By Cal Heath
We are delighted to share these wise thoughts from contributor Cal Heath, a writer, practicing Stoic, and mother of two.
As a member of Stoic Parents and other Stoic groups on social media, I sometimes see the question posed, ‘At which age should I introduce my children to Stoicism? How can I teach them? What should I teach them?’
For me, this dilemma has been particularly poignant. I came to the field of parenting, as my husband and I fondly refer to it, as a ‘mature’ mum; the British term for us over-40s, not mine! My own mum passed on soon after my second child was born, and left me feeling the pressure to impart some effective life coping strategies onto my children, while I’m around to do so.
At nine and ten, my daughter and son are a little young to be presented with a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses for Christmas—although I admit, I’m putting together a treasure box for each for them for the future, and the texts of the ancient Stoics have a prime place inside. But in the interim, I wanted a child-friendly way to share the fundamentals of Stoicism, and one that a daughter who would rather be colouring and a son who is routinely absorbed so deep in an adventure book he’ll only grunt acknowledgement of my presence, would warm to.
The solution came easier than anticipated. After a little experimentation with times of day to broach the topic, I found that the best time to explore Stoicism was at bedtime— just after lights out, while having a team cuddle in my big bed. I suspect bedtime’s victory was down to them assuming they are gaining extra chatting time when they should be going to sleep. Soon after the post-lights-out conversations had commenced though, they were rapidly promoted to Essential Nightly Ritual. My son says he sleeps really well after our chats; that is a compliment indeed.
From the beginning, I have kept the Stoic discussion short, simple and repetitive. We go over just two doctrines, and the whole conversation takes no more than five or ten minutes—unless they want to chat for longer because something in their day has resonated and has scope for a bit more dissection. I had expected that they would protest, ‘We went over all this, last night!’ but in fact, they seem to relish the clarity that accompanies simple repetition of two beliefs:
There are things in life we can control, and things we can’t.
All we need, to be a good person, is virtue.
So first, we take turns to list the things we can control. Since it’s solely our thoughts and our actions, they love that this doesn’t take long and is super easy to remember! In a nine-year-old’s terms, we can control what we think, and how we act. Then we take turns listing all the things we can think of that we can’t control. Stoicism-practising adults will already be familiar with these: health, wealth, material possessions, status, reputation and so on—but all my children need to know is that pretty much everything else, except our thoughts and actions, are out of our control.
Here, they love listing all the things out of their control that happened during the day. Teacher said this, or a friend did that. I find this part of our chat incredibly useful because it shows them that no matter what the days brings—and each days brings a different challenge—the message is always the same: these things are out of your control.
I’m careful with the term ‘indifferents,’ which Stoics use for things out of their control and which they train themselves to respond to with emotional neutrality. I feel that children might be prone to adopting the negative connotation of the expression; that of having a dismissive or uncaring attitude. Instead, I explain that we’re going to let the things out of our control ‘just be.’
After we’ve had a good chat about what’s in and out of our control, we bring in the four virtues—wisdom, courage, justice and temperance—as ways of responding well to the things we couldn’t control. So we might discuss something along the lines of, ‘So your friend said this thing to you. Was it in your control that he said that? No? Did you take a bit of time after he said it, to feel calm? Then, the thing you said back to him, was it wise and kind? Did it feel fair? Did you feel brave?’
The key learning taking place—by nature of the simplicity and regularity of our discussions—is that the Stoic approach is always the same, no matter how large, small or diverse the life event presented. This thing has happened; was it in my control? No, but my reaction to it is. Therefore, I take a minute to let my feelings settle, while I think about a response that is wise, fair, brave, and handled with self-control.
I see it as a one-size-fits-all approach for guiding me through events (my mathematician husband calls it Cal’s Stoic Algorithm) and the kids are learning this, too.
I’ve found it joyful to see how well my children respond to this simple introduction to what is, in fact, the core of the Stoic mindset. If I haven’t piqued their interest enough to seek out further Stoic texts as they grow, I feel I’ve at least shared root values that will reliably guide them through the events they will encounter during their lives.
Cal Heath is an author, playwright and audio play producer in South Wales. She previously worked in scientific research in the U.K. and South Africa, before making lifestyle changes for family caregiving. Cal likes to write stories that spread a bit of sunshine. Her recent novel Where They Keep The Sky is a Wales-based tale with a heart-warming message.