What are the most valuable Stoic ideas to keep in mind on a daily basis as a parent?
I thought about this question as I spoke with The Scotland Stoics recently. You can listen to my interview with host Robert Keenan on the podcast here (or anywhere you can find podcasts!):
In this post, I'd like to expand on three general concepts I mentioned in the podcast, ones that I turn back to over and over again to maintain balance and sanity. First, the dichotomy of control and acting on what’s in my power; second, using my spark of reason; and third, not taking things personally.
What’s in our power, and what’s not—as parents and kids
The dichotomy of control is a core principle of Stoic thought. Epictetus begins his Handbook—a manual of short summaries of Stoic ideas, also called the Enchiridion—with this:
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Handbook, 1.1, Robin Hard translation)
Let’s add something to this list: our children’s behavior and actions are not within our power. We can guide them and teach them, and we have a duty to do so in our role as parents or guardians. But in fact, children of any age are not strictly under our control. And in fact, we owe it to them to try to help them learn as they grow to use their OWN power with wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
Take a very small example of how little power we have: I have one child who is a night owl, and one who is an early riser. Did I choose for my one daughter to stay up late ever since she was a youngster and have trouble falling asleep at night, so she feels tired in the morning? And my other child to wake up at the crack of dawn? No. Similarly with all the other physical and personality/temperament elements of our children. We don't have that choice.
If we make efforts to understand at a deep level who are our children are and acknowledge their nature-given characteristics, we can work with them on their level—so that THEY can begin to understand what’s in their power. When they are old enough to realize that they are making choices and that their actions impact others, we can begin to teach them how to behave in a way that strives for the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance.
I think this is actually an act of “taking back our power” as parents and as children too. Stoic ideas can help us maximize our agency (according to modern Stoic thinker Lawrence Becker). I work regularly to figure out what’s in my power with my kids, and what is not; what’s within their power, and what is not.
Online learning is a good time to recall this. So much is outside of our control here in California, where public schools have been doing distance learning for about a year now. The situation is not in our power, but the way we respond is. As Epictetus said, “It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgments that they form about them.” (Handbook, 1.5)
That’s not to say that there aren’t many mitigating factors for students who are not equipped to manage this situation. A myriad of things from age to learning differences to family situations and economic hardship impact what kids are going through right now.
My children are teens, and they have learned how to handle lots of screen time (both for fun and for school, activities, and volunteer work), so my husband and I leave it in their hands to organize their learning and their days. We know online learning at school is typically not very motivating, or fun. All the aspects of school they liked are missing (social interaction, sports, cafeteria pizza that looks and tastes like cardboard in my opinion!). But: they have it in their power to follow through in this learning situation.
If they ever say “I can’t do it,” I’m right there asking, “OK. Let’s think about what CAN you do? How can you make this work for you? How can you take back your power over what you can control on your end?”
(Sidenote: I hear lots and lots of alarms and dinging reminders going off in my house, among all the various online classes and schedules we have to adhere to these days! Also, isn’t it crazy how easy it is to lose your cell phone in your OWN house? “Find my Phone” is a favorite app.)
And when it comes to seeing our kids making mistakes or making us crazy by not following our guidance, we also have the power to say, “I did the best I could in that situation… I’ll talk to my child about how to handle this better when she calms down/is in a better mood/is more rested, etc.” (Of course, if the mistake is truly dangerous, we need to take quick action to stop it.)
I realize this sounds much easier than it is. But honestly, it’s the one thing that’s made me much less irritable and frustrated as a parent. And it’s helped put my children in the driver’s seat of their own futures.
Using our spark of reason to break through emotional barriers
On another note: Have you watched Frozen 2? Parents of younger children might be raising their hands right now. My daughters weren’t little anymore when it came out, but we still wanted to see it on the big screen because of all their memories of the first movie in the series from 2013. We went to the theater (pre-pandemic) and noticed a huge cadre of older teens and young twenties viewers who probably felt super nostalgic about the original Frozen movie.
In Frozen 2, there’s a particular song that stood out to me. Not just for its musical qualities (though it was good, and was sung by Kristen Bell, whom I love), but for its Stoic messages: “Do the Next Right Thing.” The Anna character feels abandoned. She has been left alone to find her path, and she’s scared and uncertain. But she figures out that one step at a time (literally, as she walks out of a deep cave-like hole), she can make good choices and carry on with her quest to find her sister.
Even when things are really rough, we can always “do the next right thing.” Even when we don’t know what lies ahead. Or when we’re dealing with awful things from the past. Stoic thinking is very much about the present, doing what you can in the current moment. Releasing the emotional baggage of what’s come before and just doing the next right thing.
My role as a mom is to try to guide my kids to learn for themselves how to decide what is the next right thing for them, how to assess their impressions, how to not make knee-jerk reactions but to judge their impressions with accuracy and wisdom. How to avoid getting weighted down by troubles and be able to keep acting in the present. We have a lot of conversations about why they do the things they do, and what they could do next.
This is a good lesson for kids and parents too. It’s easy to get carried away into cognitive distortions like catastrophizing about how a situation could play out badly. Those of us who get anxious do it constantly. It can paralyze our decision-making. If this had happened to Anna, she might still be stuck in that hole.
How to figure out the next right thing? In moments of uncertainty—very often during this pandemic—I try to recall that I have a spark of reason deep inside my brain, according to the Stoics. If I pause, I can figure out the next right thing, in most cases. Somehow, I can leverage my own sense of “is this really true? Is this wise? Is it brave? Is it just and fair?” and make those criteria for decisions.
It takes some of our unintended irrationality out of our choices. The irrational side of things is usually based on fears about things spiraling out of our control, or forms of anger or insecurity—bad passions in a Stoic sense.
I hope my kids can do this too.
Not taking it personally
This is another tough one, but critical. I’ve noticed that parents take dealing with their kids “too personally” in two circumstances: First, when we think our child’s actions are a reflection on us and our value as people; second, when we feel a sense of being disrespected or even disliked by our kids. I’ve often found myself doing this and I’m trying to be self-aware about it. This is another facet of taking back our power to decide how we want to feel and act.
What I’m getting at is the idea that we shouldn’t take it as a personal offense or affront when our kids don’t behave how we want them to... and we shouldn't view it as a failure on our part.
In a social setting, I recall being really embarrassed when my toddler had a meltdown in a public place (and this happened multiple times, naturally). But looking back, that was just a young kid being immersed in emotions, proto-passions that turn into raging negative feelings. My child was too young to control it. And I did the best I could: Taking my kid out of the situation where the tantrum would affect other people, explaining to her why this behavior isn’t the way we get what we want, and giving her time and tools to calm down.
The tantrum wasn’t a reflection on me or my parenting. And it wasn’t really reflective of anything important about my child, who was at a very typical waystation on a journey to learn how to manage negative emotions (like the rest of us, but just not so far along at that age!).
An added layer here is what happens on social media. We feel encouraged to share parenting experiences online, but then we are often judged for sharing. For example, a mom posts a question about her tween sneaking around with friends without her parents’ knowledge in a mother’s group; she then gets a lot of backlash and judgment from others about her concerns. Or a dad posts that he wants to learn about sleep training for his baby, and people start to question his parenting. These are the kinds of forums for judgment that I recommend avoiding.
There's another reason why we should ask ourselves if we are taking something that our kids do too personally. Some moms and dads grew up in homes where it wasn’t permitted to go against their own parents, and where they were supposed to be “seen and not heard” as kids. It's possible that, if you are used to that mindset, any kind of disobedience from children could raise a red flag.
We can use our reason to discern if a kid’s behavior is truly a worrying act of defiance that could cause serious consequences, a pattern of behavior that shows bad intentions and unethical tendencies—or just a minor or fleeting issue.
A case in point: Does it make sense to get super angry if your kid is rude to you? I have been there, and it’s not a good feeling. Expressing a ton of anger will likely backfire, as Seneca would surely tell us. We will get better results (and model better behavior) if we can say something calmly and firmly about everyone deserving respect and common courtesy. Rational consequences, such as privileges being lost temporarily until behavior reflects our values, may also be appropriate.
When the going gets tough, here are words from Epictetus:
With regard to everything that happens to you, remember to look inside yourself and see what capacity you have to enable you to deal with it… if hard work lies in store for you, you’ll find endurance; if vilification, you’ll find forbearance. (Handbook, 1.10)
When our children are older, there may even come a time when we’ll look back and laugh at what went on when they were kids, as the cliché goes. Let’s do our best to make it to that moment together, relationships and sanity intact.
In one of my daughter’s middle school classes, she was recently asked to examine her “self-esteem.” She had to take an online quiz that judged her self-esteem with each answer. A sample question: “When I compare myself with others, I feel: a) great; b) horrible; c) OK/not affected.”
“THIS IS WEIRD!” My daughter yelled out loud as she stared at her computer screen. “What the heck? Why do we have to answer these?” And also, after the test was done: “Apparently I have terrible self-esteem!” Well, not exactly “terrible”—the results read: “Your self-esteem needs work!” (There seemed some irony there: Studying self-esteem made her feel worse about herself.)
Next, she was asked to do an assignment: “What are five ways you could improve your self-esteem?” Part of this work involved writing down “affirmations” about herself meant to boost self-esteem. She asked for my help, and I did my best to tell her a lot of positive and true things. We talked about the things she likes to do, her relationships, and the choices she makes. For instance, I said, “Maybe you could write, ‘I try to be a good friend,’ because of all the things you do for your friends.”
This wasn’t an enjoyable experience for my child. “It felt like bragging about yourself, and not actually doing anything good,” she said.
The question is: Was this a beneficial exercise? Is there a better way?
In recent years, the concept of “self-esteem” has come under fire by researchers in psychology. And I think the quiz my daughter had to take indicates why.
In December on this blog, I touched on the work of researcher and writer Kristin Neff. She recommends that instead of focusing on self-esteem, we should pay attention to our self-compassion: That is, we can recognize that even though we make mistakes, we can still be fundamentally good people. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is often about comparing our own achievements, skills, and talents with other people’s and talking ourselves into believing that we are a lot better than they are. Then, if we falter—if we fail to make good on the story we’re telling ourselves about our achievements and skills—we may plummet into discouragement. “Also, telling yourself that you’re already great at something does not give you motivation to improve” My daughter said.
For example, you tell yourself: “I’m really good at science class, my favorite subject.” What if the next day, you get a low score on a science test? What does that do to your feeling of self-worth?
Stoic philosophy would say that it’s not about who is better or worse, but instead about who is making effort towards moral progress and putting ethics into practice. We’re all at various stages of building our character. In fact, though some of us have recognized that we are patients “in the same hospital” (as Seneca put it) just trying to help each other out. No one has a cure for the human condition. And no person living today has reached the status of perfection in human flourishing, what the ancients called a Stoic sage. But we should still keep aiming for it.
So instead of finding affirmations about how great we are, why not seek reassurance of our self-worth in our commitments and our values? In our choice to care for others and to help ourselves learn and grow? In our interests, and the effort we put in to improve into whatever we do, rather than our inborn talents/abilities?
Let’s find a better way—one that would promote a healthy growth mindset in our kids, and in ourselves.
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.
Many parents complain that their children suffer from “selective hearing.” Their kids only hear what they want to hear.
This happens to me regularly. Me: “Why didn’t you do the dishes after school, like I reminded you this morning?” Kid: “I didn’t hear you.” Or me: “I see your shoes are still on the kitchen floor—didn’t you remember Dad asking you to put them away twice?” Kid: “No, I never heard that!”
Or me: “You should bring a water bottle for your activity today.” Then, me, getting a text an hour after my daughter arrived at her far-away, full-day event: “Mom, I need a water bottle. I didn’t know I was supposed to bring one. Can you drop it off?” And then me, 45 minutes later, carrying water bottle…
This issue has nothing to do with the physical auditory sense but everything to do with what we choose to focus on, and what we do or don’t want to acknowledge. It’s actually more of a “doing” problem than a hearing one. Usually it’s a function of the conflict between what we (the parents) want them to do, and what they (as individuals, and as children) want to do.
It can be tough as a parent. There is no great solution that I know of to consistently get kids’ attention. Perhaps the best we can do is to let nature take its course, so that our children experience some kind of natural consequence for not heeding our guidance (for example, getting so thirsty that they might even seek out a distant water fountain during breaks, prompting them to remember the need for a water bottle next time). If you have other ideas, please let me know in the comments!
But what I really wanted to point out is that I’m also coming to realize that there’s a related phenomenon: “Selective seeing.” It’s what we choose to notice in our surroundings, and what we don’t; it’s what seems visible to us, and what we miss... even if it is obvious to others.
For instance, imagine your child has an array of clothing, homework, markers, and pencils on her bedroom floor. Have you had the experience of reminding that child about to clean up, only to find that she does not seem to “see” that the floor has stuff on it, and she tends to focus only on her dresser or some other spot? Some of us tune out what we’ve gotten used to seeing.
I suffer from this, too. When it comes to my own clutter, I have trouble seeing it. Some days it pops right out at me, in a rather discouraging way. But a lot of times, it takes a huge effort to notice the excess stuff is there. My leaning Tower of Pisa-style stack of books by my bed; my cache of markers and pens littering my desk; junk mail piled on the coffee table; a stack of clean clothes, folded, rising high above the rim of a laundry basket; toiletries spread out across the sink counter; I could go on.
It is the same with so many things, and some are a lot more serious. Our brains get used to walking past someone sleeping at the train station. Or encountering worn-out tents lined up by the underpass. Or news reports showing hungry people in refugee camps. We get used to it, without really seeing it. To some degree, it is a defensive mechanism: If we saw everything all the time, our brains would become overwhelmed.
But still, I now recognize I need to turn on my power of sight and awareness more often.
Here's a Stoic-inspired question to ask ourselves: "What is it we're not seeing?" Put another way "What truths or situations are we not acknowledging?"
At home, it’s about stuff. I’m working on becoming more selective about what I buy after suffering a rash of purchase-return cycles. In fact, “depriving” ourselves of stuff is a Stoic tradition, to help us understand we don't need more.
That’s easier said than done in our market-driven economy, where we are surrounded by ads, offers, and sales on stuff. But the stuff doesn’t make us happy, especially since the psychological phenomenon of hedonic adaption holds very true: We soon get used to having a nice thing, and it doesn’t really have an impact on our contented feelings anymore. Perhaps the thrill of the chase for stuff could be replaced by something else, maybe by challenging ourselves to do something creative, something athletic, or something sociable with real, live people (not just social media).
And in the wider world, outside my home and sphere, in terms of all the inequities and suffering of others: This year, I’m working on seeing and understanding more. I’ve started by listening to a very interesting audiobook by the woman who “wrote the book” on modern genocide: Samantha Power, former US Ambassador to the UN. She has an uncanny ability to see what others miss in terms of human suffering across the globe, and to elevate others’ safety and well-being.
Seeing can help us understand the urgent need to focus on a situation and do something. The ancient Stoics emphasized our common humanity: Other people, no matter how far or different, are our siblings. I know I don’t have all the answers for helping others, or even much knowledge of what should be done, and I can only do what’s within my power. But I hope I can continue to make myself see and acknowledge even what’s terrible, such as the human rights abuses Power has reported on and fought against.
And I’d like my kids to do the same: See bigger picture things, in addition to small ones. It’s a key reason why I support project-based learning. When my children recognize a real-world problem that they want to understand better, to encounter through actual people and places (even remotely), they learn more.
In terms of my life philosophy, this approach stems from the Stoic effort to pierce through our unexamined impressions—the BS—on the outside, and to come to grips with the reality underneath. Ancient Stoics often admonished their followers to examine things more closely. Epictetus reminds those who follow philosophy to see beyond the superficial and to understand the true nature of our world. This isn’t always popular or pleasant, since most people avoid seeing what’s true, uncomfortable, or inconvenient—me among them.
But I’m working on it.
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 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).
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.