Parenting basics

Disciplining your child, Stoic edition

I’ve talked a lot on this blog about applying the three Stoic disciplines (or topoi) to life as a parent. The discipline of desire and aversion, the discipline of impulse and action, and the discipline of assent are essential for anyone who wishes to achieve parenting eudaimonia. I also believe they provide an excellent framework for teaching your kids to become good people–that’s why I incorporated them into my Plan for a Stoic upbringing.

But today I’d like to focus on discipline as it’s commonly used in the parenting world today: methods for making your kids behave. We all know this is an important component of parenting, because kids need a lot of adult guidance. But what form should this guidance take? What methods work best? What types of punishment are appropriate, and when? Every parent wants clear answers to these questions.

While I am certainly not qualified to tell other people how to discipline their kids, I do want to offer some suggestions based on my own experience. Here are some of the guidelines that I find myself using as I try to discipline like a Stoic:

As a parent, your job is teach your kids to behave ethically. Your role is not to discipline, per se, but to lead your kids to be good people. There are many ways to do that, depending on your kids’ personalities, your circumstances, your culture, etc. But all of your disciplining should come from this starting point.

Don’t do anything that you tell your kids not to do. This guideline is very simple to understand but very hard to implement. If you teach your kids not to hit others, then you shouldn’t hit them. (In other words, no corporal punishment.) If you tell your kids not to yell and scream, then you shouldn’t yell and scream at them. Otherwise, they will think you’re a hypocrite. I realized this one day when I was yelling at Clementine, telling her not to yell. I had to stop and ask myself, “Wait a minute, how can I tell her not to do something that I routinely do?” Ok, yes, it is your prerogative as the parent to be a hypocrite if you want to be. But do you want to be? As a Stoic, I think the answer has to be no.

Of course, there are some times when it is necessary to bend this rule a little. For instance, if your child is about to do something dangerous, like run into the street, then obviously you should shout as much as need to get him to stop. The good thing is, if you reserve yelling for very important situations, he will pay more attention to you when you do yell.

Discipline from a sense of justice, not a sense of injury. There may be times when your child does things against you personally, like talking back to you, ignoring your instructions, or in some way undermining your authority. If you feel insulted, you will probably respond badly. Your actions will be out of vengeance, or out of a desire to defend yourself, rather than out of justice.  Don’t forget that it’s up to you how you respond to insults from other people, including your children. If she’s doing it deliberately, just to make you mad, then the best response is to not get mad. (Remember the old Stoic saw about arguing with a rock?) If she’s not doing it deliberately, then she needs to be instructed on how to deal with her emotions. Teach her how to respond to problems more effectively.  

This also goes back the first guideline: don’t do anything you tell your kids not to do. Presumably, if your daughter came to you for advice about someone at school who was taunting or insulting her, you would advise her to stay patient, ignore the insults, and/or respond cheerfully. (Because that’s the Stoic response to insults.) Insults always say more about the person doing the insulting rather than the person receiving the insults. With that in mind, you should take the same approach when it’s your child who’s talking back to you. Even though you have some authority over your child, she is still another person, and you should still treat her with justice.

Stay patient and kind. Even when discipline is necessary, and even if your child does something very wrong, there is no reason for you to lose your patience. Marcus gives us some very good reminders about why we should stay patient and calm:

  • It is a sign of weakness to get angry (Meditations XI, 9, 2)
  • Your child misbehaves out of ignorance, not because she likes misbehaving (Meditations VII, 22, 2)
  • Justice requires you to be benevolent, even when you don’t feel like it (Meditations VI, 47, 6; IX, 11, 1)

But also be firm. Kindness and fairness do not mean letting your child walk all over you, or letting your child get away with anything. Remember your role: teach your child to behave ethically, while behaving ethically yourself. So you must fulfill your role. But being gentle and patient does not mean being lax. Those are two totally different things. Don’t confuse gentleness with permissiveness–or vice versa.

Make sure your child knows why you are disciplining him. You punish your child because he broke a rule, not because you are mad at him. In keeping with the previous point to discipline out of justice rather than anger, you should make sure your child knows the difference. This helps reinforce the idea that you, as the parent, are acting out of a desire to teach him the right way to do things. You don’t discipline because you lose your temper (so remember not to lose your temper). You discipline because your child needs to know right from wrong. Punishment can be a very effective way of teaching right from wrong, especially for young children. If he made a choice to do something wrong, then he clearly needs more help understanding the distinction.

I often tell my kids that I don’t like to punish them, but if they do something wrong then I have to punish them to teach them what is right. They seem to understand this. It’s not me–it’s the rules. If you do something deserving of punishment, you get punished. There is no room for argument. This also makes it very clear to them that I adhere to an existing system of ethics, and that I expect them to adhere to this system, as well. Which leads to the next guideline…

Your ethical guidelines should be very clear to your child. Your child should know what your expectations for behavior are, because (a) you talk about them a lot, and (b) you live them every day. She should clearly see that you don’t act at random. Your desire for virtue is what guides your actions. Your desire for virtue–yours and hers–is also what guides your discipline methods. Again, you don’t discipline at random or because you got angry. Just as your Stoic practice is clear and principled, so should your system of discipline be clear and principled. Your interactions with your child should reflect your innermost beliefs about virtue and ethics.

Maintain a sense of proportion. Yes, you should hold your children accountable for their actions. But don’t blow things out of proportion. Your are disciplining a child, not leading a country to war. Your child’s misbehavior is not the most important thing in the world. The Stoic “view from above” can be a useful exercise when you are considering disciplinary action for your child. Try to take a bird’s eye view of the whole world. Of the more than six billion people on the planet, how many kids are in the process of misbehaving right now? Probably millions of them. How many parents are feeling exasperated because their kids are misbehaving right now? Probably millions. So you are not the only dealing with this particular problem. Even if your child has very specific conditions and problems, there is a very small chance that you are the only parent who has been through such a thing.

One good thing about parenting is that you are never in new territory. It’s all been done before. Even our new problems, like dealing with technology, are really just reiterations of older problems. (When books first came out, for example, they were thought to be a corrupting influence on young people. Even Socrates was considered a menace to the youth of Athens!) So just keep in mind that you are doing something that billions of people have done before you: disciplining a child. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

Well there you have it. I’m not going to insist on a specific method of punishment or specific behaviors that merit punishment. As a Stoic, you already have an ethical framework to guide you. You just have to use your reason and practical wisdom to apply it to your specific situation. But I find that keeping these Stoically-inspired guidelines in mind enables me to make good decisions as I confront the challenges of child discipline. I hope you find them useful, too!