A Stoic Approach to Parenting: Helping Parents and Kids Thrive by Meredith Alexander Kunz

With this post by Meredith Kunz, we continue the series of presentations from 2020’s Stoicon and the 2020 Stoicon-X events. This one is a summary from the talk Meredith provided for Stoicon-X Midwest.

In 2016, I launched The Stoic Mom blog to share ideas on parenting from a Stoic point of view. Today, more than four years later, we need parenting help and support now more than ever as we live through months and months of pandemic lockdowns. Being a mom or dad during Covid-19 has become an enormous challenge, beyond what we’ve ever experienced before in our lifetimes.

Consider these facts:

  • We’re all doing more childcare at home, whether it’s for younger kids or teens.
  • Around 40 percent of childcare providers have shut down, and children are at home with their parents.
  • Many schools are teaching virtually, and kids need help throughout the day.
  • Children can’t participate in activities such as sports, extracurriculars, or aftercare programs.
  • Some parents are working remotely and trying to keep an eye on kids at the same time.
  • Other parents have to cut back on work, take a leave, or even quit.
  • Other parents have lost jobs that they didn’t want to lose, and they are worried about supporting their families.

The takeaway: Kids need a huge amount of attention and support right now, and so do their parents.

On top of our current crisis, there’s another reason why being a mom or dad has gotten harder: The rise of “intensive parenting.” Today, the pressures to help our children succeed are strong. Studies show that American parents are spending more and more time and resources on extra classes, activities, sports, tutoring, test prep, and more for their kids. This is especially true in middle- and upper-income households.

From my experience with two children in the public schools in a culturally and economically diverse city in California, I see parents of all backgrounds striving to help their kids do well in school and in their future careers. As our kids get older, we all know that colleges have only so many slots and so many scholarships, and that our children are competing with others in our state, our country, and across the world.

So in the service of “what’s best for our children,” parents today are tempted to go to outrageous lengths to shape every single aspect of the future for their kids (if you look at the recent “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, you’ll see just one example what well-heeled parents are willing to do).

As a mom, I, too, have felt the desire to pave the way for my kids to succeed (never using illegal means, thankfully!). But I have realized that this is an impossible—and really a misguided—task. And it is not healthy for me, or my children. Instead, I turn to my life philosophy to guide my parenting: Stoicism.

Stoic parenting philosophy focuses on becoming more rational and mindful, and less anxious and controlling as parents, and giving our children more autonomy, especially as they get older.

Above all, we need to always bear in mind two things: what we truly want for our children at a basic level, and the fact that we have the power to not give our assent to impressions or mistaken beliefs based on social pressures. As a mother, what I want most for my children is to help them develop these key things:

  • Their character—using the Stoic virtues of practice wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control as guideposts
  • Their ability to choose well and make sound judgments after questioning their knee-jerk reactions (questioning their impressions, in Stoic terms)
  • Their internal motivation to grow, learn, and thrive—and to act in the world creating positive change as citizens, individuals, and family members

I’ve explored this in my own life and I’ve been sharing it on my blog, The Stoic Mom. Now, I’d like to expand on a framework for how Stoicism can help us as parents get to a point where we can help our children develop their character in this way and act as a good role model for our kids. It starts with working on ourselves, especially in relationship to the world of other parents, kids, and society in general. (Note: When I use the words “we,” “us,” and “our” here, I am thinking of all parents and those in parenting roles.)

First, with Stoic life philosophy, we see that other peoples’ opinions just aren’t that important.

What’s important is living by our ideals and striving for the virtues, finding that moral core. And as long as we are working to develop our faculty of choice, our moral sense, and aiming towards the virtues in our decisions, then we are good, and we are good role models for our kids.

Do we really care what other families post on social media about their vacations, birthdays, fancy material goods, achievements? Should that influence how we spend our time and energy?

Second, as parents, must realize that many, many things are outside our control.

Stoicism’s core teaching about “the dichotomy of control” tells us to stop trying to exert control over things that are outside our power. There’s so many of these things as a mom or dad.

Here are some of the elements of our children and their lives that we can’t control:

  • A child’s individual personality, abilities, health, and interests
  • How a child gets along with other kids, and the friends she or he makes
  • The competitive nature of other people/environments
  • Deep-rooted structural issues: Inequities in incomes, schools, and opportunities that are difficult to surmount (we may be able to influence this, but can’t necessarily change it)

When we think about how we deal with some of the things outside our control, the first line of defense could be to start saying no to the thoughts that pop up about comparison of our kids and our situation with other people’s.

Third: As Stoics, we can use our spark of reason to figure out what is in fact reasonable to do as parents to support our kids.

It’s always within our power to say no to more activities as a mom or dad, things that just create busyness in our lives. I like to think about what Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“… most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”

—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

For me as a parent, things like bake sales fall into this category. I can say no to those, and make a small donation instead. Or organizing very elaborate parties. Or attending all my daughters’ sports practices. I’d like to add: Not doing these things does not make me a terrible mother, just one who is less stressed about being perfect in every way and saying yes to every ask.

I suggest trying to identify the kinds of supportive activities you actually enjoy doing as a parent, and the things that bring you closer to your kids and show them your values. And maybe even are fun.

For example, my husband had the chance to DJ at my daughter’s school walkathon fundraiser. He connected with the cause and the kids—who still talk about it. And I serve as a Girl Scout Leader, with over 5 years of volunteering, because I find it provides real character building for my kids—and me—through social service and outdoor challenges.And I’m always available for are homework help or discussions about friends or debates about ideas or family exercise outings.

Saying no to time-sucking things—for instance things we might be tempted to do just to look good on social media—is strongly supported by Stoicism. As Seneca wrote:

Nothing is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will, can oust us from possession.

Fourth: Accepting that our children are not under our direct control is critical.

In a way, it’s similar to a teacher and her students. Even Socrates, revered by the Stoics, reported that he had students whose behavior was awful. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model, and the rest is in fate’s hands. As parents we have more influence than a single teacher, but we nevertheless need to accept that there are limits. We still feel a very real sense of duty and responsibility about our children, but we can’t expect to mold them into exact replicas of ourselves, let alone better versions of what we hoped to become.

So, to sum up, Stoic philosophy enables me to cope with the pressures parents face today in healthier ways, and I think all parents could benefit from a dose of Stoic philosophy. And I also hope it’s helped set my kids on a path of well-reasoned choices that will serve them long into the future.  

I’ve learned a few key things about kids that have helped in this journey, too, that I’d like to share.

As I mentioned earlier, it is important to think about how we can help kids develop their own character with Stoic ideals. First, I’ll share some general thoughts, and then I’ll talk about a few practical suggestions.

Today, many parents express love through consumerism or entertainment for their children. But the ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids. They believed that character is instilled through things like exercise, sports, and hard work. In other words, they thought that we develop virtue through work.  So even today, in a Stoic-inspired life, it’s more valuable what we give children to do, rather what material things we give to them.And it’s also what we show them that we care about, through our own actions, and what we teach them about as role models.

We should give children things to do that require effort on their part, and that are challenging.  This could be physical challenges. When our kids express interest in doing something brave, we encourage them to try it. For instance, pre-Covid 19, my daughters have gone on tough scouting trips and overnight camps, and learned to do things I would never have tried at their ages (backpacking, rock climbing, high ropes, canoe races, polar bear swims, sleeping out under the stars). My younger daughter literally rolled around in mud and made a bed to sleep in for 5 days out of tree branches. She loved it.

And on family outings, we try to do something outside of our comfort zone. It might be challenging physically, like hiking through a river or up a mountainside. Or challenging intellectually: museums and historical sites expose children to art, science, and history. Even if kids aren’t enthusiastic at first, they usually learn something.  Kids can also work on challenges in our communities and our world by volunteering. Mine have done service projects on pedestrian safety, mental health, feeding families of hospitalized, and helping the homeless.

Things are different today. Now, in a pandemic lockdown with virtual-only school, there are tons of new challenges that are tough for parents and kids, and overall, it’s not very positive. The isolation of staying home, rather than attending school or preschool; the need for constant supervision for younger ones; the boredom of staring at school classes on a screen; lack of time with friends and in social settings; temptations of entertainment and video games… and for some, dealing with sickness or financial problems at home.

But while it is very hard for us as parents to watch our kids confront difficult things—and we are dealing with many added burdens ourselves—there might be something of a silver lining. Maybe it will help our children build character.Because it turns out that recent studies have shown that facing challenges and even feeling uncomfortable can actually be a good thing for kids.  In fact, through new psychology research, we are discovering that keeping our kids perfectly protected from any adversity or challenge is actually harmful to them and, long term, it can create anxiety or depression.

The authors of an Atlantic article about this research wrote: “despite more than a decade’s evidence that helicopter parenting is counterproductive… kids today are perhaps more overprotected, more leery of adulthood, more in need of therapy.”

Today, my parenting philosophy is focused largely on autonomy …On raising independent adults.This approach was intuitive to me, and confirmed once I started practicing Stoicism: The strongest predictor for motivation in kids and teens is a sense of control over their own choices.

A great book on this topic is The Self-Driven Child, by William Stixrud and Ned Johnson. The authors convincingly make the case that today’s parents often deprive children of meaningful control over their own lives, putting them at higher risk of anxiety and depression. And they add that parents’ own anxiety can harm their children’s well-being. They talk about how moms and dads can have a “non-anxious presence” for their kids, and stop micromanaging everything from their homework to their friendships.

As I discussed earlier, I think Stoic life philosophy can inspire us to be less anxious and more present for our kids in the moments when it counts. This is about focusing our attention on what matters, a personal connection to our children, and support for their moral or character development. And that kind of mindfulness and attention are right in the Stoic wheelhouse.

My kids call me or my husband out when we are distracted while we talk (for instance, looking at our phones). I give them credit. Having a family times of day, at dinner, or a family downtime, like a regular game night, helps us be present at specific times.

One other big picture idea about our kids: Let’s think about our children’s agency.

I’ve heard it said that Stoicism is a way of maximizing agency. Remember that kids aren’t the puppets of their parents, who need to orchestrate their every move. They are people. When they are old enough, they need to learn to make choices and commitments. They have to figure out what motivates them and how to spend their time. This is not easy, but it is worth the effort to try.

We can be good role models in this sense, showing the kids of decisions we make and how we choose to live our lives. And we need to devote time to actually explaining to our children how we arrive at these decisions. It comes down to this: When our children choose, and we are not forcing kids to do things, not saying “do this because I said so,” we are giving our daughters and sons a chance to become full people and make commitments of their choosing. And that is a worthy goal indeed.

So, this leads to an important question for Stoic parents: How should we present Stoic ideas to children?

With children who are very young, their own immediate needs and wants are paramount.

They are driven by hunger, fatigue, play, competition with other kids. They haven’t learned to use their reason, or  to fully understand cause/effect. They don’t acknowledge others’ needs or wishes – they are just too young. But studies in neuroscience show kids aged 7 to 9 are laying the structure for reasoning in their brains, and that they grow these areas a lot at around ages 12 to 13.

I think ages 9 or 10, or possibly as early as 8 or 9, could be a good time to introduce some Stoic philosophical ideas more formally, a few high-level ideas about the dichotomy of control, the three disciplines, the virtues, and questioning or impressions. But I think we could begin sharing the Stoic approach bit by bit with toddlers.Even at a very young age, we can already talk to our kids about 1) the things that are inside and outside of our control; 2) about the consequences of our choices; and 3) explain how to question our impressions—that is, our knee-jerk reactions to things.

I like to say, “Stop, drop, and question your impressions” (even though it’s more of a joke in my house, it gets kids’ attention!).

For example: One of my children always had trouble leaving playdates when she was a toddler, around age 3. She would get very upset about leaving a friend’s house when playtime was over, and she’d refuse to do it. So I started to explain the situation to her, to try to help her understand others’ perspectives as well as the consequences of her actions. The host family has their own schedule, I’d say, and that’s not in our control. They have to start cooking dinner now. Your response to them is in your control. You can change how you behave. Remember, you probably won’t get invited over here again if you don’t leave when you are asked to go. And what if it were our house? And you were hungry? What’s in your power to do in this situation?

So you can give your kids a sense for how they could respond, by painting that bigger picture, and using virtues without naming them. I worked on explaining how making a good choice will give them more options in the future.

Another way to help kids gain a Stoic mindset is to give kids simple daily choices, like would you like to eat pears or apples? Peas or sweet potatoes? Just limit it to two or three options at first. Choice is very motivating to children, and we can help them cultivate this faculty.

And for kids’ choices, it’s good to allow there to be natural consequences so that they can gain some wisdom from it. For instance, let’s say your child refuses to wear a jacket going out when it’s 35 degrees outside. If she gets cold often enough, maybe she’ll learn to remember her jacket. Or you can spell out the trajectory: “If you don’t wear this jacket, you’ll be shivering, and you might get sick, and then you’ll have to stay in bed all day by yourself instead of doing something more fun this weekend.”

I have just one more important point I’d like to make about teaching these principles to children: Stoicism is not about suppressing emotions.

It’s about cultivating positive character attributes and virtues, and finding joy, wisdom, and tranquility through making good choices and devoting time to positive things. It’s not about pushing down all the things that bother us, deep inside. (If you saw the Lego Movie, you might remember the character Unikitty. She suppresses her negative emotions to stay super bubbly and positive, up until she realizes she can’t anymore—and then turns red and explodes with violent and destructive rage!)

With negative emotions, what Stoics call “bad passions,” we can use Stoic-inspired CBT-style questioning of misguided beliefs, getting to the root of why we are angry or sad. Then we can try to resolving some of that turmoil by understanding it better, or letting it go. Because it’s not the thing that truly matters: it is our moral choices.

Once we realize that others’ opinions don’t really give us our worth as people, but that our moral core and choices do, we can feel a lot more peaceful. We can try to convey that to our kids too.Kids who are constantly worried about the judgment of others, in person or online, and be reminded of this principle. People will always be there to be judgmental of us, our parenting, and our kids. To combat the pressure, here is some inspiration from Epictetus:

 I laugh at those who think they can damage me. They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.

I’d like to end on a positive note, with the concept of joy. Ancient Stoics were not joyless, and Stoic mindfulness reminds us to live in the present, enjoy spending time with our offspring when they are young or any time, and sampling the “banquet” of life as it comes to us. And that’s what this is about: not only the responsibilities that we have towards our kids, but also the joy of having children in our lives. And when we let go of our controlling or competitive instincts and appreciate our children as human beings capable of developing their own character—as people who will someday become independent adults—we may find that joy comes much more easily.

Meredith A. Kunz writes The Stoic Mom, a blog that focuses on how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent’s—or anyone’s—life. She is working on a longer project about women and Stoicism.  You can follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today, president of ReasonIO, adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design | Sadler's Lectures podcast - https://soundcloud.com/gregorybsadler | YouTube channel with 1700+ philosophy videos - https://www.youtube.com/c/GregoryBSadler

4 thoughts on “A Stoic Approach to Parenting: Helping Parents and Kids Thrive by Meredith Alexander Kunz”

  1. Hi this is so amazing. It is like you guys are looking over the situation I’m facing right now with my adult child aged 21 turning 22 in Feb. I believed that this will be my solution to the problems we are facing as parents. And I believe it’s helpful will help so many parents. I would like to try this phylosophy.

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