The great stoic philosophers of history may not have known what raising a child would be like in this day and age, but they still have some great wisdom to share with modern parents.
Photo by Jules & Jenny.
Perhaps more than any other topic, I've found incredible amounts of personal value from the philosophical school of thought known as stoicism. I find stoicism invaluable for navigating the modern world while maintaining any semblance of self-control. I consider the ideas within stoicism to be an essential part of my own financial life (and personal life, as well).
On Your Role as a Teacher
People often think being a parent means being a provider, but you're also your child's guide through life. Epictetus wrote:
Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant. - The Discourses, CXLV
Teaching your children self care, responsibility, valuable skills, and basically how to live will always be paramount. Yes, provide for them, but don't forget to show them the way.
On What You Should Praise
For the stoics, praise had little utility and was often considered a trap for those who pursued it. So stoics such as Marcus Aurelius believed praise was something rarely to employ:
Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself... [What] is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed? - Meditations
But that doesn't mean you should forego the praise of your child entirely. No, Aurelius merely suggests you be careful and deliberate with your praise:
...a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents. - Meditations
You see, the stoics believed praise should be given to those who try, fail and learn. Give praise when your child tries something, urge them to continue when they fail, and praise them for not giving up when they succeed. It's the difference between saying, "You're so smart!" as if their accomplishment was a natural occurrence, and, "You worked so hard!" which suggests they earned their triumph.
Philosophy can be practical. Throughout history, some of the world's greatest minds used stoic philosophy to endure high pressure situations and make the most of tough times. Best of all, they're still relevant today.
On Managing Your Anger and Frustration
Sometimes kids can be a handful and make you want to lose it, especially when they do something stupid. But Seneca recommends you give kids, and your partner, a little leeway:
This rather is what you should think — that no one should be angry at the mistakes of men. For tell me, should one be angry with those who move with stumbling footsteps in the dark? With those who do not heed commands because they are deaf? With children because forgetting the observance of their duties they watch the games and foolish sports of their playmates? Would you want to be angry with those who become weary because they are sick or growing old? ... That you may not be angry with individuals, you must forgive mankind at large, you must grant indulgence to the human race. - De Ira
Instead of losing your temper and turning a child's mistake into a scream-fest, make it a learning experience for both of you. As Marcus Aurelius says:
Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. - Meditations
Perhaps the failing is yours, not theirs. Besides, the ol' "I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed" routine can work pretty well on some kids.
On Maintaining a Healthy Perspective
When times are tough and the little ones are running you ragged, or your teens are running amok, Marcus Aurelius suggests you start your day with some gratitude:
When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. - Meditations
You're alive, you have a family, and you love them. That isn't so bad, right? Things can always be worse. Always.
For centuries, Zen masters have used stories and koans, or paradoxical riddles, to help students realise their true nature. These stories are often puzzling and may seem nonsensical, but ponder them yourself and you might emerge wiser and more self-aware. Here are seven of our favourite Zen stories.
On Instilling Good Values
This quote from Epictetus isn't for parents specifically, but Matt Van Natta at The Immoderate Stoic suggests it can make for a great family exercise:
Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes, until you have reckoned up each daytime deed: 'Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty's left undone?' From first to last review your acts and then reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well." - The Discourses, 3.10.2-3
This end of the day reflection can be something you bring to the family dinner table. Ask your kids what they did today, ask them what they did wrong (and what they learned from it), and ask what they left undone so they start to learn how to think ahead and plan. It's an easy way to teach them how to be more reflective of their actions, as well as how to be more responsible for the things they do.
When your kid has done something wrong and they need to be punished, Plutarch has a suggestion:
I try to get rid of my anger, if possible, by not depriving those who are to be punished of the right to speak in their defence, but by listening to their plea. For both the passage of time gives a pause to passion and a delay which dissolves it, and also the judgment discovers a suitable manner of punishment and an adequate amount. - De Cohibenda Ira
Do not get angry when it comes time to punish a child. Hear them out and learn. Understand their perspective, gather intel to help you in preventing further issues, and give yourself time to cool down so you can choose a just punishment.
We all have mornings where we want nothing more than to stay in our beds, warm and comfortable, all day. If you're having a morning like that, stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius suggests you look to your true nature as a human being.
On Not Spoiling Your Kids
Kids will throw temper tantrums and try to get their way from time to time. Seneca tells parents to stand strong and never give in:
Childhood, therefore, should be kept far from all contact with flattery; let a child hear the truth, sometimes even let him fear, let him be respectful always, let him rise before his elders. Let him gain no request by anger; when he is quiet let him be offered what was refused when he wept. Let him, moreover, have the sight but not the use of his parents' wealth. When he has done wrong, let him be reproved … Above all, let his food be simple, his clothing inexpensive, and his style of living like that of his companions. The boy will never be angry at some one being counted equal to himself, whom you have from the first treated as the equal of many. - De Ira
Giving in will spoil kids, says Seneca, and teaches them to become hotheads when they get older. They learn that getting angry will get them their way. Stay firm and offer only what you initially thought was right.