A Stoic upbringing, Parenting basics

Nature and nurture

Since Massimo Pigliucci is currently reviewing Margaret Graver’s excellent book Stoicism and Emotion on his website, this is probably a good time for me to write about her book, too. I try to keep the posts on Apparent Stoic more practical than theoretical, so I will not go into detail about the Stoic sources, history, or theory covered in the book. (You can read Massimo’s posts for that.) But when I read Stoicism and Emotion last year, I was struck by how relevant it is to Stoic parenting. In particular, her chapter called The Development of Character delivers essential insights on how a Stoic might approach raising children. So I want to offer my opinion on how some of these slightly obscure ancient arguments can inform our parenting practice today. (This is a long post, so if you don’t have time to read everything, you can skip to the summary at the end.)

The Stoics believed the seed of virtue is present in everyone, and given the proper course of development, every human will mature into a virtuous person. Remember that being virtuous, in the Stoic sense, does not just mean being nice and helping others. It means using wisdom to make accurate judgments about the world. Once you understand what is truly important in life, you can use your good judgment to decide what to think, feel, and do. Someone who does not have good judgment might still be a nice person, but they will not be truly virtuous (in the Stoic sense) because their lack of wisdom will mislead them at least some of the time.

So if people are programmed by nature to become virtuous, then how do you explain the obvious lack of virtue in the world? Chrysippus’ answer was that two things steer us off course: the teachings of people around us, and the persuasiveness of external things. The first of these components is essentially culture, including what we learn from our families, friends, classmates, books, movies, advertisements, etc. (Or as they said in ancient Greece and Rome, the poets! Those dangerous poets.) The second component is more surprising, because it suggests that mistaken impressions arise naturally from how children experience the world. This argument claims that starting at birth, people experience pleasure alongside healthful activities that keep them alive, and they falsely assume that pleasure = good. This is a natural mistake, but one that leads to a serious misunderstanding of life.

Although the ancient Stoics did not call these two causes nurture and nature, I can’t resist drawing the analogy. In today’s parenting world nature vs. nurture refers to how each child develops her individual personality. I’m using the phrase differently. In this context, we are looking at influences on development, but we’re not comparing individuals. We are looking at general causes that lead almost everyone into bad judgment. Fortunately, I think we can use the ancient Stoic analysis to figure out how to help our kids become amazing adults.

So let’s look at both of these components of the twofold cause, and then we’ll talk about how they might relate to raising kids in the 21st century.

Nurture: Family culture and popular culture. Although these days we tend to blame pop culture and the media for corrupting our youth, ancient sources assigned blame equally to pop culture and the family. Consider this source from late antiquity, cited in Graver (p. 156, quoting Calcidius, On the Timaeus of Plato):

“The [error] which arises ‘from transmission’ is a whispering added through the prayers of our mothers and nurses for wealth and glory and other things falsely supposed to be good…Yes, and think of poetry, which shapes the minds of older children, and of the impressive productions of other authors! How great an influence concerning pleasure and suffering do they exert on the novice mind! What about painters and sculptors? Do they not deliberately lead the mind toward sweetness?”

It’s commonplace for both ancient and modern authors to lament the disastrous influence of pop culture. But what about the negative influence of family? As parents, we want to see ourselves as passing down “the right way” of seeing things to our kids. I think this passage simply reinforces how important that is. If parents hold misconceptions about what is important in life–if they primarily desire wealth and power for their children–then their children will grow up primarily desiring wealth and power. (Seneca and Epictetus also describe how families pass on false values to their children.) But if parents value wisdom and virtue, then their children will be more likely to grow up valuing wisdom and virtue, too. For better or worse, family culture has a huge impact on the way people see their lives.

What is the takeaway for us here? Well, if you’re reading this blog, then you are probably already on the right track. If you are someone who strives to be morally excellent and to teach your child to be morally excellent, then you have already won half the battle. Beyond that, we can actively try to cultivate a family culture that inspires our kids to be virtuous. (Check out Leah Goldrick’s articles at Common Sense Ethics about Creating Your Ideal Family Culture.) This includes modeling virtue, staying actively involved in your child’s life, and teaching that internal success (character) is more important than external success (money, fame, reputation, etc.).

And as for pop culture, I think we should try to teach our kids to deal with it rather than hide from it. We should make sure the media they consume is age-appropriate and generally has positive messages. But it’s impossible to shield them from negative influences forever. We need to use good judgment to decide when and how to expose them to the less virtuous side of pop culture.  What about coverage of terrorist attacks in the news? What about advertisements that encourage eating disorders in young girls? What about neighbors yelling at each other over politics?

We need to teach our kids to be responsible consumers of all this information. If we just try to shelter them, we are not preparing them to deal with the real world when they finally do encounter it. But if we incorporate mainstream culture into our teaching, then our kids can learn how to handle it. I think we should talk explicitly about these issues with them. Explain how you personally deal with the news, and why you’ve made the choices you have. Don’t be naive enough to think that your child is automatically going to follow your virtuous example. It’s probably not going to be that easy. But I think we are responsible for starting the conversation and modeling a reasonable way of dealing with pop culture.

One good way of dealing with negative influences is to focus on building a positive family culture rather than just criticizing the culture “out there.” Think about examples of strong ethnic or religious communities that flourishes alongside mainstream culture. In order to recreate this sense of community in your own household, your kids need a sense of identity, approval, and belonging. If they don’t find it at home, they will seek it elsewhere. But of course, in order to achieve this, you have to actually believe for yourself that what you have is sufficient for happiness. If you yourself are longing for external validation, how can you build a family culture that values self-sufficiency? In other words, you should be working toward overcoming the second error identified by Chrysippus, which is all about mistaken impressions.

Nature: The persuasiveness of external things. This is where things get interesting. I’m going to quote another long passage here, because it provides a detailed explanation of how mistaken impressions develop:

After a baby is born, “the midwife provides a warm bath and swaddling to recall the womb, to ease the young body with pleasant sensation and quiet it. Thus…there arises a kind of natural belief that everything sweet and pleasurable is good, and that what brings pain is bad and to be avoided. Older children learn the same thing from the experience of hunger and satiety, and from caresses and punishments. As they mature, they retain this belief that everything nice is good, even if not useful, and that everything troublesome, even if it brings some advantage, is bad.” (Graver, p. 156, quoting Calcidius, On the Timaeus of Plato)

So it’s a natural mistake for anyone to make. Most of the things that promote human survival are pleasurable, such as food, warmth, high social status, etc. We are provided with most of these things from birth, and since children do not have well-developed rationality, they assume that food and hugs are good because they feel good. As they become adults, they continue to make the assumption that things that feel good are good. It’s only through experience and proper teaching that mature humans learn the true story: some things that feel good are actually bad, and some things that feel bad are actually good.

Hence, as Graver points out, it’s difficult to get a small child to take yucky medicine, even though it will make her feel better. And adults who haven’t undergone the proper process of maturation continue to make the same mistake. That’s why some people value flashy cars, hollow fame, and the easy way out, rather than modesty, integrity, and doing the right thing.

Things get even more confusing because, as Cicero observes, “there is a resemblance between moral excellence and glory, which is the reason why those held in honor are regarded as fortunate and those in disgrace as unfortunate” (cited on p. 159-160). We might genuinely want to pursue the good in life, but we might be deceived by appearances. If a young man hears people praising a powerful politician or famous entertainer, he might reasonably think that fame itself is praiseworthy. The young man then gets confused about he should pursue in life; he might think he should pursue fame for itself rather from a true desire to govern well.

If we accept that this is a plausible explanation of behavior, how can it inform our role as parents? It’s not obvious that we can correct this error, since we are not responsible for it (like we are for the cultural transmission error). But I think we can still help our children sort out the confusion. For example, we can help them distinguish between popular acclaim and true glory, which might play out in their lives as popularity at school. Should your daughter have a laugh at someone else’s expense, which would increase her own social standing and diminish that of another child’s? Or should she learn to be kind, even if it’s not as funny? We can help our kids learn to look past their own needs and consider other people’s needs. We can teach them to get outside the present moment and consider the future.

We will not be present for every moment of our child’s life to help her make good decisions and develop good judgments. But we can make good use of those moments when we are present. She doesn’t have to volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend in order to be a virtuous person. It’s more important to incorporate virtue in the small decisions we make in everyday living: how we treat people who test our patience, how we respond to disappointments, and how we set our priorities in life. Helping those in need is wonderful and important, but that’s not where virtue starts. Virtue may end in grand gestures, but it starts in our smallest actions and most private thoughts (as Marcus Aurelius so admirably demonstrates). And as parents, teaching virtue starts in our everyday interactions with our kids.

So let’s quickly summarize my analysis of Margaret Graver’s Stoicism and Emotion, Chapter 7 (The Development of Character).

  • The ancient Stoics believed that the seed of virtue is in everyone, but that people are unwittingly led to make mistakes by two causes. One cause is nurture (family and other cultural influences), which encourages children to value the wrong things. The second cause is nature, or the persuasiveness of external things. Pleasurable things seem to be good, while painful things seem bad. It is only by developing a proper understanding of the world that humans discover what is truly virtuous.
  • Suggestions for helping our children overcome the twofold error and develop accurate judgment of what is truly good:
    • Cultivate a family culture that emphasizes internal success (character) over external success. Be a good role model for your child, and try to find other people and opportunities that also value virtue.
    • Don’t build your family culture by hiding from the world. Teach your kids about popular culture, social media, politics, and all the rest, but show them how to deal with it. (And show them that those things are not really important in life.)
    • Build your family culture based on positive traits and a self-sufficient view of the world. You don’t need to depend on other people’s opinions to be happy. Your only reference point is your own judgment of what is good and praiseworthy.
    • Teach kids to distinguish between what is truly good and what merely seems to be good. Help them look beyond appearances, think critically about what they see, and make decisions for themselves. Show them the differences between popularity/fame and honor, between true achievement and empty resume-building.
    • Help your child integrate virtue into everyday decision-making. Help them think about how their actions relate to other people, and how their present actions relate to the future.


Thanks for reading! Please let me know if you have any thoughts about these ideas.

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