A Stoic upbringing

A Stoic upbringing: The discipline of action

Of the three Stoic disciplines, the discipline of action may be the most natural to teach young children. While the disciplines of desire and assent have primarily internal processes and results, the discipline of action is more external and visible. So because children interact with other people every day, they have plenty of opportunities to learn and practice Stoic ethics–and as parents, we have ample opportunity to teach them!

The starting point for ethical action, according to Epictetus, is deciding which actions are appropriate to our nature as human beings. As adult practitioners of Stoicism we understand the complexity of the discipline of action. For example, here’s how Pierre Hadot summarizes Epictetus’ position on ethics:

These are actions–and therefore something which depends on us–that have an effect on things which do not depend on us, such as other human beings, politics, health, family life, and so forth…Since such actions are directed exclusively toward other people, and have their foundation in that community of reasonable nature which unites humankind, they must be guided by our intention to place ourselves in the service of the human community.”  (The Inner Citadel, transl. Michael Chase, p. 87)

So as rational adults, we can think about how our actions will affect those around us on many different levels, ranging from immediate family members to local community members to someone on the other side of the world. But how do you begin to teach this to young children?

One way is to start with the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” This formulation of the rule was spoken by Jesus (Matthew 7:12), but many ethical systems throughout history have made the same point, and I think this is a very practical introduction for young children. The way I put it is “Treat other people the way you want them to treat you.” We talk about this rule a lot at my house. Whenever Clementine and James do something unkind to each other, this rule comes out: James, do you want Clementine to take your toy away? No. Then don’t do it to her. Clementine, do you want James to yell at you? No. Then don’t yell at him.

You could say that the whole purpose of ethics for young children is teaching them to get outside themselves and think about the consequences of their actions. Learning ethics is all about learning your place within the human community and therefore understanding how your behavior impacts other people. So most of the rules and principles I teach my kids relate to seeing the world from a universal perspective rather than from their own egocentric perspective. Here are some that I find myself using often:

  • If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (Yes, this is an old-fashioned saying, but it still works.)
  • Clementine, are you being kind right now? No. Then change your behavior.
  • James, stop saying ugly things to Clementine. Would you like me to say that to you?
  • Clementine, do you like to listen to James whine? No. Then do you think I like to hear you whine?
  • We are a family and we treat each other nicely. Even if you are frustrated with your brother, you still love him and you still have to be nice. You are never allowed to do ugly things, even if you are mad. Find a better way to solve the problem.

Another good strategy, similar to the “praise the process” approach advocated by Matt Van Natta, is to praise your child when they work hard at an ethical action. When I see that my kids have done something kind, or refrained from doing something inappropriate, I compliment them.

  • I know you’re really hungry, so I appreciate you waiting for everyone else to start eating.
  • I’m so proud of you for sharing with your sister.
  • Thank you for helping Freddy get his toy. That was very sweet of you.

I also try to emphasize that they should feel proud of themselves when they do something good.

  • Do you feel proud of yourself for helping your brother?
  • Doesn’t it feel good to do something nice for him?
  • You get good things when you do good things.

We also have some issues with bossiness, so I keep a few reminders at hand when Clementine tries to tell everyone else what to do:

  • Are you in charge of him? No. Who are you in charge of? You. You take care of yourself and I will take care of Freddy.
  • If James is doing something you don’t like, ask him nicely to stop. You have to be polite, even to your brother. If he is doing something bad to you, come tell me. Otherwise, solve the problem in a nice way.

When it comes to getting them to mind, I have recently adopted a strategy that seems to work pretty well. (Especially with Clementine, since she is older, but James is starting to comply with this, too.)

Me: Time for bed! Let’s go upstairs.

Clementine: No. I want to keep playing.

Me: Did you say no? Would you like it if I say no when you ask me to do something for you?

Clementine: No.

Me: Then let’s go upstairs. When you are old enough to take care of yourself, you can move to your own house, make your own money, buy your own food, fix your own dinner, and make all your own decisions. When you are a grown-up you can decide when to go bed. But right now I’m the one taking care of you so I get to decide when it’s bed time.

Clementine: Oh, alright. [goes upstairs]

If this seems like a long conversation to have every time you ask your child to do something, it is. In my experience, though, you only have to do through the whole conversation on a couple of occasions. The logic is irrefutable for a 4-year-old, right? So once she understands the point of the conversation, she knows what I’m going to say before I have to say it. So these days our conversation is more like this:

Me: Time for bed! Let’s go upstairs.

Clementine: No…[hesitating, looking at me uncertainly]

Me: Clementine…[giving a stern look]

Clementine: Oh, alright. [goes upstairs]

Most of the time she does what I ask her to without protesting, and I think this is one of the great benefits of relying more on reasoning and less on power plays. From experience she knows that I have reasons for asking her to do certain things–mostly because I tell her so. When feasible, I explain my reasons to her so she can learn to think things through logically for herself: “Oh, I can’t eat more ice cream because I will get a tummy ache,” or “I shouldn’t jump on that because I might get hurt.” If I have time, I tell her, “Do you think I am making up rules just for fun? There are important reasons I am asking you to do this, including…” And if she knows that there are reasons for our rules, she is more likely to mind even if I don’t have time to explain them at that moment.

Teaching ethics to young children is clearly not an easy task, since it requires time, patience, and gentle consistency. But it seems to be necessary for a eudaimonic life (for both parents and children). If you can find a way to impart the basic lessons of Stoic ethics early on, your children will be ready to accept more advanced Stoic principles as they grow, and you can move on to a broader understanding of helping others in “the human community.”

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