A Stoic upbringing

A Stoic upbringing: The discipline of desire

Epictetus advises Stoic novices to start by disciplining their desires and aversions, which makes sense because desiring things is one of our most primal instincts–we would hardly stay alive without it. As (social) animals we instinctively seek not only food and shelter, but also power and social status. But Epictetus tells us we must overcome our animal instincts and use our special powers of reason to discover what is truly beneficial. Material goods, status, and power are not true goods in life: only moral excellence is truly worth seeking. So we have to overcome our animal desires for external things in favor of being excellent people. This is a steep task for anyone, so how do we begin teaching the discipline of desire to young children?

Slowly and patiently. Actually, you might say that the whole process of raising children is disciplining their desires and teaching them to control their impulses. So Stoicism really provides an ideal framework for us to teach our kids to be good people. And as parents we are well-placed to insert little lessons and instructions whenever our children bump into a problem or frustration. So I think it’s all about packaging our instructions in ways that our children can understand and that are appropriate for the situation. It doesn’t have to be a big or long lesson, and it doesn’t have to be explicit. Perhaps small reminders and gentle guidance is the most effective, provided it is frequent and consistent. (And provided it comes from someone who practices what they preach!)

So here are a few suggestions of ways I have found to incorporate proto-Stoic instruction on the discipline of desire in our daily lives.

Learning to think about your own thoughts and actions. Even though young children don’t understand abstract terms like reason and rationality, I talk with my kids about how their brain is their superpower that they can use to solve problems. This seems to get through to them. (Although sometimes Clementine insists that her real superpower is freezing people like Elsa, and James says he would rather fly.) It seems helpful to remind them, when they are starting to get upset, that they have smart brains that help them do everything, and when they get upset they have to stay calm so they can use their superpower. I’m sure different families may develop different ways of talking about these principles, but I think the main point is to find metaphors and concrete references that your kids can understand.

Dealing with frustration. It’s funny how different children are: Clementine gets frustrated very easily, about almost anything, while James seldom gets frustrated and works patiently to figure things out. On the other hand, Clementine is very brave and will try just about anything, from new foods to new activities, while James is much more hesitant about trying things. So I try to value their strengths and lovingly address their weaknesses. Dealing with frustration is what Clementine and I work on the most. We constantly talk about strategies for staying calm: she can take a deep breath, stomp her foot, walk away, or count to four. I’ve been trying to get her to do this for over a year now, with mixed success. Recently I tried a different strategy that seems to be working better: I instructed her to say to herself, “Clementine, calm down.” For some reason this seems more effective than the purely physical strategies (maybe because she is a girl who loves words!). After she is calm, she is usually able to use her “superpower” to solve the problem, like buckling herself in her booster seat, getting her pajamas on, or doing a puzzle.

Speaking of problem solving, this is another thing we work on a lot that is not necessarily related to Stoicism but uses the same cognitive processes. We constantly talk about solving problems, so they know it is something I value highly and we devote a lot of energy to. We solve problems ranging from running out of napkins on the dinner table to disagreeing about what book to read. We talk to each other about our disagreements–we use our words to solve problems so we don’t have to hit, push, or throw. I encourage them to use their eyes to see the problem, their brains to find a solution, and their hands to fix the problem. When someone has solved a problem, we congratulate and celebrate.

Dealing with fear and discomfort.  There’s no magic bullet for overcoming childhood fears, but I do think we can help kids to become brave by praising their bravery. Like many Stoic virtues, this one may need to be front-loaded: you prepare for it long before you actually need it. For example, since James is reticent about trying new things, I try to recognize and praise him when he does try something new rather than criticizing him when he doesn’t. Whenever he’s tough through an injury or gets back up after a fall, I point out his bravery. By cultivating bravery, and making him believe he is brave, I hope he will believe he is brave when he needs it. If I wait until he has a scary dream and tell him he to be brave, why should he believe me if he doesn’t already have experience being brave? But if he remembers times when he was brave, I think he can more easily picture himself being brave after a bad dream.

Learning patience. This is where it is very helpful to have a stock phrase at hand: you don’t always get what you want. Sometimes you don’t get it at all, and sometimes you have to wait patiently for it. Patience is a very big deal and one of the hardest things for both children and adults to learn. Sometimes I hear myself counseling patience to my kids and realize that I myself am too impatient in my life–not for ice cream, but for some other external event that I have no control over. So as I’m reminding my kids to be patient, I also have to remind myself. Teaching my kids Stoic virtues has also made me hold myself accountable for practicing them.

Right before James was born last year, I read Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe, and one of my favorite lessons from her is that we have to teach our kids patience by letting them practice it a lot. It can be hard to make your kids wait for something when they are fussing or whining. But I can say from experience that making them learn patience pays big dividends. Since I have consciously worked on this skill, they have gained more self-control in many areas. When I am cooking dinner and they ask me for some food, I tell them they can wait a few more minutes until we sit down for dinner. When we sit down at the table, we wait for everyone to be settled and ready before we say a blessing, and then we offer our gratitude for the food. Only then do they get to eat, and after they are finished eating, they wait at the table until everyone is done. Then they ask to be excused and take their plates to the sink.

It’s pretty much a cliche, but I have to agree that mealtimes are a great setting to practice so many skills, from politeness to patience to gratitude to self-control to cleaning up after yourself. Plus, it happens routinely, so once you get your kids in the habit of acting a certain way, they know that is the appropriate thing to do at every meal.  Even though our family does not practice a religion, my husband and I believe it’s a wonderful tradition to say a blessing before meals. We have a quick blessing that Clementine and James take turns saying, and my husband has taught the kids to add in things from their day that they are thankful for. 

Yes, it already annoys my kids a bit when I tell them to be thankful for what they have, but it’s one of those things that has to be said. What seems to really make an impression on them is when we talk about the specific children who we send money to through a charity. We look at pictures of our sponsored child and write letters to her. We talk about how some people do not have enough money to buy things they need, so because our family has a little extra, we send some to them. The kids really love this. And when I talk at other times about how Sally does not have all the toys they have, it really makes them think about whether they should asking for more toys, or ice cream, or coloring books. Most of the time it shuts down their whining about wanting more.

Which leads to another abstract virtue that can be difficult to teach: material things are not as important as being a good person. When James wants to take the ball Freddy is playing with, I ask him, “Which is more important–having the ball or being a good brother?” If Clementine doesn’t want to let James have a bite of the giant chocolate bar she got at preschool, I say, “Which is more important–having the whole chocolate bar to yourself, or being a good sharer?” It’s true that technically the chocolate bar is hers, and she has the right to keep it all for herself. I let her make the decision. But when I put it that way, she usually admits that it’s better to be nice and share, and she lets James have a bite.

Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that my kids are perfect little angels. They are not. We are constantly dealing with these moral lessons–which is why I have so many opportunities to teach them. 🙂 But since I’ve started practicing Stoicism, my perspective on behavior issues has really changed. I expect my kids to make mistakes and to need my guidance. They’re just little kids. So, taking another cue from Pamela Druckerman in Bringing Up Bebe, I prefer to see what I’m doing on a daily basis as education rather than discipline. It really helps to think of yourself as providing continuous education for your child instead of continuous discipline. Even if results are not instantaneous, I have seen improvements in the past few months, so I do believe it’s working. And no matter the results, they give me plenty of opportunities to practice my own Stoic virtues: self-discipline, courage, justice, and wisdom!


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