A Stoic upbringing, Parenting basics

Your kids are smarter than you think

Musonius Rufus seems to have been one of the most cheerful Stoics, especially when it comes to humanity’s natural predispositions. Stoicism itself as a very optimistic philosophy, since it insists that people can and should become the agents of their own flourishing. But the ancient Stoics started from different positions on how far each of us must progress in order to reach virtue. Seneca, for example, is a great curmudgeon: “Our parents have instilled admiration of gold and silver in us, and the covetousness which steeped us as little children has settled more deeply and grown within us” (Letter 115). But after living in the court of Nero, and seeing the worst of ancient Rome, I can’t really blame him.

Musonius, on the other hand, sounds like a jovial fellow. Not as severe and profound as Epictetus, and for that reason perhaps not as powerful. But more like the kind of teacher you would love to spend time with, and the kind of person who took genuine pleasure in life. His liberal views on women studying philosophy are well-known, and he seems to talk a lot about the potential for virtue in everyone. (Other Stoics discussed this as well, but Musonius seems to think virtue is extant rather than latent in most people.) From reading the fragments of his teachings, I get the sense that if I had to choose one ancient Stoic to have with me on a desert island, I would pick Musonius. (And of course, he was actually banished to a desert island–and spent his time there cheerfully observing the natives.)

So it’s not surprising that Musonius is also the most optimistic about the potential for morality in childhood. In a lecture on education, he says, “We must start by teaching infants that this thing is good and that thing is bad, that this thing is helpful and that thing is harmful, and that this things must be done and that thing must not be done” (Lecture 4, 7).

Well said, Rufus! Instead of assuming that childhood is a moral wasteland, we should start as early as possible to instill good habits and principles in our kids. Perhaps Musonius realized that it is much easier to form good principles from the very beginning, rather than waiting until adolescence and then trying to introduce abstract ideas about morality. Age 14 is much too late to start talking about these things. He then goes on to say that after teaching these basic principles (or habits?) of morality, we should instruct children on what is shameful, how to be self-controlled, and how to be courageous in the face of toil, hardship, and death. As a result of this correct education, young adults will know “to shun excess, to honor equality, to want to do good, and…to not want to harm human beings.”

Musonius was really ahead of his time in recognizing the ethical potential in young children. Or maybe he spent more time actually observing children than any other philosopher for the next 2,000 years? As late as the 1960s, the very influential developmental psychologists Piaget and Kohlberg assumed “that even older children didn’t understand morality, that truly moral ideas develop only in adolescence. Until then children’s conceptions of good and bad, wrong and right, are just a matter of rewards, punishments, and social conventions” (Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby, p. 202).

More recent developmental psychologists, however, have made discoveries that back up Musonius’ intuition about teaching ethics from infancy. Young children actually have a very complex understanding of right and wrong, not merely based on punishment and reward. In her fascinating (and highly recommended) exploration of infant cognition, The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik, explains that our nature as social animals predisposes us to moral understanding almost from the moment we are born. Here are just a few of the interesting conclusions researchers have drawn from psychology studies with little ones:

  • “Literally from the time children are born they are empathic. They identify with other people and recognize that their own feelings are shared by others.” (p. 204)
  • “Even fourteen-month-olds will try hard to help someone else.” (p. 211)
  • “One-year-olds understand the difference between intentional and unintentional actions, and behave in genuinely altruistic ways.” (p. 204)
  • “Two-year-olds can imagine what to do to give other people pleasure or soothe their pain.” (p. 211)
  • “Three-year-olds have already developed a basic ethic of care and compassion. At the same time, three-year-olds also understand rules and try to follow them.” (p. 204)
  • “By the time they’re three, children consider intentions when they make basic moral judgments about good and harm. They say that intentionally pushing another child is bad, but it’s ok if you just accidentally bump into them….They said the child who broke the rule on purpose was much naughtier than the child who broke the rule accidentally.” (p. 226)

And interestingly, Gopnik also tells us that “when they are still very young, children show some of the same impulses to anger and revenge that adults do” (p. 205). No surprise there, right? Children clearly adopt many of the habits and patterns of thinking that they will carry with them into adulthood. That’s why we have such an important opportunity to intervene when our kids are little and help them develop a “correct” way of acting and thinking. Again, we don’t control our kids, but we can integrate creative ways of interacting with them to encourage desirable traits.

However, there are limits to what young children can understand about ethics. For example, they are quite bad at moral logic–hence philosophers’ assumption that children have no moral reasoning–but they are very good at understanding rule violation. According to Gopnik (p. 225), you can demonstrate this by giving three-year-olds a scenario in which Jane says, “When I go outside, I wear my hat.” If you then show them four pictures (and in one of them, Jane is not wearing a hat), the children cannot identify the picture in which Jane is not doing what she said. But if you tell them, “Jane’s mom says she must wear her hat outside,” they can easily pick the picture in which Jane is breaking the rule. See? They can’t follow “if P, then Q” statements, which is usually the stuff of logic. But they are champs at figuring out who is not following the rules. (As I have daily proof, when Clementine fills me in every tiny rule violation that James attempts.)

So as we go about teaching our little ones how to be good people, it’s helpful to keep in mind that we need to keep it very concrete. We can’t expect them to follow logical statements, but we can certainly say, “We don’t hit other people, because that is hurtful,” or “Are you being kind when you say mean things?” They are already very attuned to social rights and wrongs. We just have to make it make sense on their level.