So, let’s start with the big questions. With the revival of Stoicism in a contemporary form that is supported by books, teachers, and a growing lay community, many people are finding that modern Stoicism offers an appealing framework for how to live a fulfilling, meaningful life. I certainly find that the principles and practice of Stoicism work for me as a person trying to live the best life I can in the circumstances in which I find myself. There is plenty of classical scholarship on the ancient Stoic school of life, as well as a growing number of books about applying Stoicism to many situations in modern life (including work, relationships, hardships, and many others). But as far as I know, no one has addressed in detail how stoicism applies to parenting.
It is my belief that Stoicism offers all the answers we need in order to live a meaningful and happy life. However, it also seems to me that raising children is a special case and requires special thought. You must certainly start by being a good student of stoicism (prokopton) and continuing to make progress in your own path toward excellence and moral virtue. That is the first and most important step. But then, as you try more and more to integrate your Stoic practice with your parenting practice, some important questions might arise. These are the issues that I have been thinking about lately, and which have led me to start writing about Stoic parenting:
- According to Stoic doctrine, you do not control other people. And yet, as a parent you have more influence over your young children than you do over other people. How do you handle this? How exactly does this fit into Epictetus’ famous maxim that some things are in our control, and others are beyond our control?
- All the Stoic writings I have seen assume that the other people you deal with on a daily basis are rational beings. Yet, we all know that babies and young children are not rational in the same way that adults are rational. So when you are dealing with people who are completely human but not completely rational, what do you do? How do you treat them? Interestingly, the ancient authors did use some examples of children as irrational beings, in contrast with the rationality of adults. But they did not provide any advice on dealing with these small, irrational creatures!
- Apart from trying to achieve your own personal excellence and virtue as you deal with young children on a daily basis (which is definitely a challenge!), there is the separate issue that you are trying to raise your children to be good people themselves. Clearly, you cannot force your kids to become Stoics, because each person has to decide for themselves that they want to adopt the principles and practice of Stoicism. But surely you want to do as much as you can to help your children reach their own moral excellence and lead a happy and meaningful life–right? So what can you do, and what should you do, to prepare your children to become rational, eudaimonic (happy and fulfilled) adults?
I believe Stoicism is a fully comprehensive and internally coherent philosophy that is completely equipped to address these challenges. But as far as I can see, these three issues require special attention for a practicing Stoic and are almost unique to parenting. (I can see these also applying to other adults who work with children, such as teachers, and also those who work with special needs populations).
With that said, I have been thinking of some basic principles that can guide my thoughts and behavior as a Stoic parent. So here I present the Cardinal Rules for Stoic Parenting:
- Be the person you want your child to be.
- Integrate your Stoic principles into your parenting practices.
- Remember that you do not control your child.
- Remove your ego from parenting. (It’s not about you!)
- Teach your kids the disciplines of desire, action and assent.
- Enjoy your kids.
The rest of this blog is dedicated to describing the details of these cardinal rules. Are you ready? Let’s start talking about how to apply these guidelines in real life, and how they can help you and your child cultivate virtue and eudaimonia.