Whining. Yelling. Not sharing. Grumpiness, laziness, stubbornness. Does this sound familiar? Yes, these are just a few things that we parents are guilty of. Oh, did you think I was talking about the kids? They do the same things, of course, but they’re just children. We adults should know better. Since I’ve become a Stoic parent, there have been many moments that I’ve realized I’m not exactly following the advice I give my kids. Sometimes I hear myself telling them what to do–stop whining and solve the problem!–and then I remember that I was whining just a few minutes earlier. I may not whine about not getting ice cream, but I whine when I have to clean up a mess or break up an argument. And it’s really the same thing, isn’t it? No matter how old we are, we all have to learn the same lessons: be content with what you have, be kind to others, and do your best to live a good life.
Depending on how you look at it, children are lucky because they have someone to guide them as they learn how to be good people. I act as their conscience until they are old enough to be their own conscience. I’m always around telling them what the right thing is, how to deal with problems, and how to feel better when things don’t go their way. (They probably don’t see this as a good thing. But hopefully one day they will appreciate my efforts.) As adults, we don’t have any all-knowing universal conscience sitting on our shoulders. Even if we desire to be good people, we’re pretty much on our own figuring out how to do it. There’s no one around to remind us that we should be calm and kind, and to persevere in the face of problems.
Except the Stoics. This is why their advice is so robust, even magnetic. There is no shortage of people in the world telling us what to do, but only the Stoics convincingly tell us who we should be, and why. Not only does Stoicism provide a compelling, rational argument for ethical action, it also explains why we should make particular choices in life, and what our mental state will be if we do (or do not). It’s powerful stuff.
However, as John Sellars and others have pointed out, not every piece of Stoic advice requires a Stoic outlook in order to be effective. Some of it is just plain common sense. Sometimes, when you want to guide your kids to a state of flourishing, you don’t need to pull out the big guns–sometimes the little guns will do. Those little bits of everyday wisdom that you heard from your parents and grandparents as a kid are still relevant. Don’t cry over spilled milk? Check. Don’t believe everything you hear? Check. If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you follow them? Checkity check check.
So I think there is real value in looking at how this common-sense advice dovetails with Stoic advice. Below I present three of my own favorites, and I encourage you to develop your own. (Feel free to leave a few in the comments!) And remember, these apply equally to children and parents. Everyone needs the occasional reminder that you get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.
That’s just the way things are sometimes. Why should you expect the world to be good to you? There are always going to be red lights to get stuck at, annoying people to deal with, and random misfortunes that disrupt our lives. “It is as absurd to be offended by such matters as to complain because you are splashed in the baths or jostled in the public street or stained by mud,” Seneca reminds us (Moral Letter 107). “Life is like public baths, a crowd, a journey; some things will be aimed at you, others will just happen. Living is not a dainty activity.”
I think I’m going to start using this line anytime we have a problem at our house. If you fall off your bike and scrape your knee, well, living is not a dainty activity. If you didn’t get into your first-choice college, remember that living is not a dainty activity. And for parents: if your child doesn’t automatically follow your directions, clean up his own mess, and get straight As in school, well unfortunately living is not a dainty activity. So what should we do about this? Hmmm….
Stop whining and solve the problem. You’ve got to love Epictetus. I have actually used his exact words (Discourse 1.6, 30-32) with my kids:
James [whining]: My nose is running!
Me/Epictetus: Then what do you have hands for, buddy? Can’t you wipe your nose?
James [still whining]: But why do I have to have a runny nose? I don’t like runny noses! I wish I didn’t have to have a runny nose.
Me/Epictetus: Don’t you think it’s better to just wipe your nose than to sit around all day whining about it? Sometimes noses run. That’s life. Wipe your nose and get on with things.
The delicious irony, of course, is that Epictetus was talking to adults. (Sometimes we deserve to be talked to like children.) I often have to remind myself that whatever I am inwardly complaining about–like having to take care of a sick child when I wanted to get a lot of work done–is equivalent to whining about a runny nose. Inconveniences, challenges, and problems are bound to happen in life. But as Epictetus says, “I can show you that you have the resources and equipment that are needed to be noble-minded and courageous, while it is for you to show me what occasion you have for reproach and complaint” (1.6, 43). We have the mental resources to deal with whatever life throws at us. We need to just stop whining and wipe our noses.
Don’t worry about what other people think. “How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure” (Meditations 4, 18). It’s a classic problem, one that is just as much with us as it was with Marcus. Other people are always going to be unpleasant in some ways, and there is very little we can do about it. Perhaps we can influence some of them to some degree, but once we’ve tried that, we just have to stop worrying about them. “What does this person think of me? Why is that person doing that?” Who knows? Everyone has their own reasons, which may or may not be virtuous. But we will make ourselves absolutely miserable if we focus on other people’s intentions rather than our own.
One day Clementine came home from school crying. “Mommy, Chloe said she didn’t like my new haircut! I want my long hair back.” So at age five, she had to start learning the difficult lesson that some people are just going to be mean. But how to explain that to a pre-kindergartener? “Oh no,” I told her, “Chloe hasn’t learned how to be a good friend. Some children just haven’t learned how to be nice. The important thing is that you know how to be a good friend. And it doesn’t really matter if Chloe likes your hair or not, does it? It’s not her hair, it’s your hair. What matters is that you like it.”
We’ve found lots of occasions to continue this line of thinking. When the next-door neighbor didn’t invite Clementine to her birthday party, we talked about the same thing: some people just don’t know how to be nice. But it doesn’t matter–just play with the people who are nice and don’t worry what the others think. (And internally I had to remind myself of the same thing: there’s no use feeling offended by the neighbors’ rudeness. There are too many nice people in the world to worry about one unfriendly family. Even if they did decide to have the birthday party right outside our front window.)
There’s so much great advice in the Stoic literature, this list could go on for a while. But I’ll stop there for now. The point is, Stoicism provides not only a steadfast anchor for our biggest challenges in life, it also guides us in our everyday dilemmas. Sometimes that advice is counterintuitive, like becoming happy by letting some things go. But sometimes it is just plain common sense. Luckily for us, that makes it easier for everyone to remember (and hopefully follow). Who knows? Maybe a hundred years from now your descendants will be telling their kids, “What do you have hands for? Stop whining and wipe your nose…”