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.

Stoic Saturday: You Get What You Pay For

Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don't be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing. 
Epictetus' Handbook Ch 25

I was in line to order food a few days ago when I saw a man ahead of me let two friends into the already long queue. This annoyed the patrons around me, though no one said anything directly to the culprits. I wasn't thrown off, partly because of stoicism and partly due to the fact that the first guy could have just ordered for the other two and the situation would have been the same, or so I thought. When the three amigos made it to the front of the line; one, they each paid separately, and two, the new additions weren't even ready to order! So they wasted our time by splitting up and compounded it by being under-prepared. Jerks*, right? Absolutely. They were selfish jerks, but I didn't have to be one too.

If you want the perks that come to line cutting jerks, you have to be a line cutting jerk. That's the deal. What's more, my fellow patrons choose to pay a price by acting affronted by the actions of others. Even though I'm casually tossing around the term jerk, I honestly wasn't invested in the situation. I was enjoying the evening and I continued to enjoy it after the fact. 

Stoicism is an, "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country," type of philosophy. We're not supposed to build up expectations concerning the world. Instead, we expect things from ourselves. We attempt to take in the world as it presents itself and do our best with what comes our way. As such people, you'd think Stoics wouldn't need the scolding that Epictetus lays out. But no, we do. Here's the last half of the chapter: 

For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another, then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don't imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited to such a person's entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don't like to praise; the not bearing with his behavior at coming in.

First, I love that the translator uses "blockhead." Man, I hope that's close to the original word in Greek. Anyway, you can see that the students Epictetus addresses are expecting certain things from the world. What's more, these expectations aren't even based in cause and effect. Some Stoic kid is saying no to his pal Galen's free gladiatorial fight tickets because attending would be un-stoic and then that kid feels slighted because Galen didn't invite him to a killer birthday bash. Blockhead!

The example Epictetus uses is a step beyond my line-cutter scenario. While I was in line under the "protection" of queuing convention, I might be excused for expecting people to honor those rules. However, if I want to win a game, but I'm not even playing it, I am truly acting ridiculously. Worse yet, I'm standing around acting like I lost something when I haven't. I've kept the time and energy I would have expended playing the game.

Life confronts us with a series of trade-offs. It's important to go forward knowing where you are trying to go. If I want to stay content, I have to give up my right to indignation. If I want to stand apart from some particular crowd, I can't complain when I don't receive their attention. I have to recognize what I already have in the moment and decide if it's worth trading away. If Stoicism is making an impact, I'll find that consumer goods, social standing, or honorifics, become less and less valuable. I'll seek, instead, the contentment found in a well lived life. The things that truly lead to the good life can't be taken away from me, so they're a sound investment.

 *Jerk is not actually a category of human being in Stoic philosophy unless, I suppose, I were to apply it to my own behavior. Still, it can be fun to call someone that from time to time. What can I say, I'm not a sage.