Monday, December 11, 2006

Why I Don't Want My Kids To Be Stoics

The key to good parenting is consistency, not sending mixed messages and being able to explain foundational moral notions in a clear, unambiguous, and intuitively graspable fashion. One of the things that is most important to us to convey to our short people is the need to avoid wanton materialism. In a society in which consumption is a national pastime and kids are the targets of sophisticated marketing campaigns, it is difficult enough to get them to understand the difference between "want" and "need," but then to explain that they need not want everything they see or everything their friends have is a full-time job.

But there's an additional wrinkle that seemed to express itself in an unlikely place. One of our students was defending his senior thesis on the usefulness of Stoicism as a guide to daily life and he quoted Epictetus,

"When anything from the least thing upwards is attractive, servicable or an object of affection, remember always to say to yourself, ' What is its nature?' Only then, if you are fond of a jug will you not be disturbed if it is broken. If you kiss your child or your wife say to yourself that you are kissing a human being, for then if death strikes, you will not be disturbed."
Sure, the idea that you should think of your spouse or kids as mere things is problematic, but put that aside. What struck me was the jug part. The idea being that since things are unimportant, if your favorite jug shatters, you should not be disturbed because, after all, it was a mere material object and material objects are unimportant. If material things don't matter, then one should not worry about whether they are functional or ruined.

Here is an example of a non-materialistic worldview, and this detachment from material things does seem to follow from their unimportance; yet, it is entirely contrary to what I want to teach my kids. If they break one of their toys because they are playing with it in an inappropriate way, I don't want them to just shrug it off and say "oh well." I want them to learn that you don't treat your things like that. You need to respect the things you have and treat them properly. But why would you respect something that that is unimportant?

Similarly, we encourage creative play. For this reason, I have no problem if they have more than one little doll. There are all kinds of scenarios and creative possibilities that open up when there are enough polly pockets to interact in complex ways. Having four does open up the ability to play school in a way that one or two does not and that extra degree of freedom is desirable. But if four is better than two, why not fourteen? I know why not, but how can it be put clearly and strongly enough for a four year old to understand?