Stoic Parenting: Keeping Perspective

In a decade of child development work, I've never seen a wise action taken by an obviously stressed out adult. Well, unless that action was to walk away or otherwise calm down before reacting to a child. Walking away for a few minutes seems to be a common calming down tactic, and I assume most cultures have a version of the count-to-ten method. All the calming techniques I've seen seek to do two things, first, arrest the stress or anger that's building up and, second, lend time for reflection so that our perspective better aligns with the situation. Actually, I'm probably being generous concerning the second point. The act of stepping back from negative emotions is not necessarily followed by an improved perspective. Which is a shame.

It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.

- Epictetus

This is one of my go to lines as a Stoic, an educator, and a parent. Our desires matter. If we are hoping for a quiet child while we're standing in front of a three year old throwing a temper tantrum, the dissonance will cause us grief. And it is the dissonance that hurts us. It isn't the tantrum. Have you ever observed a tantrum by someone else's child and, after feeling sorry for the parent, went on about your day like nothing happened?  That's possible because the event is not where the stress lies. It's the context, it's your perspective, that causes you pain. My goal when working with children has always been to enjoy working with children while I'm doing it. The same goes for parenting. I have no interest in simply enduring the pains of fatherhood so that I can look back at how "rewarding" it all was in the future. I'm planning on loving it all today.

Stress-light* parenting requires a realistic parenting perspective. What does that look like? First, there's a focus on what a parent can actually control. Second, any thoughts about the future will cover all possible situations, not just the easy ones. Expanding on number two, those thoughts about the future are used to prepare you for the coming day, not to daydream about how you hope things will go. How does that work? I'll run a scenario in reverse.

Mission: Spend eight hours at Disneyland with a five year old.

2. Spend no time thinking about the magical experience my child will have and the hours we will spend together in my old age reminiscing about this, the best of days. Instead, spend a moment in the morning expecting the LA traffic, the long lines, possible tired child breakdowns, etc...

1. Remind myself to focus on what I control, which is my mental world. What am I going to do when traffic grinds to a halt? Be a great parent. How? By helping my child enjoy the trip, if possible, and by not yelling about turning-the-car-around-right-now if she understandably finds the ride intolerable. Long lines? Be the best parent I can be. Break downs? Be the best parent I can be. I'm working to be proud of my actions as a parent at all times and to find peace in the fact that I am honestly doing my best for myself and my child.

Another Epictetus thought, "Seek not for events to happen as you wish but wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly and serenely." Life is not simple. Events go sideways. If we invest our energy in wishing for the day to go smoothly, we're going to stress when it doesn't. If we place our energy behind our response to life as it happens, we'll be the best person we can be. Does this sound too simplistic? It probably is. Still, I've found that, with consistent effort, it works. I hope it's helpful for you as well.

*A 24/7 perfect Stoic would be stress-free, but I'm just shooting for minimal stress in this life.