“I want you to stand right here and witness how hard this is to do,” I growled at my son. He glanced distractedly at the television. “I’m serious,” I barked.
My wife glanced over from the couch and I caught her eye. Her look was clear: my emotions were disproportionate to the moment. I knew that rationally, and yet there I was at the computer, struggling to create an online video game account for my son and fuming. At that moment, I was a failed stoic and a questionably effective father — one of many in the world at this particular historical moment.
The Pokemon Affair
My oldest son, a 9-year-old going on 16, likes to play the digital version of the Pokemon Trading Card game. And, until recently, I’d resisted allowing him to set up his own account for the game, worried that he’d run into bullies or be unable to cope with the competitive nature of the virtual fantasy-animal cage matches. But then I got tired of looking over his shoulder and he got better at being persuasive and, wouldn’t you know it, I relented.
But the process was stupidly complicated, requiring that I set up more than one account. One for me and one for him connected to mine. The process had taken days. Not because that’s how long it required but because I kept getting sidetracked and distracted. By the time I was clicking through the final steps, the whole thing felt to me like an affront. It felt personal. I felt as if I were being taken for granted, and therefore I was angry.
All I wanted was for my boy to acknowledge my hardship, and the only way I could think of doing that was to be verbally demonstrative and a little bit hostile. But I let my emotions get the better of me.
That was disappointing because I have lately been trying to cultivate my stoicism. That doesn’t mean that I’ve been engaging in hyper-rational philosophical thought experiments to get to the root of the best way to be human in this world. What I mean is that I’ve been trying to develop a practical skill of coming back to a calm contentedness when the emotional waters get choppy. And they’ve been choppy a lot lately.
Emotions are a good thing according to the general consensus of evolutionary biologists and psychologists. The idea is that emotions are psychological responses to external stimuli that allow humans to avoid harm or exploit opportunities. In other words, emotions helped us survive because fear keeps us from the lion’s den and happiness reinforces the importance of nourishment and procreation.
That’s all well and good if you’re a hairless ape finding a path from the trees to civility, but emotions, left unchecked, can be problematic too. I’d argue that the rush of general disdain that I showed to my son while I sat at the computer had pretty much fuck-all to do with the continuation of the species.
But well before the bizarre world of computers and Pokemon, ancient Greek philosophers understood that dysregulation of emotion could be a real burden to existence. Ancient stoics understood that the development of logical self-control could allow humans to be happy regardless of their circumstances. The idea was that through a logical examination of existence a stoic could adapt and be happy regardless of circumstances.
Yes, I am aware that’s a gross oversimplification of a philosophy that has launched a thousand doctoral dissertations. But parents in a pandemic don’t need to get lost in the weeds of stoic propositional logic when they’re dealing with real and present struggles. That said, the concept of stoicism has plenty to offer in helping parents put emotions in their place and react to the shitshow of daily family life in an even-keeled, less demonstrably overwrought fashion.
The stoic parent’s “trick” is to recognize emotions, consider their usefulness to the present situation, and then move forward accordingly. The simple fact is that you will never stop feeling strong emotions. You are responsible for the life (or lives) of the relatively helpless, and at least hapless, creatures that are your children. That’s an emotional time bomb. You will never not feel scared for them, angry or sad at something they’ve done, triumphant and proud of their accomplishments, and perhaps even jealous and despairing of what other parents have that you can’t provide. You can, however, practice a thoughtfulness that takes some of the gravity out of big feelings.
To that end, I’m going to review the tape of what will heretofore be known as the “Pokemon Affair” to understand what went wrong and what I could have improved.
Pokemon Showdown!: What Went Wrong
If I’m honest with myself (always the best policy), my ultimate emotional flare-up began days earlier. Had I reckoned with what was coming, I might have avoided the whole thing. There are a couple of things I could have done differently here by being a bit more reflexive and logical about what I was feeling, namely: frustration.
The first emotional hit of frustration should have allowed me to look at what was going on. I’d imagined that setting up my kids account would be easy. Those expectations were challenged. Instead of resetting my expectation, I allowed the frustration to fester. It would have been better to call out the frustration and talk to my kid calmly about how long the process would take, resetting the schedule for completion of the project (and then sticking to it).
How many blowups have I had in lockdown? Plenty. But that’s to be expected when you isolate four different strong personalities in a home for months on end. The good news is that the potential for blow-ups has given me plenty of practice in curbing the explosion. I’ve done pretty well. For every Pokemon incident, there are several other incidents that were stoically managed. Practice is a good thing. There are very few skills that a person is innately good at. That’s as true for throwing a curveball as it is for parenting. One skill that takes the most practice is disengaging when emotions are on the brink of explosion. But here’s the process:
Recognize the Feeling: Anger does not generally feel good in our bodies. We can feel hot and flushed. Our voices become clipped. Breath gets shallow. Our brows furrow and our heart races. Sounds can feel suddenly muted and distant. And in extremes we might even shake physically.
If we needed to defend ourselves or others we’d be prepared to fight, which would be useful. But most days, these feelings are useful in being cues that we need to stand down.
Taking a Beat or a Breath or Both: Once we recognize the cue that things might go off the emotional rails, we can stop. I mean that literally. Progressing in any task while you’re dealing with strong emotions is never really advisable and there are few instances where you can’t literally step away from the situation. Not setting up a Pokemon account wasn’t going to cause any damage to anyone or anything. Stepping away was the best choice.
Had I stepped away (maybe offering a “Excuse me for a second”), I could have taken a calming, centering breath. Chain enough of these breaths together and my physical reaction would mellow enough that I could apply some rational thought to what was happening.
Getting Logical: Here’s where the stoic work really takes place. Logically, there’s no need to have such big feelings about something so wildly trivial. If I could have examined the reality of the situation I would have seen that. In fact, I probably would have realized that my anger was ridiculous in this particular situation. That doesn’t mean that the emotion I was feeling wasn’t valid or meaningful, just that it was unnecessary for the situation. So, the best course of action is to acknowledge the emotion and move along.
Talking it Out: We arrived at the Pokemon incident in part because my 9-year-old felt that the game was incredibly important to his daily life. It isn’t, of course. But by getting as angry as I did only proved his point: having strong emotional responses connected to a computer game is a-okay!
That’s not what I was trying to get at while I was barking at him, but how could he know that? I wasn’t saying anything about the reality of the situation. I was tired after a long day. I had to think of something to make for dinner. I hadn’t been outside for a walk in days. The word was pressing in. It all adds up.
I could have communicated this better. I could have said that I was feeling frustrated and that part of that frustration was because I knew how important the game was for him. I could have explained that I wasn’t angry at him, but I was feeling overwhelmed and maybe he could help me with something else so I could complete the sign-up with less stress.
How Stoics Say Sorry
Importantly, stoicism isn’t helped by internalizing guilt and regret. The whole point is to move past these emotions and get back to feelings of contentedness. But getting back to baseline means acknowledging what happened and restoring relationships.
An apology goes a long way for a kid. It also offers more opportunities to talk. An apology is an excellent example of humility and strength. An apology acknowledges that sometimes we get things wrong, but we try to learn from them and move on. That’s what we want for our kids. We need to show them how to do it.
And in the end, that’s the best part of parenting in a stoic way. When we deal with our strong emotions, by recognizing them and moving past them, we are offering our children a blueprint for how to live with their own outsized feelings. It means we’re growing human beings that have a better chance of managing their emotions than having their emotions manage them.
Stoicism is a gift, and I’m thankful that a silly online game gave me another opportunity to get better at giving it.