A Stoic upbringing

Instructions vs. core principles

Some days I feel like I am constantly telling my kids what to do: get your feet off the couch, be careful with Freddy, use good table manners, play nicely together, clean up your toys. It’s annoying for me and for them, but often it seems there is no alternative to this steady stream of instructions. That’s why I stopped in my tracks recently when I came across one of Seneca’s letters explaining why I should stop giving instructions and start teaching principles:

Instructions will perhaps enable you to do what you ought, but will not guarantee that you do it in the way you should; and if they don’t guarantee this they do not lead all the way to virtue.

So conviction should be implanted that will affect one’s whole life; this is what I call a first principle. Our actions and deliberations will match this conviction; and our life will match these actions. (Seneca, Letter 95, sections 40 and 44)

In other words, if you try to teach someone how to live virtuously just by giving them lots of instructions, you will not succeed. This is because (1) you cannot possibly give someone instructions for every situation they will come across in life, so without some other moral foundation the person will often not know what to do; and (2) instructions are superficial and do not concern themselves with the intentions behind someone’s actions. Stoics believe that moral intention is paramount. If you perform a good action but your intention was bad, then it was a bad action on your part. Conversely, if the results of your action happen to be bad but your intention was good, then it was a good action on your part. So the intentions behind our actions are actually more important than the actions themselves.

Instead of just giving superficial instructions, Seneca says, you should focus on teaching the basic principles behind the instructions. Here is one of his examples: let’s say you want to teach someone to be good to other people. You would have to give hundreds of instructions to her, from not killing anyone to helping shipwrecked travelers to giving food to the hungry. But if you teach her the basic principle behind these instructions–we are all members of a large family and should help each other–then she can apply that one principle to every situation she might encounter in life. Instead of following rote instructions to help shipwrecked travelers, she will automatically help shipwrecked travelers (or refugees, or neighbors, or the unpopular kid at school) because she helps all people. Just one principle (helping other people) can replace thousands of individual instructions.

It’s kind of like the old saying, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” If you give your child instructions, he is good for a day. If you teach your child virtue, he is good for a lifetime. Well, that’s the goal, anyway.

Of course, Seneca was writing about adults, not children, but I think the issue of instructions versus core principles is entirely relevant to a Stoic approach to child-rearing. Instead of just telling my kids over and over again what to do and what not to do, I try to break down my reasoning for them. So in place of “don’t run so close to Freddy,” I try to say, “James, do you want to hurt Freddy? If you run that close to him, you are going to step on him sooner or later. I know you won’t mean to hurt him, but you will do it accidentally, and then both of you will feel bad.” It might seem obvious to an adult observer that the reason for not running close to Freddy is because he might get hurt, but this is not necessarily obvious to a 3-year-old. So explicitly making this logical connection for the child is important.

Yes, it takes about 15 extra seconds to explain the principle (being nice to others) behind the instruction (don’t run so close to Freddy). But once James realizes that there is a logical reason for the instructions, not only is he more likely to comply, he is also more likely to remember the rule. And because we talk constantly about being nice to others, he can learn to recognize that this particular instruction is just one iteration of the core principle that we follow all the time. The more you explain the core principle, the more the child will start to understand and internalize the core principle for himself. So instead of just receiving a constant stream of disconnected instructions, James can connect the dots and see that all my instructions relate to the same basic principles.

As parents, we are pretty much guaranteed to be giving our kids a lot of instructions, especially when they are young. But I think when we shift our focus from the child’s (superficial) behavior to her (moral) intention, we can make our instructions much more effective. By consistently referring to the virtues that guide all our actions, we can help our kids’ behavior in both the long- and short-term. After all, 

Instructions are inherently weak and, so to speak, rootless, if they are given for particulars. It is principles which fortify us, which protect our freedom from care and our tranquillity, which contain within them all of life and all the universe. (Letter 95, section 12)

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