Stoic Parenting: Praise the Process

There's a growing body of evidence that praising children for attributes like intelligence or athletic ability backfires as a means of promoting achievement. Well meant praise can often send a message to a child that certain aspects of their life are fixed ("I'm smart at this, but I'm dumb at that."), as pointed out in an article on the KQED MInd/Shift blog. If a child internalizes the belief that they are either naturally good at something or not, it undermines the determination that is necessary to learn, grow, and eventually master a skill. Thankfully, Stoicism offers a perspective and some exercises that complement these findings so that our own children avoid the pitfalls of such a poor perspective.

What we've shown is that when you praise someone, say, ‘You’re smart at this,’ the next time they struggle, they think they’re not. It’s really about praising the process they engage in, not how smart they are or how good they are at it, but taking on difficulty, trying many different strategies, sticking to it and achieving over time.

-Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford

Professor Dweck's research shows that praise should be directed at the process of learning, rather than focused on the outcome. Pat your child on the back for engagement with a subject. Encourage their efforts to avoid frustration as they run into, then overcome, obstacles. Remind them that failure is a part of learning and then help them devise new strategies for success. Don't simply proclaim, "you got the right answer, good job" and definitely don't say, "you're such a smart kid" and call it a day. 

Historically, Stoicism has frowned on praising people. For instance, here's Epictetus' definition of a person succeeding at Stoicism,

The marks of a proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one, says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense.

Enchiridion Chapter 48

To the ancient Stoics, praise had no utility. In book four of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius put it this way, "Everything which is in any way beautiful is beautiful in itself, and terminates in itself, not having praise as part of itself... [What] is beautiful because it is praised, or spoiled by being blamed?" Of course, in the Roman court the praises Marcus overheard were not only useless, they were manipulative. Praise was politics, meant to sway people one way or the other. Parental praise, we can hope, is at least well meant but as we've seen, praise of the wrong type can be damaging.

The Praise the Process perspective actually fits easily within the Stoic framework. In book ten of the Meditations, Aurelius makes a rare positive comment concerning praise, "...a man becomes both better, if one may say so, and more worthy of praise by making a right use of these accidents." The "accidents" Marcus mentions are the misfortunes of life. What is the Emperor willing to praise? A person's ability to make good use of circumstances. He won't congratulate you on your 'natural' intelligence, strength, or beauty, but he'll applaud your wise actions. Wisdom, for Stoics, is not a internal trait of which you have a set amount, it is the manner in which you approach the circumstances of life. Wisdom is the process of living well. It's worth praising that process.

So, outside of praising the process, what specific Stoic exercises can we parents use with our children to build some grit and determination into their perspectives? 

Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes,
Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’
From first to last review your acts and then
Reprove yourself for wretched [or cowardly] acts, but rejoice in those done well.

Epictetus' Discourses 3.10.2-3

The above quote supports a Stoic practice called the Evening (or Retrospective) Meditation. Many of us go through this process nightly before bed. I'd like to suggest bringing this meditation to the family dinner table.

The  Evening Meditation consists of reviewing three questions; What did I do today? What did I do amiss? What was left undone? The final paragraph of the KQED article says that Professor Dweck, "believes families should sit around the dinner table discussing the day’s struggles and new strategies for attacking the problem. In life no one can be perfect, and learning to view little failures as learning experiences, or opportunities to grow could be the most valuable lesson of all." As Stoic parents, we can practice this idea and grow in our philosophy while doing so. I suggest that as we gather our family around a meal, where we probably already ask, "what did you do today?" we add the questions, "What did you succeed at and struggle with today?" and "What needs to be done tomorrow?" We can share in the triumphs of our children's day. We can share our own challenges so that our children understand that struggle is to be expected. We can plan together, as a family, our strategies to overcome obstacles big and small. In doing so, we build an understanding of, and appreciation for, the process of learning in our children (and ourselves) and they will be stronger for it.

Praise matters. Children need feedback to help them understand the world around them. Research shows that how we praise others is important. Like the ancient Stoics, we can choose to praise those things that lead to wisdom and, in doing so, we will help our children thrive.


UPDATE: Ben Butina at Approximately Forever posted about similar issues, particularly how best to promote moral actions in children. Be sure to read his article as well.

Ultrasounds, Superstition, and the Bitch Named Fortune

My daughter isn't growing at a "normal" rate. My wife and I learned that fact during an ultrasound in the 19th week. This meant we had to wait a month, until May 16th, to find out if our baby's small stature was just a matter of being small or if it was a matter of true concern. The night before the most recent ultrasound I happened to read Chapter 14 of Epictetus' Handbook that begins,

It is foolish to wish that your child, your wife, and your friends should live forever, for you are wishing for things to be in your power which are not, and wishing for what belongs to others to be your own.

I was left to decide if stumbling on that line really sucked or not.

I almost stopped reading the Handbook the second I realized what chapter I was in. There was some honest superstition bubbling up in my heart. It isn't a simple task to dwell on death in the best of times. Here I was, already aware that the next day I would hold my breath until I saw the first flutter of my daughter's heart or kick of her leg, being reminded that I had zero control of the outcome. It felt like reading Epictetus' words would tempt fate. I stared at the ceiling for a moment and Seneca came to mind.

...always take full note of Fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do.

At that moment, Fortune seemed like quite the bitch. Of course, there was no plot against me, Christy, or our child. I was living out a Narrative Fallacy, pretending that chance events were meant to be lined up and viewed as the movie of my life. It felt like facing reality would bring about a tragedy. I can't say I reasoned myself through this obstacle, but I did get beyond it. I told myself that I was on the verge of practicing "The Secret" and that thought disgusted me enough to get back on track.

We attended the appointment. My daughter's heart is beating just fine, though we are far from out of the woods. The specifics of the most recent ultrasound were not a glowing report, but I was able to watch her wiggle around and that was wonderful. But now, once again, there is another month of waiting and I've found the other side of magical thinking...the desire to worry.

Worrying is useless. I don't control the future. In addition, whatever future I conjure up in my mind has no true bearing on what's to come. But it can feel wrong not to worry. Worry is an investment of energy and I want to be able to pour energy into the situation, even if it's an illusion. What's worse, not worrying can feel like not caring.

My daughter matters to me. This should go without saying but Stoicism can easily be misunderstood. Like every other community, we have a specialized vocabulary that requires a lot of context to properly understand. For instance, we call the things outside our control, indifferents. In a nutshell, nothing outside myself can affect whether I make a moral choice, so it is morally indifferent. The term radiates from the viewpoint of my individual self. That said, I am not meant to be indifferent to indifferents. Epictetus himself says I, "should not be unmoved, like a statue," but I should react as a human, ideally as the best human I can be. Still, accepting the limits of my control can feel like a betrayal to my family. Worrying for the sake of worrying feels better sometimes. It's not rational to think that way, but it's human. The thing is, it's so much easier to practice Stoicism when there are no stakes involved.

The burden of the Stoic mindset is that true Stoicism is not a cloistered philosophy. The world is wrong to believe we turn our backs on emotion. We are meant to engage fully with the world. This requires a consistent, disciplined approach to our environment that develops into a radical, as in root, change of perspective concerning what truly matters. And I do believe that putting all my energy into things I can control is the best possible course of action. So where does that leave me?

I can be a good husband; emotionally available, willing to be helpful, carrying my share of burdens. I can be a good father; preparing our home and preparing my mind and heart for the addition of an amazing daughter. I can be attentive to the things I truly control.

I suppose now is as good a time to wrap up as any, these thoughts won't end for me anytime soon. I just wanted to share what I was feeling at this moment. Sometimes we write about living and, because we're talking in general terms, our words make life sound simple. It isn't. It's a struggle. It can be a joyful struggle if done well. Still, life demands effort. That's all.

We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings.
-Keith Seddon