values, working to create a supportive, healthy home with my husband, every choice seemed loaded with anxiety-producing questions and pressures. Knowing that an age-old ethical philosophy was perfectly in line with my grounded, common-sense approach to being a mother and to fighting the pull towards a superficial vision of status and “success” made it not just tolerable, but meaningful, to guide my kids… and then watch them become independent guides for themselves.
There’s another layer here. Being a mom or dad is about navigating this journey between a rock and a hard place, with your own values and ethics as the lighthouse showing you the way. What complicates things is that it’s not just you guiding your children. It’s much more. In addition to individual decisions parents have to make, you also face larger Scyllas and Charybdises as we pilot your family ship.
Some of these are:
These are all rocks that our ship could founder upon. What’s difficult is that many of these things are outside of our control. These factors require constant shifting and readjusting through narrow, constrained waterways, as new challenges arise. It’s not smooth sailing, no matter how much energy and love you put into it.
For my part, while I say that there are no rules in parenting, I would clarify that by suggesting that there are important rules, or approaches, to teach our kids. Here are some key ones:
May your ship successfully navigate the rough waters and rocky passages of parenthood!
Last month, I submitted my poem "Make Yourself Good" to the Odes to Marcus Aurelius international competition held by Modern Stoicism and The Aurelius Foundation to celebrate the Stoic emperor's 1900th birthday. I was honored to win second place and would like to share what I wrote with you!
The competition organizers also shared a recording of me reading the poem. Click on the YouTube video above to hear it.
My goal with this poem: To get at the heart of Marcus' Meditations, and what I hope to remember from his writings each and every day.
Make Yourself Good
By Meredith Alexander Kunz
“Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live.”
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4:17
Remember that this moment
Is all you have:
Each flying second
Your personal eternity
To make with it
What you can
On this earth.
Each flash of consciousness
Your own, your true possession,
The source of your power
To choose, and choose well,
In this temporary existence.
Focus on this alone and stay true.
That’s what you need to remember
To concentrate on what must be done.
God or atoms? No difference.
Each of us must make our own way.
And that inner daimon--
Inside you, inside us all,
Knows the path to virtue
And the good.
When we listen,
We find happiness.
Some days, some years even,
We will be down and out,
Dispossessed, beaten up
By the whims of the world,
Liable to gnash our teeth,
Fill our brains with worry,
Fear, desire, resentment.
But still: We hold the keys to mastery
Of all that really matters.
It’s a lesson for the ages:
“While you have life in you,
While you can,
Make yourself good.”
And if you’re veering off course into
Love of status, money, looks, things--
If you’re consumed
Of what lies ahead,
And dread of what
And recall the philosopher-king
to rule them all.
He’ll set you right.
And you’ll start the next day
Ready for the fight.
Change is upon us again. There is finally a light at the end of the tunnel in the pandemic. As more adults receive Covid-19 vaccines, and case numbers begin to fall, we are seeing a return to in-person education, work, and activities.
This spring, more schools are either open or have plans to re-open for in-person classes. Sometimes they are offering “hybrid” options: At our local public schools this month, students who agree to attend in person will be brought back for 2 days a week and will learn remotely the rest of the time. The classroom setup and rules are still being worked out. No matter what’s decided, the new arrangement will only be in place for the last 6 weeks of the school year.
And as more business re-open or expand in-person offerings again, we as adults are also experiencing change. We’ll have more opportunities to work together in real life. We’ll also have more expectations to commute, to travel, or to participate in events, to go back to the crammed-full days.
The bottom line: Our kids will need to adapt to new schedules, social interactions, and changed environments, and so will we.
This should be an unmitigated positive, right? Getting back to our regular lives is good, isn’t it? Yes…. and no. First, there are still dangers in this pandemic. The Covid-19 variants circulating are virulent. Many adults haven’t gotten vaccines yet. And there’s still no vaccine approved for kids under 16; though children’s cases are usually mild, they can still suffer from Covid.
Second, we’ve gotten very used to our lockdown lives over the past year in California. Since my husband and I have been fortunate to be working online from home, we no longer had the obligation to rush for kid drop offs or pickups or for congestion-heavy commutes. Instead, our time has been more fluid. We have worked online more hours overall, but we’ve also had more time together as a family. We’ve been able to have family dinners and snack breaks. We’ve had much more homework helping time. More conversations. And less time stuck battling stressful traffic and crowds, and racing to get to events or appointments or meetings or extracurriculars.
Despite all the difficult times, I did find myself experiencing a few silver linings during lockdowns. The pandemic shutdowns did a lot to alleviate my own FOMO—"Fear of Missing Out." I often have felt I could or should be doing more, either for my own development or my work, and for that of my children. The lifting of that pressure for a short time helped me understand that some of my thinking about what I “should” do was off-base. We are only human, and we can only do so much. And rushing to squeeze it all in without focus or depth isn’t really good. The shutdowns reminded me of this fact. But even though one burden lifted temporarily, the dangers and fears inherent in living in a pandemic where thousands have been dying and our economy fell into collapse instilled a sense of sadness and uncertainty. So many days this past spring, summer, and winter I woke up with a pit in my stomach for all the suffering happening around the world.
Interestingly, research has shown that some silver linings existed for our children, in some cases. The social distancing and richer home life of the lockdowns actually helped certain kids. Even though the majority of children studied have experienced a decline in their mental health during pandemic lockdowns, a subset of kids have actually seen a rise in their psychological wellbeing. That’s especially true of those who suffer from social anxiety or related diagnoses, researchers said.
According to a recent New York Times article, a percentage of kids did “better” during the pandemic’s closures—perhaps due to less exposure to causes of stress at school and more help from their parents generally. Here’s how the Times described recent research on this: “A study published in February in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry looked at the mental health impact on 1,000 young people in Canada during the pandemic, and found that 70 percent of study subjects aged 6 to 18 reported some negative impact. But 19.5 percent in that age group saw some improvement, leading the authors to conclude of the impact: ‘Mostly worse; occasionally better.’”
Many adults, too, dread going “back” to all the pressures of the lives they’d built prior to the pandemic. People are re-assessing. Some are finding an increasing sense of anxiety, according to the Times story and another article in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal noted that many people realized just how many things they were happier not doing during the lockdowns, and that those people could now learn to set new boundaries around the things they preferred not to do (even including visiting with extended family). Other people experienced better work lives by working online and remotely, especially those with social anxiety, finding breakthroughs that they could potentially build upon in the future.
Humans have very different reactions to change. Some people embrace it, and even seek it out. Others experience fear or anxiety. The Stoic approach here is to emphasize the importance of how we respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in. It’s not the change itself that bothers us; it’s our reaction to it. Often, it’s the many “what if” questions that we ask ourselves that leads us down a rabbit hole of worry or dread. And in an ongoing pandemic that’s not over yet, there is still a lot to ask “what if” about, both for parents and children. About the virus, about school arrangements and expectations, about group gatherings and kids socializing.
For all these things, it is a balancing of risks and rewards. Of fears and opportunities.
And it’s a readjustment. We will need to give ourselves time for that. For most kids, school is exhausting. For many working parents, commuting to jobs and working long days in meetings, trainings, and events is draining. We’ll need to give ourselves the chance to be aware of how we feel in the moment, and to care for our needs, rather than pushing ourselves and our kids beyond their limits.
From a Stoic perspective, you can live through anything and still make a good life. But we also have a renewed opportunity to think about the things we can and can’t control, and the things we do and do not want to do.
Rather than be pressured to “do it all” we can make deliberate choices about how we spend our time, to make the best of our possibilities (knowing that we still need to work to put food on the table for our families). That pertains to our working hours, our work raising our kids, and also our leisure time.
What are you concerned about readjusting to? What are you most looking forward to? What about your families or kids? Please feel free to leave your comments below!
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.
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.