How Stoic Parents Raise Boys to Understand Their Emotions
Stoicism does not have to be about maintaining or showcasing masculinity. The lesson can go much deeper.
Gazing into the distance with a cigarette dangling between his lips, the American Stoic is strong, silent, and dying on the inside. He looks like the Marlboro Man. He looks like Alan Ladd in Shane. He doesn’t talk much but he gets stuff done. And, after everyone has gone to bed, he sits on the toilet, head in hands, and cries. He does not understand why he is sad. He does not understand why he feels angry and alone. He smokes some more.
The guy who doesn’t talk much but gets it done is lionized in America, where men teach their boys to tough it out and pain is just weakness leaving the body. Stoicism, practiced this way, makes a virtue of repression and a mockery of the Roman Empire’s non-official, official philosophy. Which is to say that it’s not as strange as it sounds that stoicism is having a minor renaissance. And it’s not outlandish as it might seem that there’s a three-day camp for Stoics in Hudson Valley, a convention called Stoicon, and multiple websites and Facebook groups devoted to the virtues of “stoic parenting.”
Like many American fathers, I’ve flirted largely unintentionally with teaching my boys about stoicism. Every time my son cries that Ricky tricked him into trading a Pokémon GX for a Raichu or goes full-scale Chernobyl when I ask him to clean up his toys, I am tempted to channel the cut-rate stoicism of my father and say, “How many wah-wahs?” That was the question I used to receive when I was upset. That is how many fathers taught me to hold emotions at a remove or not at all. That is how I wound up spending so much time in therapy learning how to use the tools the real stoics prescribed — the sort of behaviors American adults pay $200-an-hour to learn, but don’t teach their kids.
Instead of snapping like my father, Brittany Polat, the mother of three behind the very even-keeled parenting site Apparent Stoic and author of the forthcoming book Tranquility Parenting: Timeless Truths for Becoming a Calm, Happy, and Engaged Parent, recommends that I recall the words of Epictetus. “They have simply gone astray in questions of good and evil,” the Phrygian wrote. “Ought we therefore be angry with those people, or should we pity them? But show them their error and you will how quickly they will refrain from their errors.” In other words, says Polat, “No one intentionally makes mistakes. If your son is refusing to clean up his toys, it is because he thinks, mistakenly, it is in his self-interest to do so.”
Polat is not asking me to ignore or control my son’s feelings, just to understand them in a context and help him achieve that same sort of rational distance from the situation.
Stoics care less about whether you’re angry or sad than if you’re angry or sad for reasons that make sense.
“That’s a very common misconception,” says Massimo Pigliucci, a leader in the modern stoic movement and professor of philosophy at City College of New York, “which to be fair has been invited by the Stoics themselves, because of all their talk about controlling negative emotions. But that modifier, “negative,” is crucial. The idea has always been to get away from fear, anger, hatred and so on, but also to cultivate joy, love, a sense of justice, and so forth.”
The Stoics’ poor messaging may be to blame for the modern misinterpretations, but so is time. According to Margaret Graver, a professor of Classics at Dartmouth College and author of Stoicism and Emotion, the issue is in part that philosophy ends up being a bit of a game of telephone if people aren’t exposed to original texts. That’s how stoicism became synonymous with emotional suppression despite being a deeply emotional philosophy. “Emotion is a feature of their position,” Graver explains. “What is important about human beings isn’t that they’re emotional, but how well they function as rational creatures, that they are not willing to be deceived. ” In other words, Stoics care less about whether you’re angry or sad than if you’re angry or sad for reasons that make sense.
Graver explains that Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus saw anger as a sign of weakness. “We don’t identify what the real threats are because we don’t identify our self-interest correctly,” she explains, “You get a disjunct between the emotions that are natural and the ones we ordinarily experience.”
A philosophy based on rationality clearly has a limit when it comes to dealing with children and the Stoics knew this. Various Stoic texts pinpoint the age of reason at either 7 or 14 years old. But, according to Polat, kids can start to understand the philosophy in practice when they are considerably younger. “I use Stoic principles with my kids all the time, they are six, four, and one,” she says. “If my son is crying because he can’t find his shoe, I ask him, ‘Well, at least a dinosaur didn’t eat your mother, right?'” That move, away from the turmoil of the personal and towards broader context, is the Stoic’s chief gesture and a profoundly effective way to talk to young boys, who often struggle with self-regulation.
Hierocles, a Stoic philosopher, diagrammed stoic contextualization neatly as concentric circles and called it oikeiôsis. At the center of the circle is the self — or the experience of the self — and at the outer perimeter is the Universe. Stoics and stoic children know that the path towards rationality is the path away from the core experience of emotionality. Thus the aversion to anger.
If this sounds either radical or antiquated, think again. Oikeiôsis, Pigliucci points out, is the basis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is a lot more expensive than a copy of Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. In teaching kids to inspect emotions and then reach for broader context, stoic parents give kids the tools many adults find themselves struggling to develop.
The point isn’t to feel along with children, but to understand their feelings and help them cope.
That said, stoicism does run contra to some powerful parenting trends. Mothers and fathers are commonly asked to make sure that kids feel engaged and listened to. Empathy, which Pigliucci refers to as “the e-word,” is perceived by many to be a massively important part of parenting. But Pigliucci, who is a father, points out that research doesn’t support the idea that empathy is an unqualified good.
“A better approach, which is also the one preferred by the Stoics, is sympathy,” he says. “You want to nurture concern for other people, but also keep things in perspective and act reasonably when you are trying to be helpful.” He fishes out Seneca to drive home his point: “The first thing which philosophy undertakes to give is fellow-feeling with all men; in other words, sympathy and sociability.”
The point isn’t to feel along with children, but to understand their feelings and help them cope. Stoics understood this, so much of their work set out various methods and rationales to lessen the intensity of negative emotions and foster the feelings of positive ones. “It is best to think of this as an attempt to shift our emotional spectrum, rather than suppress it,” says Pigliucci, “And I think the idea is very much along the lines of the modern psychological concept of raising ‘well adjusted’ kids.” If this sounds great not just for your kids but for you, well, bingo. “A Stoic attitude helps the parent, not just the child,” says Pigliucci, “It is helpful to do daily exercises to control one’s anger, to remind ourselves of the big picture, to re-examine our own judgments every night in order to improve them for the next round.” In fact, it isn’t just helpful but it’s necessary too. You can’t teach Stoicism by yelling.
Professor Graver provides a great argument for stoic parenting in the form of a personal anecdote. She was shopping up in New Hampshire with her two kids and her daughter was having a meltdown in aisle two. She decided to reason with her. It didn’t work immediately, but, eventually, it did work. As Professor Graver checked out, a woman approached her and said, “I really appreciate how patient you are.” Professor Graver paused. “Did I have a choice in the matter?” she asked. “How do you manage not to lose your cool?” the woman asked. “Take a realistic and broad view,” said Professor Graver before paraphrasing Epictetus, who said, “There are things you can control and things you can’t control.”
As with all things that parents teach their children, stoicism is best learned by example. If we continue to misapprehend the true lessons of the original Stoics, we’ll continue to carve statues of men bluffing their way through their own emotional disconnection. But if we truly understand the words of Epictetus and Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, we can be models. We can teach them, as Marcus Aurelius’ father taught him, “manliness without ostentation” or, for that matter, without hang-ups.
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