If we want to teach Stoic virtues to young children, we need a plan. The plan that I have listed below helps us (1) know what to focus on and (2) think about how to encourage virtuous behavior at our children’s developmental level. Everyone knows how important developmental level is in young children, but I saw a great reminder of it this past weekend at James’ first basketball game. Even though the goals are only about six feet high, James (who is 3) couldn’t throw the ball high enough to get it in the hoop. Clementine (who is 4) picked up the ball and easily took a shot. I think their visible throwing abilities are a really good metaphor for their invisible moral abilities. A lot of growth and development happens between ages 3.25 and 4.75, and of course throughout childhood. If our kids are not ready to grasp something, then it’s just not going to happen. I still believe it is beneficial to introduce these virtue lessons to them early on–you’re certainly not going to hurt anything–but it just may not be effective. As the parent and/or caregiver, you will be best able to decide what your child is ready for and how to introduce different lessons.
So who is this plan for? In general, this is for “young children,” meaning ages 2-5. But I think you could start some of these lessons even with one-year-olds, while others will be beyond even five-year-olds. (Actually, there are many adults who have not mastered a lot of these!) Children mature at their own pace, and certainly different children will be ready for different virtue lessons depending on the child and the circumstances. So without further ado:
Phase I: Developing inner and outer discourse about virtue
- Learn to think about your own thoughts and actions
- Learn to think about things from other people’s perspective
- Develop self-awareness and emotional control
Discipline of desire
- Theme: You don’t always get what you want
- Goal: Learn to think about your own thoughts and actions
- Dealing with frustration
- Dealing with fear or discomfort
- Learning patience
- Learning persistence
- Material things are not that important
- Be happy with what you have; don’t keep wanting more
Discipline of action/impulse
- Theme: Treat other people the way you want to be treated
- Goal: Learn to think about things from other people’s perspective
- Helping other people
- Being a kind friend/sibling
- Forgiving others when appropriate
- Giving to those less fortunate
- It feels good to be good (goodness for its own sake, not for material reward)
Discipline of assent
- Theme: You control yourself and only yourself
- Goal: Develop self-awareness and emotional control
- Try your best and don’t worry about the outcome
- Focus on your own actions, not other people’s
- When you are upset, calm down and take a step back
- Focus on what is in your control
You’ll notice that the plan is designed around the three Stoic disciplines (which are linked to the three Stoic topics of study and to the four cardinal virtues). There is extensive overlap between the three topics, since of course you can’t really practice one without the others. And there is one overarching goal for early childhood development in Stoicism: developing inner and outer discourse about virtue. That means we will learn to talk as a family about our thoughts and actions, and the kids will learn to internalize moral reasoning for themselves. If we can at least accomplish that by the time they turn 6, we will have made great progress.
So how do you actually use these moral precepts with your children? They are meant to be taught in the course of everyday life, although I could see a parent designing explicit lessons around many of these (perhaps with the help of a good storybook or movie). You can praise your kids for getting close to these targets and gently remind them when they have gone astray. You can point out other good role models who follow these precepts (your friend Sophie was being really kind!), or talk about your own moral reasoning (I’m really frustrated right now, but I’m staying calm so I can solve the problem). Once you know what lessons you want to teach, you can really find teachable moments everywhere.
Please let me know if you try any of these and find them useful!