A Stoic upbringing, Parenting basics

Teaching virtue: Teachable moments and good judgment

Stoicism gives us many reasons to seek virtue: living in accordance with nature, fulfilling our rational purpose as human beings, benefiting the rest of humankind, finding eudaimonia. Once you embrace the Stoic way of life, it’s only natural to want these same gifts for your child. But children have a different psychological makeup than adults. They don’t reason and understand in the same way we do. To use a Stoic metaphor, the seeds of virtue within them are just beginning to sprout and need to be lovingly tended in order to bloom into the fully rational virtue of adults.

So how do we teach our kids to be virtuous? In my view, there are two big categories of methods for teaching virtue. The first is modeling virtue yourself, and the second is instructing your child. Modeling is probably the most important, because no amount of instruction is going to teach virtue if your child doesn’t see the people around him trying to live virtuously. As Seneca says, “The approach through recommendations is long, but that of examples is short and effective” (Letter 6). That means consistently showing our kids how to make proper use of impressions. They will quickly pick up on how we react to life’s challenges, and they will learn to handle things in the same way.

But as parents, we also have a special opportunity to instruct our children as they learn about the world. For example, when a child gets frustrated because he can’t do something by himself, what do we tell him? This is a teachable moment for virtue. Some parents might just tell their kids to try harder or stop crying, but I think we can go deeper than that. You can go straight to the mistaken value judgment that is causing your child to feel frustrated. “Is this something to get upset about?” I ask James when he can’t get his shoes on. Usually the answer is no. I try to help them keep things in perspective, on their level: “Are you about to fall in a volcano? No. Are you about to get struck by lightning? No. Are you about to get eaten by a dinosaur?” No, they giggle, and they start to realize that this is nothing to get upset about.

The genius of Stoic psychology is treating the so-called illness (mistaken beliefs) rather than the symptoms (frustration, anger, fear) of negative emotions. If you just treat the symptoms by telling your child to stay calm, then you don’t actually change the root cause of the behavior. The root cause is a mistaken belief that “I can’t get my shoes on and it is bad.” Eventually he will learn to get his shoes on, but he will then apply the same mistaken beliefs to other situations in life. “I can’t get ___ and it is bad.” I can’t get the video game I want, and it is bad. I can’t get the girlfriend I want, and it is bad. I can’t get the job I want, and it is bad. The pattern repeats itself and becomes an ingrained mental habit. This is how we find ourselves as adults holding mistaken judgments about the world.

If we start teaching our kids early on how to manage their impressions, then we set them up for a lifetime of good judgments. Most things in life are not worth getting upset about. If another child says something mean, that is not worth getting upset about. It just means that other child has not learned how to be nice. If it’s raining and you can’t go to the park, that is not worth getting upset about. It just means you can find something else to do and we will go to the park another time. Eliminate the false value judgment, and you eliminate the problem.

And when our kids get frustrated or misbehave in some way, that is most important time for us to demonstrate accurate value judgments. If we judge ourselves to be injured when our child misbehaves, then we will react badly. But if we recognize that it’s nothing to get upset about, then we (1) move closer to virtue ourselves and (2) set a virtuous example for our child. That is what teaching virtue is all about.

If we really practice living our beliefs, teachable moments are everywhere. Kids have a lot of desires and impulses that need to be tamed. When your child wants ice cream and there’s no more left, it’s a chance to teach self-control. When your child doesn’t want to clean his room, it’s a chance to teach responsibility and cooperation. When your child is sitting in time-out for misbehavior, it’s a chance to teach the consequences of selfish actions. You can use any experience with your child as a teachable moment for virtue. 

The more we talk about good judgment and virtue, the more our kids will see Stoic principles as a normal part of life. Your child could actually grow up as a “native” Stoic. That might sound strange, but I think it’s very similar to learning a language. If you learn a language as a child, it’s basically effortless and natural, and you learn it much more intuitively. If you learn a language as an adult, it takes much more conscious effort, and you’ll probably still have an accent. That’s because adult language learners have been practicing their native language for so many years, and those connections are so strong in their brains. The adult brain has to make a conscious effort to overcome old, well-rehearsed neural pathways.

Isn’t ethical decision-making the same? If you spend your whole life thinking about problems in a non-Stoic way, it’s very hard to change your mental habits as an adult. But if you grow up already thinking Stoically, then your brain is wired to think that way. It’s like your native ethical language. (Of course, things could still happen that might cause such a child not to think Stoically as an adult. We can’t control everything in our kids’ lives, but we can at least do our best to set them on the right path.)

So to help our kids reach virtue and eudaimonia, I think we should consciously and consistently talk to them about wise behavior. We are in an excellent position to help our kids develop accurate judgment and good mental habits. Stoic psychology can help us treat our kids’ misperceptions about the world, just as it has helped us treat our own. Let’s always remind them that some things in life are not worth getting upset over–and be sure we remember that ourselves.

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