It’s one of the most common questions I get from parents who are trying to teach their kids Stoic principles: how do I teach my child to deal with frustrations and difficulties? I think this one question goes to the heart of what we do as parents. Dealing with frustrations and difficulties is a part of every life. It’s something our kids must do every day. So if we can help them develop the skills to successfully face down challenges—and the negative emotions that often accompany challenges—we will be setting them on course for a more eudaimonic life.
Fortunately, Stoicism is all about confronting challenges. Stoic philosophers provide us with many weapons for dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. For now, I’d like to focus on just one particular psychological weapon that I’ve found useful for myself and my kids. I call it Apply the Antidote.
“Haven’t you been endowed with faculties that enable you to bear whatever may come about? Haven’t you been endowed with greatness of soul? And with courage? And with endurance? If only I have greatness of soul, what reason is left for me to be worried about things that may come to pass? What can disconcert or trouble me, or seem in any way distressing?”[i]
In this lecture, a student is complaining about the way his life is going, and Epictetus forcefully sets him straight. Who are you to find fault with your life? he asks the student. “I can show you that you have resources and equipment that are needed to be noble-minded and courageous, while it is for you to show me what occasion you have for complaint and reproach!”[ii]
The message here is clear. Problems are a part of everyone’s life. Instead of sitting around whining about it, use the resources and equipment you have to solve the problem. Maybe your nose is running, but you have hands to wipe your nose. Maybe your lamp was stolen, but you can figure out how to get a new one. Maybe you are sick or in pain, but you have the endurance to overcome it.
Let’s think about how we can apply the antidote to teach our kids virtue, and then we’ll look at how we can use the same advice to become better parents.
Apply The Antidote For Kids
This technique works for most other situations our kids might face. Whenever you are helping them work through a problem, apply the specific antidote that will help them solve that problem. It could be their kindness, intelligence, patience, maturity, or whatever quality you want them to focus on. When James tries to pick a fight with Clementine, I may tell Clementine, “It’s a good thing you are such a big girl. Big girls know not to fight with their little brothers.” Or when Freddy takes James’ toy: “You are such a kind brother—I’m glad you have such a big heart. You know Freddy is still learning the rules.”
The antidote that I probably use the most is “your smart brain.” My five-year-old gets frustrated easily, so I often remind her to tackle problems by using her intelligence. When she comes to me whining that she can’t do something, I tell her, “It’s a good thing you have such a smart brain so you can solve this problem.” She is proud of her smart brain*, so she is more likely to use it to solve the problem. And even though I have to consistently remind her to do it, I do think this approach is starting to pay off. Recently Clementine came into the kitchen fussing that she couldn’t get her shorts buttoned. All I did was ask her what she thought she needed to do about this. She thought for a minute and said, “I need to use my smart brain.” Yep. Small victories.
In case you’re wondering if teaching your kids to apply the antidote really helps anything, here are a few of the benefits I’ve noticed.
- You are explicitly teaching your child the virtues and character traits you value: patience, intelligence, courage, persistence, etc. Be sure you adapt your language to your child’s developmental level—use words and concepts she can understand!
- You are helping your child gain confidence that he has actually those desirable virtues. If you consistently remind him that he has the patience to solve the problem, he will start to believe that he has the patience to solve the problem.
- You are preparing your child to work through her emotions on her own. You won’t always be standing over your child’s shoulder to help out. By talking through this process with her when you are there, you can teach her how to do it for herself when you are not there.
- You are teaching your child to take responsibility for his own emotions. This is one of the most important lessons of Stoic philosophy: we are responsible for our own emotions. Even though we can never solve every problem in the world, we can solve the puzzle of our own emotions. Whether or not the external problem gets “solved,” you can still help your child use his own internal resources to overcome anger, frustration, and disappointment.
Apply The Antidote For Parents
In Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, we see an example of this strategy in action. In Book 9.42, Marcus is working through the difficult problem of unpleasant people. It is impossible that there should be no bad people in the world, he reminds himself. But it is possible for us to deal with them kindly. To do so, we should reflect on this point: “what virtue has nature granted us to meet the wrong in question? For she has granted us gentleness to use against the unfeeling, and in every other case, another such antidote.”[iii] In other words, for every negative action, we can choose an equal and opposite reaction.
We can apply Marcus’ antidote anytime we deal with difficult people or situations. Is your toddler having a temper tantrum? Is your teenager slamming the door in your face? Remember the virtues you have to deal with the problem. Does this situation require far-sightedness and understanding from you? Does it require cooperativeness, acceptance, or flexibility? Think about the “equipment” you have to solve the problem. Sometimes you may not be able to solve the external problem in the way you would like to. But you can always solve the internal problem of your own emotions.
When things get tough and you’re ready to give up for the day, remember Epictetus’ reminder: “You have nobility and greatness of mind to enable you to deal with every circumstance.”[iv]
*In case you’re curious, I try to praise my kids’ intelligence in the context of being wise. I want them to know that being intelligent isn’t primarily about knowing a bunch of stuff or getting certain grades in school. Being intelligent is about using good judgment to be kind, courageous, and self-controlled. While I do want to encourage academic performance in appropriate measure, my first priority is to encourage wisdom. Academic performance does not lead to a good life; wisdom does.
Brittany Polat is a practicing Stoic, mother to three young children, and blogger who writes about Stoic family life. She is especially interested in exploring ways that Stoic principles can lead to a rich and rewarding life for parents and children. Her latest book, Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, will be published with Rowman & Littlefield in January 2019. See more of her writing on her blog, apparentstoic.com.
[i] Discourses, I.6, 28-29.
[ii] Discourses, 1.6, 43.
[iii] Meditations, 9.42.
[iv] Discourses, 1.12, 30.
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