When Vice Admiral James Stockdale whispered to himself before becoming a prisoner of war in Vietnam “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus”, he was unknowingly also describing parenthood. In a similar vein, a parent might say to herself “I’m leaving the world of being single and entering the world of marriage and parenthood.”
While parenthood is nothing like the suffering and depravity that one goes through as a prisoner of war, the lessons that Vice Admiral James Stockdale learned from Epictetus that helped him get through and come out better for having gone through that experience, are just as relevant to help a parent get through the ennobling and difficult experience of parenthood.
In this article, I wish to describe how I’ve applied Stoic principles to parenthood. Indeed, Stoic principles are both practical and effective and are absolutely relevant in parenthood.
My Story: Entering Parenthood with no Instruction Manual
My wife and I were married young – I at age 22 and she at 21. Shortly after our marriage, we had our first child, followed by 2 more and then we had twins after that. Getting married young while I was still an undergraduate and, later, a graduate student, had its challenges. Add children to that equation and it doubled the challenges we faced.
At the time, financial challenges seemed to be at the forefront of my mind: how do I support my young and growing family while still in school? To make ends meet, I was fortunate to have a scholarship, but I also worked 20-30 hours per week while carrying a full undergraduate and graduate school load.
But in retrospect, quality time with my wife and family was really the scarce resource. Money is fleeting and we got through just fine with the meager income I was bringing in. We were happy with what we had. But because I was busy with school and work, I should’ve been more concerned with the time I was away from my family rather than money concerns.
Seneca, in his discussion regarding the shortness of life, says:
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
He’s right. In retrospect, I should’ve protected my time better and spent more of my time with the people I love.
Increase our Family Size by 80% through Adoption
After having 5 children, I thought we were done. But, my wife felt differently and, even though I denied it at the time, I knew we weren’t done either.
After some discussion, we felt a calling to add to our family through adoption. While we were deliberate and purposeful in our decision to adopt, I can’t really think of any rational reason why we did so. As anti-stoic as that seems now, we both just felt the need to serve humanity in a unique way. For us, that was to be through adoption. I guess, it’s not as anti-stoic as it seems. After all, Marcus Aurelius was fond of declaring that we were made for each other, to serve one another. In his words, “All men are made one for another: either then teach them better or bear with them.”
So, after going through the difficult, expensive, and patience-testing process of adoption, we were very fortunate to have been able to adopt 4 more children within 3 years. If you’ve lost count, I don’t blame you. That brings our family size to 9 kids. Our oldest is now 18 and youngest is 7.
Kids are People too, but Smaller: Expect Hard Times
Kids are developing little human beings. As such, they’re full of wonder, questions, energy, and innocence. Sometimes, they’re pretty hard to deal with. But, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Why? Because children are just a smaller version of grown-ups – and, we know through experience, adults aren’t the easiest to get along with.
Gratefully, Marcus Aurelius gave us an exercise to put us in the right frame of mind that is helpful for dealing with children as well as adults:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly . . .
Like adults, some kids are messy, impatient, unruly, disobedient, etc. In sum – being a parent is the perfect laboratory to exercise stoicism. If one can deal with difficult children with dignity and virtue, then dealing with adults will be a doable task to be sure.
Eat Your Vegetables or I’ll Make You: Do what is in Your Control
Kids need guidance, coaching, and teaching. They also have free will and sometimes they want to exercise their free will in ways that we, as parents know, are not productive or will be harmful to themselves. There’s a point where they need to learn on their own. As parents, what we can do is provide guidance and simultaneously allow them their agency. But how is this possible?
One way we’ve done this is to provide options to our children. For example, every Saturday we have family jobs where we clean the house, do chores, basic stuff. One daughter is normally really good about helping out, but this particular Saturday she was really cranky. When it was time to work, she didn’t want to do her assigned job.
I stepped back. Took a deep breath. Remembered Epictetus. Then, I offered her options. I named 4 or 5 jobs and she can pick any of them. To my surprise, she was cool with that. She chose the job she wanted to do and simultaneously she fulfilled her duty as a family member by helping around the house.
This is how we’ve applied Epictetus’ admonition to do what is in our control. In this instance, I didn’t force her to work. I simply offered her options of work, and she chose one. She exercised her agency and I did what was in my control and I didn’t use coercion or force.
In the beginning of the Enchiridion, Epictetus teaches us the following:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
My daughter felt heard and validated. She exercised her free will. And, as her parent, I was able to get her help to clean the house and teach her the principle of work and cooperation.
Marcus Aurelius believed that we, humans, were actually made to work together – to cooperate. In his words,
We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.
Working together in society is important, but it is even more so in a family.
Teach Resilience Over Mashed Potatoes
Parents learn from their children but parents are also teachers. Epictetus discusses the role of imitation and how we imitate those that are above us. In the Discourses, Epictetus describes a situation where the governor of Epirus favors a comedian at a play. He then uses that situation to teach an important lesson by asking the governor: “For whom have the many to imitate, but you, their superiors?” (Discourses, Book 3, Chapter 4).
What he is trying to say is that those above us have an obligation to model the right behaviors for those that are below us. This is a great lesson especially for parents and children. One way we’ve tried to apply this practice in our family is to have healthy discussions at the dinner table.
For example, during dinner I might ask:
- What challenges did you have at school today? What did you learn? What did you do to overcome the challenge you faced?
- What experiences did you have today where you really enjoyed what you were learning or doing? What if you were thinking of something else? Would you have enjoyed the present moment as much as you did?
Questions like these are great because they cause us all to reflect on our day and they usually generate very healthy dining table discussion.
Every moment can be a teaching moment. We need to remember to model the right behaviors for our children, knowing full well they will grow up to imitate what they saw us doing. Questions relevant for parents are:
- Am I modeling the right behavior for my children?
- What are my children growing towards? Do I want them to grow up to be like me? If not, what changes can I make in my behavior so they will grow up to be the people they can be proud of?
What is in our control is how we behave and what we think and do. Our children notice everything we do. If we want them to grow up to be virtuous and good human beings then, we too, must model the behavior of good, virtuous human beings.
Parenthood is a Laboratory – A Really Messy One
Children present dozens – no, hundreds . . . no, thousands – of opportunities to either get angry, impatient, upset, frustrated, or mad. Or, you can view each situation an opportunity to exercise a virtue and improve upon a character flaw, which we all have.
Epictetus gives us some guidance:
On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use… If it be abusive words, you will find it to be patience. And if you have been thus formed to the (proper) habit, the appearances will not carry you along with them.
A few practical examples:
- Your child throws a tantrum in public, exercise patience and gain practice reasoning with the unreasonable.
- Your child doesn’t want to brush their teeth, exercise the use of logic and present options to the child and teach them about consequences of their actions.
- Your teenager comes home after curfew, explain to them that their actions affect others and teach them to own up to their actions by manfully accepting their consequences.
There are many more examples that life as a parent provides. . . .
Parenthood is Hard and Kids will Humble You: Enjoy Every Minute
With all the trials, tribulations, and humbling experiences that parenthood brings, with the right frame of mind, it can be enjoyable. In fact, Marcus Aurelius tells us so:
Concentrate every minute… on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions… You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?
A number of years ago when my twins were two years old, my son got into the peanut butter. No, it wasn’t a small jar either – it was one of those massive Costco jars of peanut butter that was designed to feed an army.
The picture this post starts with is of my son – playing with peanut butter. I swear, I turned my back to do something and within 120 seconds, he was in the peanut butter.
Instead of being angry at the mess I’d have to clean, I made the choice to enjoy the moment, take a picture for posterity, and show gratitude that I was given the chance to experience something so funny and memorable.
We have no promise of tomorrow. Only today. So, God willing, enjoy the time that you have with your children. They are a gift and we have been called to be good, virtuous stewards. Enjoy every moment and do well.
In Seneca’s words, “[Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”
Pete Abilla is a struggling stoic. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and they are the proud parents of 9 wonderful kids. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Mathematics from Brigham Young University. He earned his Master’s Degree in Computer Science from The University of Chicago. He owns a tutoring marketplace that has over 100,000 private tutors. You can find him on Twitter and connect with him on Linkedin.