• How can we teach our kids some Stoic philosophy?

    Panel from Verissimus graphic novel, copyright Donald J. Robertson

    Stoicism has exploded in popularity over the past couple of decades. One of the questions I’m now asked most frequently, by teachers and parents, is whether there are any good resources available to help kids learn about Stoic philosophy. The answer is YES, although you may need helping finding them.

    You can demonstrate Stoic philosophy in action quite easily by using what psychologists call the “thinking aloud” technique…

    Basic Lessons

    There are many aspects of Stoicism that you could discuss with children but it makes sense to start by focusing on some basic principles. You can demonstrate Stoic philosophy in action quite easily by using what psychologists call the “thinking aloud” technique. This is a form of “cognitive modeling” which lets you show your children how you, the parent, might use simple Stoic ideas to guide your own decisions. For example:

    • Some things are up to us and others are not, which you can demonstrate simply by asking of some challenging event “What aspects are up to me?” or “What can and can’t I control about this situation?”
    • It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them, which you can model by asking “How might other people view this situation differently?” or “What would be a better way of looking at this whole thing?”

    The Stoics taught that it’s better to lead by example than through books and lectures, although there’s a place for both. Kids can’t read your mind, though, so the “thinking aloud” technique can be a useful way to provide a window on your thought processes. That lets you model a healthy way of tackling a problem, which you’d like your kids to gradually learn. This should be done as naturally as possible, of course, so demonstrating a little bit at a time, over a long period, perhaps works best if you’re a parent or teacher.

    Stoic Books for Teens

    Reading books can also help, of course. I began teaching my daughter about Greek philosophy, including Stoicism, when she was about five years old. Young children will probably find it difficult to pick up one of the classic texts on Stoicism and just start reading. However, certain older teens, depending on their ability and interests, might have no problem reading the more accessible texts.

    Most adults begin by reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Make sure you get a modern translation, though. Most of the cheap or free editions are public domain translations, which are very old now, e.g., from the Victorian era. Good modern translations are available by Gregory Hays, Robin Hard, and Robin Waterfield, which teens will find easier to read. Sharon Lebell’s The Art of Living is a paraphrase of the Discourses of Epictetus in plain English, which is quite easy to read. Don’t forget about audiobooks! Most of these books are available in audio format, which can be more appealing to some teenagers.

    Stoic Books for Younger Children

    First of all, I introduced my daughter to Greek philosophy by first teaching her about Greek mythology. She loves the Percy Jackson movies, and those books are also very popular with teens. There are lots of great kids’ books available on Greek mythology. Poppy particularly liked the Early Myths series by Simon Spence. Her favorite Greek legends are about Hercules and she’s heard them hundreds of times!

    Aesop’s Fables are also very popular with young children, and many have moral and philosophical messages. For example, Marcus Aurelius actually mentions Aesop’s fable of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, and Seneca seems to allude to the fable of The Farmer and the Viper. As for books more focused on Greek philosophy, the classicist M.D. Usher has written two beautifully illustrated children’s books on Diogenes the Cynic (called Diogenes) and Socrates (called Wise Guy), which my daughter loved reading with me.

    Socrates and the Cynics were important precursors of Stoicism. If you’re looking for something even more Stoic, though, Ryan Holiday has an illustrated children’s book about Marcus Aurelius called The Boy Who Would be King. This is a lovely book with beautiful artwork. I think it’s suitable even for very young children, especially if they read it with an adult. It’s a short story about the moral lessons Marcus Aurelius learned as a child from his Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus.

    Cover of The Boy who Would be King by Ryan Holiday

    For very young children, there’s also the Little Stoics series by Jason Valenstein.

    Stoic Reading for Parents

    As we discussed earlier, though, kids don’t just learn Stoicism from books. The best way to teach them is by modelling Stoic attitudes and behaviors yourself, as their parent. Brittany Polat has an excellent book called Tranquillity Parenting, which draws upon Stoicism to provide “timeless truths for becoming a calm, happy, engaged parent.” Brittany also runs a Facebook group called Stoic Parents, where you can discuss parenting and find other resources for teaching Stoicism to kids.

    Excerpt from webcomic about Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism, copyright Donald J. Robertson

    Stoic Comics and Graphic Novels

    A few years ago, I created a series of three short webcomics about Marcus Aurelius. Each one is based on one of Aesop’s Fables. They’re meant for adults, but can be read even by younger children. That eventually led to me writing Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, our graphic novel about the Stoicism, with artwork by award-winning Portuguese illustrator Zé Nuno Fraga. This is meant for adults. I think it might be too violent, or too philosophical, for some younger children. However, I think most teenagers would enjoy reading it. The comic book format seems to serve as a great introduction to philosophy.

    cover of Verissimus graphic novel, by Donald J. Robertson

    As soon as we started talking about the graphic novel, we were flooded with requests from parents and teachers who wanted to know if it would be suitable for kids. So we created a short PDF handbook called A Guide to Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism, which could be downloaded and used by anyone. It’s intended to be helpful as a teaching aid, but can be read simply as an introduction to Stoicism.

    What Next?

    It’s Father’s Day here, in the US, as I write this article, and I’m about to call my daughter, who’s in Canada. I’ll ask her advice about teaching Stoicism to kids. One of the most helpful things I’ve learned, as a parent, is that it can be helpful just to talk to my daughter about emotions and the best way to cope with them. Of course, when someone is upset, that can be difficult. So either do it in advance, anticipating future challenges, or wait until a crisis has passed, and everyone has calmed down. “What do you think would be a better way of dealing with that if it happens again?”, is often a good question.

    I’d love to hear about your strategies, though, and let me know of any other good resources you’ve found for teaching kids about Stoicism, or Greek philosophy in general. Please post your comments and I’ll try to update the article with anything important you think I may have missed.

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