How To Teach Your Children About Stoicism

The ancients believed that character is fate. That what we are taught when we are young, the lessons we absorb into our DNA, in effect, determines what kind of people we are going to be. 

You believe that too. Or you wouldn’t be so worried about your kids. The reason you send them to the right schools, why you spend so much time with them, why you analyze and monitor their behavior so closely today is because you know it influences who they will be tomorrow. 

It’s not a surprise then that one of the most common questions we get is: How should I teach my child about Stoicism? How can we get our children interested in an ancient school of philosophy? How can we get them to see the value in applying the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and Cato? How can we develop good character so that all will be well? You’ve experienced the benefit of this philosophy. You’ve learned how to reframe obstacles as opportunities. You’ve learned how to ignore what other people do—their lying, cheating and stealing—and focus only on what you do. You’ve learned from Marcus how to let go of the dips and valleys of life “with indifference” and accept success “without arrogance.” In short, you’ve learned how to live a good life. And you want to give your children the same experience, only even earlier than you found it. 

Thankfully the ancients have some helpful advice for parents. Here are X ways to help teach your children about Stoicism:

[1] Start With This Critical Lesson

What use does a five year old have for the concept of philosophy. They don’t need to know the name, the dates or even the names of any of the practitioners. Not only are these things confusing, they are inessential.

If I was trying to explain Stoicism to a five year old, I would simply try to convey the most essential piece of wisdom contained inside this robust, complex topic.*

I’d tell them: “Look, you don’t control what happens to you in life, you only control how you respond.”

What do you mean?, they’ll likely ask.

Here’s what we mean: remember when your friend was mean to you last week? That wasn’t nice of them, but there also wasn’t anything you could do about it. If someone wants to be mean, they’re going to be mean. But after they were mean, you had a choice. Remember? You got to decide whether you were going to be mean back, whether you were going to hit them, whether you were going to run to the teacher and tell on them, or whether you were going to just keep playing and forget about it. I know that seems really simple, but it isn’t. That situation—when someone does something bad to you and you have to decide how to respond —well, that’s life. Adults struggle with it. Even your parents don’t always get it right. Even thousands of years ago the Emperor of Rome, a guy named Marcus Aurelius, he struggled with that too.

But the better we can get at it, the happier we’ll be and the more fun we’ll have and the less sad we’ll be. You have that power! You can be as powerful at that king was and as powerful as soldiers and heroes and big strong adults are. Why? Because you get to choose how you respond to everything. If you can learn that now and embrace it, you’ll have the best life ever and no one will ever be able to boss you around. Because you’ll be the boss. The boss of your thoughts, feelings and decisions.

[2] Review These Four Virtues

Ok, we’ve taught them the most fundamental lesson of Stoicism: we have no control over what happens to us—we only control how we respond. This, Epictetus says, is our “most efficacious gift,” what distinguishes humans from other animals, the essence of human nature. He calls it the “faculty of choice”—an ability to act rationally, not impulsively, after careful deliberation and assessment.

But how do we know what to choose? How do we evaluate our choices? We shouldn’t just choose to do whatever feels natural. Or whatever is easiest. Or whatever everyone else is doing. Thankfully, Stoicism helps us here as well 

As Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“Don’t be bounced around, but submit every impulse to the claims of justice, and protect your clear conviction in every appearance.”

Every day we’re tested by impulses of all kinds and faced with these choices. “Think before you act” is a good place to start. But think about what? Marcus would say to start with the four Stoic virtues: Moderation. Wisdom. Courage. Justice. These are what Marcus referred to as his “epithets”—the words he lived by, the words that guided every choice he made. “If you maintain your claim to these epithets,” Marcus said. “Without caring if others apply them to you or not—you’ll become a new person, living a new life… Set sail, then, with this handful of epithets to guide you.”

As we weigh a choice in response to some event or some opportunity, those are the standards we want to look at. We want to submit our potential actions to the claims of justice. Is this right? Is this fair? What if everyone else acted as I’m about to act? How would that work out for the world? We want to ask if we’re behaving in moderation, if we are being wise, if we are doing the courageous or the cowardly thing. 

So teach your kids the four stoic virtues. Return to them frequently. Encourage them to remember the “epithets” they can always fall back on: Moderation. Wisdom. Courage. Justice.

[3] Read Them The Great Books

One of the advantages of the ancient world was that they didn’t have so many silly children’s books or young adult novels. All they had were what we now call “the classics.” So kids weren’t just reading silly books about dragons or purple novels about vampires. They were reading and learning from the greatest poets and authors who ever lived—whose books talk about the big issues. 

Xenophon, a Greek writer who would go on to be a general and a student of Socrates, recounts a pretty incredible fact about his childhood—incredible for how unremarkable it was for its time.  “My father was anxious to see me develop into a good man,” he wrote, “and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorize all of Homer; and so even now I can repeat the whole Iliad and the Odyssey by heart.”

Can you imagine your kids doing that? The fact that you can’t is related to why they can. Your kids will rise to your level of expectations–or at least be improved by trying. Probably not. Do is at least expose them to these classic texts. Don’t wait for their school to do it—because they won’t (they probably won’t even show them the movie either). 

In our interview with cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist Donald Robertson about his remarkable book on Marcus Aurelius, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor—in which Robertson artfully weaves in his insight as a working psychotherapist into how the fascinating development of Marcus as a person over the course of his life applies to us today—we asked what inspired that unique approach:

“My daughter. I’ve been telling stories about Greek mythology since she was around three or four years old.  (She’s seven now.) The other kids at school talk about their favourite superhero being Batman or Spiderman. Poppy says her favourite hero is Hercules. Eventually I ran out of stories about mythology and found myself telling her stories about Greek and Roman philosophy…In the ancient world, philosophy was taught through lectures and discussions, and communicated in written lectures, letters, and dialogues like those of Plato and Aristotle. However, philosophy was also handed down in the form of anecdotes like these, which even a child can learn from. Many of those stories survive today, particularly in a book called The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius.”  

Don’t expect kids to find a passion for it on their own, because video games and social media are way easier and more gratifying. You have to teach them. You have to make them excited. Read them stories about the lives of the greats. Read them the great books. The best way to teach your kids about the Stoics is to have them read the actual Stoics!

Here are a few recommendations to get them started:

[*] Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Make sure you pick up the Gregory Hays translation from Modern Library. It is the most accessible edition—completely devoid of any “thou’s” and “shalls”. 

[*] Ryan Holiday’s one hundred lessons from Marcus Aurelius and this lecture series on YouTube provide fantastic starting points to Marcus.

[*]Letters from a Stoicby Seneca. As Seneca quipped to a friend, “I don’t care about the author if the line is good.” That is the ethos of practical philosophy—it doesn’t matter from whom or from when it came from, what matters if it helps you in your life, if only for a second. Reading Seneca will do that. The Penguin translation is fantastic.

[*] You can show your kids this video on YouTube from Alain de Botton and his journey to Rome and what Seneca can teach us about mastering our anger.

[*] The Daily Stoic. Featuring all-new translations from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, as well as lesser-known Stoics like Zeno, Cleanthes, and Musonius Rufus, we wanted this book to be easy to understand, even for someone who has zero familiarity with Stoicism. 

[*] Daily Stoic Instagram: Every day, we share the best quotes from the Stoics. Read them to your kids. Discuss what they mean. Imagine situations where the advice in the quote could be applied to their lives.

[*] Daily Stoic Podcast: Every weekday morning, we publish an audio companion to our popular daily emails. Listen with your children in the car on the way to school, or on an afternoon walk, or on the way home from practice, or at the dinner table after everyone’s done eating. 

[*] Daily Stoic YouTube: Every parent has their own philosophy when it comes to screen time, and there are arguments to be made for letting them watch TV and stream videos, and arguments against it. But the fact is, kids love videos. And most, if not all, kids learn best visually. YouTube can be a powerful medium for education.

[4] Learn With Them

Seneca was a father, though we don’t know much, if anything, about his son. We know he was a wonderful uncle, and that he struggled valiantly as a tutor to reign in the impulses of Nero. And we know he was a brilliant father to Lucilius, the recipient of Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic—which serves as a great example for us parents: You don’t have to conduct lectures like Epictetus to be a teacher. Seneca’s teaching came in the form of sharing what he was learning.

When you’re chauffeuring them around, when you’re together around the dinner table, when you’re sitting in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment—these are all opportunities to share what you are learning. I was reading the private journal of the Roman Emperor. You’ll never believe what I learned:

Talk to them about how obstacles can be opportunities

Talk to them about how we have the power to determine what events mean—that it’s not the events which upset us but our judgments about them). 

Talk to them about the dichotomy of control (as Epictetus said, our first task in life is to determine what is up to us and what isn’t)

Talk to them about the power of memento mori and amor fati.

Talk to them about the four Stoic virtues

Talk to them about the fascinating and shockingly modern political dilemmas of Seneca  

Seneca wrote in a letter to Lucilius, “I’m talking to you as if I were lying in the same hospital ward.” (Which is to say, we’re all stuck with the same sickness). Your kids should not think that you’re perfect–they should be shown that you’re trying to improve yourself just as they are. They should be shown that you guys are actually on the same team. He’d later said, “People learn as they teach.” 

Scientists, inspired by Seneca’s wisdom, have dubbed this The Protégé Effect. Don’t lecture them. Learn with them. Read with them. Listen to podcasts and videos with them. 

[5] Surround Them With Teachers

It’s a scene we all remember from our childhoods. Our parents had a dinner party. Or all the relatives came over for a holiday meal. The kids are put at the “kid table.” Or, after everyone had eaten, the kids were sent away. To go downstairs and watch a movie. To put on their pajamas and go to bed. It was “time for the grown ups to talk” and we weren’t allowed to be a part of it. 

Of course, when we become parents, we instinctively repeat this pattern ourselves. Now that we’re the grownups, we’re sending our own kids away so we can talk. It makes sense—not everything is appropriate for kids to hear. It feels good to connect with someone our age and at our level sometimes. 

But this is a missed opportunity. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography about his childhood and just how much he benefited from being included in the “grownup” conversation: 

“I remember well his being frequently visited by leading people…At his table he liked to have, as often as he could, some sensible friend or neighbor to converse with and always took care to start some ingenious or useful topic for discourse, which might tend to improve the minds of his children. By this means he turned our attention to what was good, just, and prudent in the conduct of life.” 

Seneca’s father selected Attalus the Stoic to tutor his boy. The most powerful lesson that Seneca learned from Attalus was on the desire to improve practically, in the real world. The purpose of studying philosophy, Seneca learned from his beloved instructor, was to “take away with him some one good thing every day: he should return home a sounder man, or on the way to becoming sounder.” That’s timeless advice that every kid could comprehend and put into practice. 

Marcus Aurelius dedicates the entire first chapter of Meditations to his “Debts and Lessons”—seventeen entries reflecting upon what he has learned from various influential individuals in his life. We meet Marcus through his human origins—his parents, his grandparents, his great grandparents, his, his adopted father, and his tutors. Junius Rusticus, Herodes Atticus, Fronto, Cinna Catulus were all selected by Marcus’ adopted father Antoninus Pius to tutor the young boy. In the final entry of that chapter, Marcus thanks “The Gods” for all “the people who brought me up.” “I was shown clearly and often,” Marcus continues, “what it would be like to live.” 

And of course there’s Cato, who even in his own times, it had become a common expression, “We can’t all be Cato’s.” But where did Cato learn to be Cato? Like Seneca and Marcus Aurlius, his father brought in outside help. A man named Sarpedon, who found the young obedient and diligent, but thought “he was sluggish of comprehension and slow.” He was disruptive, not behaviorally. He demanded an explanation for every task and needed to hear a reason for every task that was assigned to Luckily, Sarpedon chose to encourage this commitment to logic rather than beat it out of his young charge. What if Cato didn’t have the right teacher? 

Let us follow these examples with our own children. Surround them with exceptional influences. If we want to raise grownups, there is no better education than letting them be around grown up conversation. If we want our kids to see the value in philosophy and how it can serve them in their lives, there is no better evidence than the people they look up to displaying that real world application.

[6] Practice What You Preach

Where did Marcus learn to be Marcus? Ernest Renan writes that Marcus was very much a product of his training and his tutors. But more than his teachers and even his own parents, “Marcus had a single master whom he revered above them all, and that was Antoninus.”

All his adult life, Marcus strived to be a disciple of his adopted step-father. While he lived, Marcus saw him, Renan said, as “the most beautiful model of a perfect life.” 

What were the things that Marcus learned from Antoninus? In Marcus’s own words in Meditations, he learned the importance of:

 -Compassion

-Hard work

-Persistence

-Altruism

-Self-reliance

-Cheerfulness

-Constancy to friends.

The lessons were embodied in Antoninus’s actions rather than written on some tablet or scroll. There is no better way to learn than from a role model. There is no better way to judge our progress than in constant company with the person we would most like to be one day.  

In his interview with Tim Ferriss, the billionaire Charles Koch explained that the main lesson he learned from his father’s very hands-on parenting was that you can’t lecture your kids on anything you don’t live up to. You can’t tell your kids to respect others and then talk rudely to a customer service representative on the phone. You can’t tell them that it’s important to find your passion and follow it, and meanwhile work their entire childhood at a job that pays well but makes you miserable. You can’t tell them that family is important if your actions don’t show it. 

It’s not that you have to be perfect, but you do have to live up to your own standards—or actively show them what the struggle to get there looks like. Otherwise, you ought to shut your mouth. Because what you’re showing your kids is the worst lesson of all: hypocrisy. You’re showing them that the principles we claim to hold dear as a society are meaningless, that all you have to do is pay lip service to them, that no one has to actually do anything about them.

Your character forms theirs. You show them who they can be—what they should be. Be who you want them to be. They will follow your lead. Don’t lecture your kids. Live the way you want them to live. Live up to your standards, and they’ll do the same.

Additional Resources:

[*] The Daily Dad

[*]  Ask Daily Stoic Ep. I | How Do I Teach Stoicism To Kids?

[*] What Is Stoicism? A Definition & 9 Stoic Exercises To Get You Started

[*] What Is Stoicism? on YouTube

[*] 37 Wise & Life-Changing Lessons From The Ancient Stoics

[*] 28 Books On Stoicism: The (Hopefully) Ultimate Reading List

[*] Stoicism Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

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