My fall into parenting, though planned, came rather abruptly when our twin boys arrived 12 weeks early. Even then–years before I discovered Stoicism–we handled some stressful times quite stoically. Eleven weeks of feeding tubes, monitors and transfusions could have been incredibly stressful, but we managed to take it one day at a time and keep a rational mind.
My fall into Stoicism has been far more gradual. I stumbled upon Stoicism from a finance blog. I read The Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine, started a blog and participated in Stoic Week 2013. As our kids have grown to be three years old my own flaws have become ever more apparent–mirrored back to me by the reflective-sponges that are my kids. This reflection of myself has definitely pushed me to better myself. It’s through Stoicism that I seem to have found ways to improve myself and my kids.
A Stoic Duty
Raising good, productive members of society is one of my primary duties as a parent. As parents, we must teach and appropriately model for our children. If we don’t actually make a mess of our kids, and raise them with good manners, discipline, values and work ethic, then they could actually spread more good in this world. I believe Stoicism has a lot of the tools needed to raise children properly. Children who will understand their emotions, be conscientious and respectful of others, have a strong work ethic and be resilient and flexible to changes throughout their lives.
Trying to apply that to our children, my wife and I try to be mindful of the behaviour of our kids, their personality traits and characteristics. She comes from a special education and applied behavioural analysis background. This scientific / empirical element to our parenting, combined with influences from a Montessori education and our unique family backgrounds, has seemed to foster a couple of great kids. Our parenting approach so far is to foster the positive traits and skills and to discourage, by ignoring, the traits and behaviours we judge as negative. By teaching our children appropriate skills for coping then they have a greater chance of flourishing as adults, contributing positively to society we will have accomplished our duty as parents.
Another analogy I picked up through exploring Stoicism that I like is that of an archer drawing his bow. You can prepare with training and develop a mastery of the skill, but once you release the bow you can’t control the flight of the arrow. Winds or other influences may change its course and we must be prepared to accept that. It is the teaching and modelling we do for our kids that prepares them for the future; but our preparation only carries them so far and the rest is out of my control.
Stoicism for Coping With Toddlers
Copyright: Mark Rutter.
Reminding myself of the dichotomy of control has been one of the more practical applications of Stoicism I have found. The behaviour of my kids, in the past and in the current moment, is out of my control. I do, however, have control over how I approach teaching them, hopefully impacting their future behaviour. It is my duty to teach my children to react properly to disappointment and be resilient.
I’ve reached the conclusion that toddlers are simply impulsive creatures, bent on satisfying the desire of the moment. Unenlightened Hedonists. The don’t yet know any better and lack full rationalization skills to delay gratification or understand the context of their actions. How they react to their desires not being fulfilled depends on how my wife and I raise them.
Toddlers testing their limits, exercising power and throwing tantrums is all part of a toddler living in accordance with their nature. To desire, or expect otherwise would be foolish and certainly placing your happiness at the disposal of forces outside your control. The difficulty in correcting behaviours is identifying which are developmentally appropriate, or in accordance with nature, and which are inappropriate, or detrimental to the child’s flourishing or being virtuous.
A Way Forward
In my limited experience, most inappropriate behaviours are learned. Patterns and routine, such as allowing your kids to watch TV while you cook, may form rules in a child’s mind; resulting in a meltdown when the routine inevitably breaks. By responding to and coddling a crying child you’re reinforcing their concept that crying solves problems. We focus on telling our kids that they need to use words to talk and communicate, trying to strictly ignore behaviours like tantrums and whining.
With one of the boys we’ve noticed flexibility issues around order of operations. Occasionally he has had a tantrum because I pulled him out of the car and carried him inside, when he had actually wanted to do it himself. He wouldn’t end his tantrum until I’ve carried him back to the car to start all over. So, for a while we made an effort to keep things a bit random and ignore the tantrums until he learned some flexibility. The hope is we build his resiliency to stressors in life therefore becoming more prepared for the future.
I can only hope that I have prepared myself and my children the best I can to contribute positively to society. I don’t want to nurture super-kids necessarily, that are master violinists or can speak 6 languages. Though those skills would be great, they aren’t necessary, and in my opinion, focus on the wrong priorities. I want to raise children that are critical thinkers, creative, kind and generous; people who leave the world better when they leave than when they arrived.
I’m a better parent in theory than in practice. I’m often slipping and misstepping; I have moments where I’m not mindful and I react wrong and do more damage. I try to recognize and remember those shortfalls, forgive myself and correct for the future. My goal is to become more mindful and to become a better parent, husband and person.
More about the author: Chris Lowe is a web designer with twin three year old boys living and working in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His interest in Stoicism came in late 2013 from a quest to conquer desires that led to Stoic Week 2013 and the classic works of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, though he has always had an amateur interest in similarly based Eastern philosophies. Chris is an self-directed student of Stoicism and blogs at stoicism.ca.