Stoic Parenting and Coping with Toddlers
Originally written for and posted on the Stoicism Today blog, this article actually made it’s way into the book Stoicism Today Selected Writings Vol. 1.
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
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.
Reading this over again I almost feel like it’s a lie. I do believe in everything I wrote here, but in practice I am full of flaws. I still lose my temper over my children’s irrational behaviour and I say or do things I don’t mean. I have a long way to go. The Stoics viewed the sage as a goal to work toward, and my understanding is they knew it wasn’t feasible nor should it be expected that one actually achieve sage status. So, I continue to try to improve, take note when I falter but try not to dwell on or feel too much guilt when I do.
December 21, 2014 at 3:49 pm
Es mejor abstenerse de tener hijos. El mundo ha llegado a un punto de estulticia tal, que ser padre ESTOICO es la cosa más difícil del mundo. Yo decidí vivir estoicamente, por fortuna desde pequeña siempre me dije que jamás tendría hijos y me felicito sinceramente por ello siempre que veo padres con hijos. Suerte con la estrategia para educarlos, yo creo que todo se daría solo si les enseñas a respetar a la naturaleza y a saberse parte de ella.
February 21, 2015 at 2:14 pm
Gracias for you comment Laura. I respect the decision to not have children greatly. I think too few of us actually consider what the decisions actually implies. I think I’m fortunate in that the decision led to finally focusing on improving myself. Once I had so many people dependant on me the reality sunk in.