Parents are embracing the writings of the Stoics to help navigate the challenges of raising a child — especially during today’s pandemic. The parental interest in Stoicism is in part, a response to today’s over intensive parenting, which is stressful for both parents and children. Today, parents want their children to develop character and independence but are also looking for ways to strike a balance between protecting their children and letting them go.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: What are some of the major mistakes that parents make today and where stoicism has helped to guide you?
Meredith Alexander Kunz: “There's a lot of pressure on parents today. First of all, I would say parenting is an exercise in losing control because even when I first became pregnant, I didn't really have control over what my body was doing. Then when my kids were born, there were these unpredictable beings and like many parents, I thought well, surely I can manage this, I've managed everything else in my life but you start to set a bedtime, a nap time, feeding times, some kind of schedule or way of helping your kid be well adjusted, even as an infant and quickly realize, wow, this is difficult. Some parents stick to being more regimented - ‘how can I kind of control the situation? How can I manage the situation” whereas I started to feel so stressed by that, it made me stop and think, ‘wait a second, this isn't the right approach. ‘
So the concepts of stoicism are where we realize that some things are in our power, and some things are not and we work within what's in our power and in our control, to really make a difference. Realizing that there's some things that we can't completely manage or control is really important for parents. A lot of parents still feel that they are in control of their kids or should be, and that they should be able to manage their children which is really not only inaccurate, but actually can be kind of harmful to your relationship with your child.
Parents also get sucked into kind of the ecosphere of social media, where it's all about how does this parenting choice look to other people? Or do people think that my child is successful, and they become very fixated on other people's opinions, which in stoic philosophy is not important at all. What's important is developing your own character, your own sense of making the right judgments and your ability to choose well, your internal motivations, your moral sense, using your ruling center and your reason.
So those are a couple of really big pitfalls today and we're also living in an era where there's a rise in what is called intensive parenting, some people have called this helicopter parenting where people feel that they have to manage every step of the way for their child and this is not really good in the long run, for a lot of reasons.”
You're hitting on something huge, it's almost like it's up to the parents as to whether or not the child becomes successful, that is a tremendous amount of pressure that we put on ourselves as parents.”
Kunz: “I agree. It's harming us as parents, because we feel this pressure and the relationship is warped by that. And it's hard on kids because it takes away their agency. Some people interpret stoicism as a way to maximize a person's agency, give you the power to choose the things that you can choose and try to develop that sense of what's true and what's not. And if we try to take that away from our children and don't allow them those choices, then they will never develop the faculty of choice, they will never develop the ability to see what's right in this situation. So that's not good for our kids, either.
I believe in trying to help our children become independent adults. My kids are teens now and they're quite independent. Sometimes I wonder whether they should ask me a little bit more but I feel that it's really good in the long run, because I want them to become autonomous. Everyone should have the right to determine their choices. It also has been shown in research that what is very motivating for kids and people in general is the ability to choose. That's literally the strongest predictor for motivation and kids and teens.”
How do you put this philosophy into practice using some of the great quotes of the stoics and using some of the ideas they brought you?
Kunz: “The first thing I would say is that stoic philosophy is a really good antidote to perfectionism. Because your main goal is to make progress so you don't have to say, “I'm going to become a stoic today and I'm going to be this perfect stoic.” In stoicism there's the concept of the stoic sage, the person who lives most by the stoic life philosophy. But there's really no person who is a stoic sage, maybe Socrates was maybe Zeno, but in everyday life, we're all just trying to make progress. So that is the first thing to keep in mind that it's not about having to be perfect in the way you practice this.
In every situation, you kind of think about ‘what can I actually do here’ that helps me make a good choice. I think of sometimes my role models, and one of my role models was Ruth Bader Ginsburg and I've written about her as a stoic role model because she was very good at being able to figure out what was in her own power and be able to create change based on that. She was extremely limited as a woman who wanted to pursue law in the area she was working in but she found inroads here and there to start by creating small changes and then be in a position to really argue her own case before the Supreme Court for issues like increasing women's rights and increasing equality of rights in our country.
Another thing that stoicism relies on are the four key virtues that you try to aim for. These are wisdom, which is knowing what's accurate and true and what's not. Justice, which is being fair and working with other humans. Courage, being brave in any situation, to maybe make a tough call, but the one that's wise or just. And self control, exercising, self discipline, focus and setting self limits. Someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an excellent example of a person who was able to do that. We have to be able to withstand criticism, because if you pull back from intensive parenting and helicopter parenting, there will be people who criticize you that not doing enough or focusing enough on your kids' success. I like the quote from Marcus Aurelius about this, ‘will it make any difference to me, if someone else criticizes me for actions which were just and right - it will make no difference at all.’
Another thing that I like to do is to read some of the ancient texts and the modern text and focus my mind on interpreting them and writing about them in my blog in The Stoic Mom. Another quote I love from Marcus is; ‘the things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.’ He goes on to say ‘anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one.’
So even in pandemic lockdowns, even when we're worried about becoming ill, when people are worried about losing their jobs, children are concerned about online school, and not having the instruction they used to have or having interaction with their peers they used to have, we still emphasize that even within the limitations that you can find yourself and you can still make a good life for yourself. You can still follow these virtues, you can still make good choices, even when you go out to the grocery store, you can still put on a mask, keep your distance, be safe, be polite; there's a lot we can still do try to live a good life even in very difficult circumstances.”