A Stoic upbringing, Parenting basics

Personalized parenting: Adapting to your child’s needs

In my last post I wrote about the beauty of using Stoic principles to solve parenting challenges. Stoicism provides strong core ideas, but you have to use your wisdom to adapt them to whatever situation you find yourself in. In other words, you have to be strong but flexible. It seems to me that there are very few one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to raising children, and anyone who claims to have all the answers is just selling snake oil.

Let’s call this approach personalized parenting: you use your wisdom (and courage, justice, and self-control) to meet your child’s specific needs. Here is the checklist I offered last time to help us think through tricky issues:

  1. What are the basic components?
  2. What are the underlying factors?
  3. What are the relevant core principles?
  4. What strategies should I try?
  5. What results should I expect?

So now I’m going to walk through two issues and show you how I personally use this checklist. I’m not saying I’m a great parent, or that everyone should do what I do. Actually, most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. But my theory is that if rationality can help me figure out what to do, it can help everyone else, too. These are just some examples of how you can think through what’s going on with your child.


Example 1: Not following directions

James, probably like most three-and-a-half year old boys, doesn’t always like to do what I ask him. When I ask him to brush his teeth or clean up his toys, he’ll pretend not to hear and do something else instead. While this is a fairly normal problem, it can be very frustrating. Sometimes, I really just need him to get in the car or we’ll be late. So how can I solve this challenge?

  1. What are the basic components? This one is pretty straightforward: when I give James directions he doesn’t want to follow, he ignores me.
  2. What are the underlying factors? Ok, I know it’s frustrating being a kid, too. He might be having a great time playing when, all of a sudden, I tell him it’s time to put the toy away and get in the car. How annoying. Wouldn’t it be more fun to just stay and play with the toys? He doesn’t understand why he should bother minding. So maybe I need to change his calculation of benefit and show him why it’s to his benefit to follow directions.
  3. What are the relevant core principles? This definitely involves teaching the virtue of justice and the discipline of action. Basically, I need to show James that part of being a good person means living virtuously with other people. That means cooperating, helping, and caring about others. And when you’re 3, that means minding your parents.
  4. What strategies should I try? I try to make things concrete for him. “James, do you want me to ignore you when you ask me for breakfast in the morning? I do lots of things for you. I get your food, I buy your clothes and toys, I take you to fun places, I help you get your bath. The least you can do for me is pick up your toys.” That kind of reasoning doesn’t work for a two-year-old, but it does work for a three-and-a-half year old. And if that doesn’t do the trick, I remind him that I’m the one who bought him the toys, and I’m the one who gives him a room to keep them in. So I also get to decide when they get put away. I don’t think these reminders are heavy-handed–they are logical. I don’t say them in a threatening way, but in an explanatory way. It only makes sense, right? When he can afford to buy his own house and his own stuff, he can decide when to put them away. That’s the way things are.
  5. What results should I expect? I know I will have to keep reminding James about this a lot. That’s ok, as long as the end result is compliance and understanding. Some days are still better than others, and at the end of the day when he is tired, sometimes he just can’t control his behavior. At those times, I just have to accept that there are limits to what a three-year-old can do. At least we are moving in the right direction.


Example 2: Competing for attention

Clementine and James are both awesome kids. They are smart, funny, creative, energetic…and competitive. They both love the spotlight. I know they are both going to be world leaders someday, but at the ages of 3 and 5, it’s a bit much for me to handle. If one of them is getting attention from an adult, the other one starts a frenzied bid to get the attention back. A few weeks ago, my real estate agent stopped by for a quick chat. In the space of 60 seconds, James sat down at the piano (a few feet away from us) and started banging as loudly as he could, while Clementine began shouting (much more loudly than James) for James to be quiet. I couldn’t hear a word my realtor was saying. I had to stifle my embarrassment while I asked them to be quiet and let us finish talking. (“It’s just a dispreferred indifferent,” I reminded myself.) Sigh. What to do?

  1. What are the basic components? Clementine and James both want attention from adults. Clementine is older, so she has better social and conversational skills. She can charm her way into anyone’s heart, and she will grab their hand or climb in their lap to get a grown-up’s attention. The only way James can compete with his sister is by misbehaving. He starts making noise, jumping on the couch, throwing things, or doing anything he can think of to attract my attention. This competition is at its worst whenever we have visitors or when I have business to take care of (and thus cannot pay attention to them). Needless to say, these times bring out the worst in everyone. I can’t get anything done, the kids end up in trouble, and it’s embarrassing and stressful for everyone.
  2. What are the underlying factors? This is a common problem–for instance, kids always misbehave when their mom or dad is on the phone. Many young children naturally crave attention. For a while I thought the solution was to give them more attention, like how I would give them more food if they were hungry. But then I realized that that’s the wrong analogy. Attention is different from food. I spend the whole day paying attention to them, and the more attention I give them, the more they want. Physically and emotionally it’s impossible for me to keep giving them more. So I need to take the opposite approach and help them learn to live with less.
  3. What are the relevant core principles? This issue relates primarily to self-control and the discipline of desire. I need to help them understand that they can’t always be the center of attention, and that’s ok. I still love each of them, even if I can’t pay attention to them at that exact moment. They are still important and loved. We can share attention, take turns, and be happy for the person who has the attention at that time.
  4. What strategies should I try? Like everything else, I want to address this problem by explicitly talking to the kids about their impressions. I waited for a calmer moment during the day and talked to each one individually. They usually can’t articulate their own feelings of craving or jealousy, so I give them the words to talk about it. Especially for Clementine, we talk about how she likes attention, but it’s something she has to share with her brothers. For James, who feels pressure to compete with Clementine for everything, I try to reassure him that he’s wonderful in his own way, and that I love him even when he doesn’t have my attention. We talk about ways to wait patiently for attention, how to occupy your mind when you are waiting, and how I will always give you a chance for attention when I am done with my work.
  5. What results should I expect? I know these things don’t change overnight. But I’ve already seen positive results from talking about the problem with them. Even though they are still little, it really helps to make them aware of their emotions. They can’t yet identify their own emotional reactions, but once I do that part for them, they have some degree of emotional regulation. And when a similar situation arises, I don’t have to start from scratch; I can just remind them of what we’ve already talked about. It takes a lot of reminding, but at least they respond well when I do remind them. And now that we’ve practiced a few times, they know that I really do still love them, and I really will give them attention when I’m done with my work. It helps us build a good relationship, and it helps them understand that we can solve problems by using words and rationality.

Many people assume that young children are not capable of reason. I have found that is not true. Young children are not capable of adult-level rationality, but they have a strong sense of social cooperation that can help them understand certain core ethical ideas. No, they are not sitting around writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus. But with some cultivation, they respond well to kindness, modelling, and age-appropriate reasoning. (And of course lots of love.)

For anyone who says that you can’t take a rational approach to teaching kids, I would say: have you tried? I mean, not for 15 minutes, but all day, every day, for a long time? It takes a lot of hard work and consistency. You may not be able to conduct a controlled experiment on it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. In any case, I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t use your rationality to help improve your parenting and your child’s life. And by using your own philosophical principles and reasoning ability to solve problems, you are setting a great example for your child. As long as you maintain sensible expectations, what is there to lose?

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