Love, Parenting basics

The flexible Stoic: Solving parenting challenges with rationality

One of my favorite things about Stoicism is that it provides both clear guidelines for living and the freedom to apply those guidelines as each person sees fit. The ancient Stoics developed a very strong rationale for seeking virtue, and a very clear understanding of what virtue is and what it might look like in certain circumstances. But ultimately, it’s up to each one of us to figure out how to implement virtue in our own lives. To use an analogy (since we all love analogies, right?), you might say that Stoicism gives us strong materials to build a house with, but allows each person to build the kind of house that best suits their particular life. That’s why Stoicism is useful in any era, location, culture, and situation. It’s incredibly adaptable.

I think the same is true of Stoic parenting. As parents, we can apply Stoic principles to a wide variety of situations, ranging from the life-threatening to the mundane. Not only are we calm, cool, and collected, we are also flexible. If your child is having problems at school, Stoic philosophy can help you guide your child and take appropriate action. If your child is going through a traumatic situation, you can turn to your philosophy to help you both cope. If your child is refusing to clean up her toys, Stoic philosophy can help you stay calm and figure out how to motivate her.

At some point we all face challenges with our children that we’re not sure how to address. This is when having a philosophy of life (and parenting) becomes invaluable. When you’re at a loss, where do you even begin? My answer is that you begin with your core principles. The same rationality and good judgment that help you make decisions about other things can also guide your interactions with your child. I’m definitely not saying that you should look at your child as just another problem to be solved. No way. Your child is the love of your life and you have a special relationship with her. But love is not merely a warm fuzzy feeling. Loving your child means using all your available resources to help make her life better. One of the resources you have is your reasoning ability, and another resource you have is Stoic philosophy. So why wouldn’t you use them to enhance your child’s life?

That doesn’t mean that you expect your child (or anyone else, for that matter) to be rational. It means you use your own rationality to develop an effective solution. Knowing what you do about the situation and the people involved, what strategies should you try? Sometimes you may try things that don’t work. In that case, you know the core principles are not wrong, but maybe the particular strategy you picked to implement them was ineffective. You keep the core principles, but look for another way of expressing them with your child. To go back to our analogy, you keep the strong, sturdy building materials, but you might need to rebuild the house in a different way.

(Just a side note: remember that being rational does not mean being emotionally distant. We can be silly, fun, and affectionate with our kids even while be rational and applying good judgment.)

As I’ve been applying Stoic philosophy to my own parenting, I’ve developed a sort of checklist for thinking through specific challenges. I usually just go through these steps in my head, but it’s helpful to actually write them down if you’re going through a particularly tough situation. Writing things down always helps you to be more objective; sometimes you can solve the problem immediately once you see it on paper. In any case, here are some points to consider when you’re trying to solve a parenting puzzle:

  1. What are the basic components? We first need to analyze the source of the problem. Describe the situation as objectively as possible. Try to remove your own ego and think about it like a detached observer. Be specific: who, what when, where, and why? This is somewhat similar to Marcus’ method of physical definition (see Robertson, p. 176-177 for more details).
  2. What are the underlying factors? Now dig deeper. You know the surface-level problem. But what is motivating your child to act this way? What is going through his head? Is anything different happening in his life? Is he going through a new developmental phase? Is something happening at school or with another family member that could be impacting his behavior?
  3. What are the relevant core principles? Think about how this problem relates to your child’s character. Are there specific virtues, like courage or self-control, that need to be taught? Is it related to your child’s ethics, or is it just a temporary situation? Also think about the level of control you have over the problem. Is there something you can change about your own behavior that will help the situation?
  4. What strategies should I try? Once you’ve determined how serious the problem is and what virtue it relates to, you can develop strategies for addressing it. This is where parenting literature can come in handy. I think “expert” advice is appropriate only after you’ve identified how the problem relates to your core principles. Be ready to try different strategies until you find out what works. Patience is a virtue (of a sort).
  5. What results should I expect? You should probably think about this at the same time you develop your strategies, or even before. We know that we can’t control our kids’ actions. So what can you actually expect to happen? Will your child be completely transformed within a week? Maybe, but maybe not. More likely you can expect a gradual change in behavior over a period of several weeks. Or it may take even longer than that. Parenting is a long-term procedure.

Just remember, sometimes no matter what you do, you cannot “fix” your child in the way you would like. When you’ve tried everything, you might just have to accept things they way they are. This is that tricky category in William Irvine’s trichotomy of control, “things over which we have some but not complete control.” Irvine suggests shifting your goals away from the external (my child will learn to play the piano) towards the internal (I will sign my child up for piano lessons, encourage him to practice, help him with his recital piece, etc.). You can only do what you can do. You can influence your child, but you can’t control him.

And as you’re working toward solving a parenting challenge, it’s important to maintain realistic expectations. Consider this passage from Epictetus, when he replies to someone who has asked about getting along with his brother:

Nothing great comes into being all at once, for that is not the case even with a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me now, “I want a fig,” I’ll reply, “That takes time.” Let the fig tree first come into blossom and then bring forth its fruit, and then let that fruit grow to ripeness. So even if the fruit of a fig tree doesn’t come to maturity all at once and in a single hour, would you seek to gather the fruit of a human mind such a short time and with such ease? (Discourse 1.15, 7-8)

As parents, we can’t expect to “gather the fruit of a human mind” quickly and with ease. Change takes time. This is because people (even children) are complex and have many needs and motivations. What works for some people and circumstances will not work for others. However, that doesn’t mean we should be discouraged or give up on our kids. Despite frustrations and challenges, Stoic philosophy can show us how to be patient, loving, and flexible with our kids over the long term.

In my next post, I will give specific examples of how I apply this checklist with my own kids. Stay tuned, and let me know if you have any thoughts on this topic.

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