Dichotomy of control, Parenting basics

Cross-cultural Stoic parenting

My family lives in suburban America, but my husband is actually Turkish. He moved to the U.S. when he was 25. And his family still lives in Turkey, so we do have some ethnic intrigue to add interest to our lives. My children have only met their paternal grandparents once. When Clementine had just turned three and James was 18 months, we took them on the almost 24-hour journey to the outskirts of Istanbul.

Before having children I spent a lot of time in Turkey, so I am very familiar with the culture. But returning for the first time with my own children threw a different light on everything, and I suddenly became aware of how different child-rearing practices are across cultures. Of course, my experience is only with one family, which might not be representative of other families. Nevertheless, it was eye-opening to see how different their approach was toward child-rearing.

Compared to me, my husband’s family seemed extremely relaxed about raising children. In fact, they were downright Stoic. There were always many children around (nieces and nephews, cousins, neighbors, even a great nephew), and they were very well-behaved. Yes, there was some whining, but it was always met with gentle reprimands rather than yelling or giving in. Usually they just shushed the child and moved on.

One evening on the way back home from dinner, when she had missed her nap that day, Clementine was so tired that she just lost it. She cried and screamed for no reason for about half an hour while we were stuck in traffic. I just couldn’t calm her down. I apologized to my in-laws, but they just shrugged and said, “She’s a child.” As in, that’s what children do. It happens.

Clearly, there are many factors at play in this situation besides child-rearing practices, but it made such an impression on me because it’s the exact opposite of how I had learned to deal with kids. According to my pre-Stoic thinking, I was supposed to control my kids, and therefore if Clementine was crying it was my responsibility to be embarrassed and make her stop crying.

But my in-laws’ attitude was right in line with Stoic parenting: do what you can to make the situation better, but you can’t control everything your kids do. Sometimes a worn-out, jet-lagged three-year-old is just going to cry, and there’s not much you can do to stop her. And instead of letting it ruin your day, just get on with things. Sitting in a traffic jam with a tantruming child is merely a dispreferred indifferent. No one wants to do it, but if it happens to you, don’t let it disturb your equanimity. It will end soon enough.

They also seemed astonishingly permissive. Traditional Anatolian holiday meals are served around a table on the floor (although these days most meals are eaten at a normal table). So we ate a few elaborate meals while sitting on the floor. This delighted my kids, who had full access to all the food they wanted. At home I controlled every bite they had and cut all their food into small pieces, but at my in-laws’ they were allowed to take big pieces of food off serving plates and put it back half-eaten. When I tried to hold Clementine and James back, my husband’s sisters insisted that be allowed to take the food. “It’s ok, they’re just little kids,” they said. Were they just being polite to guests? I don’t think so. I saw no difference in how they treated my kids and their own. And it wasn’t my first time staying with my husband’s family–they were the same as they had always been.

What really amazed me about all this was that all their children turn out extremely well. As teenagers and adults they are polite, respectful, high-achieving, and close to their family. (And they all seem to become civil engineers, for some reason.) So clearly there is something in their approach that works really well. What can I learn from them that will help in my own parenting?

After a couple years of thinking about it, I’ve identified three ingredients that make up their traditional and almost Stoic way of parenting:

  1. Don’t try to control everything. This goes to the heart of Stoicism, right? In contrast to my very anxious style of parenting, my husband’s family didn’t feel guilty for doing or not doing certain things. They didn’t stress over discipline approaches and extra-curricular activities. They didn’t worry that some unknown negligence would prevent their kids from living a good and useful life.
  2. Don’t see parenting as something different from regular life. My husband’s family didn’t have loads of special products for their babies and toddlers: no baby cups, baby forks, bibs, or high chairs, and only a few toys. They could have easily afforded such things, but my sister-in-law said, “Oh yes, we know about all those, but we don’t need them.” The houses of people with little kids did not look noticeably different from those who did not have little kids. Women with children didn’t dress differently or act differently than women without children. It was just life as usual.
  3. Integrate children into the family, not vice versa. What they do is make sure their kids do homework, help around the house, speak politely to adults, and take part in family activities. There are certain standards for behavior, which increase as the child gets older. Family life is very important, and being a member of the family is a privilege that comes with responsibilities.

Of course, in some ways being a parent is the same, no matter what culture you live in. My mother-in-law told me, “Motherhood is very hard, isn’t it?” and one of my sisters-in-law said she was not having more than two children because it was so much work. And naturally they love their kids just as much as I love mine. It’s just that they have a completely different expectation of how to be a parent.

I’m not claiming that anyone can or should try to do everything like a traditional Turkish family. But I do think it is very instructive to consider examples of successful parenting, wherever they might come from. Since I’ve become a Stoic, I’ve tried to incorporate all three of those above ingredients into my Stoic parenting philosophy. My family set-up will never look like theirs, but I hope that my kids will turn out just as well: respectful, high-achieving, and close to family (and quite possibly civil engineers).