Stoicism for children or someone to listen?

Stoicism for children or someone to listen? 150 150 Jane Evans

According to the Oxford Dictionary ‘stoical’ means,

‘Enduring pain and hardship without showing one’s feelings or complaining.’

I question the benefits of this when it comes to building and maintaining children’s mental health.

In a recent blog by Joe Kirby a Deputy Head Teacher at the Michaela Community School he gave examples of ancient ‘stoical philosophy’ from around two thousand years ago saying that it is widely used in the Michaela School. Kirby said,

“We in schools can use their insights on the mind, on adversity and on practice to help our students shape their thought patterns.”

Why feelings are there to be felt

Children’s bodies and brains are continually developing and they naturally lack life experience, therefore they make mistakes. Often these mistakes will be repeated until they learn a different way to react, respond and think which means re-wiring their brains and regulating their emotions and nervous system. For this to happen in an optimum way children need to feel their emotions at the time of any mistake, situation or relationship challenge.

What would you want for your child?

If your child was struggling would you prefer the adults around them to:

  1. Encourage them to look for the positives in it
  2. Suck it up and change their thinking about it
  3. Pause and pay attention to their feelings first and foremost
  4. Help them identify theirs and others feelings and come up with ways to try to learn from it

At Michaela Community School there seems to be a deeply ingrained ethos of whatever happens, don’t make a fuss and get beyond it as soon as possible. Be stoical.

Teachers can………..

  • Guide pupils to change their perceptions so that they complain, blame and resent less, and instead keep perspective, stay grateful and are happy.

Pragmatic and practical

I’m not convinced of the lasting mental health benefits of a philosophy which seems to be based upon:

  • Change how you think
  • Focus on positives
  • Get on with it

The problem with a ‘stoical philosophy’:

  • Humans are mostly emotional and relational beings
  • Children need to have all of their feelings acknowledged and validated
  • Prizing happy feelings and attitudes teaches children to hide other feelings
  • Minimising feelings doesn’t make them disappear
  • Good mental health is based on emotional intelligence and access to supportive, unconditional relationships.

Does stoicism build resilience?

Those of the ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘look on the bright-side’ persuasion will say that challenges and overcoming them build resilience. There is no proof of this. What is known is that children and adults do better when they have people around who care about them and ‘have their backs.’ Someone to respectfully acknowledge all feelings, thoughts and plans and offer a moment, or two, to fully connect with these rather than moving swiftly on to ‘being happy’.

Resilience can be accessed when a child has emotional and physical safety with adults who enable them to meet challenges, and get beyond them whilst being able to feel all of their feelings. I am not convinced that stoicism allows for this?

At a time when the numbers of children struggling to keep mentally well are rising, it seems irresponsible to advocate for more rationality rather than for a clear focus on the understanding of emotions. When children get a clear message feelings just are……they come, they go, we all have them and that’s fine, then they can relax and get on with friendships, learning and having fun .


Join me in Bristol on June 9th from 12 – 2 p.m. for a unique screening of the award-winning and ground breaking documentary on Resilience. Based upon the work of Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris and the ACE Study it is essential viewing for all those interested in improving the lives of children, young people and those who care for them.

Jane Evans

Jane is a ‘learn the hard way’ person. She has learnt from her personal experiences and her direct work with people who have often been in really bad places emotionally, relationally, practically and sometimes professionally.

All stories by: Jane Evans
  • Paul moss

    Nice timely post Jane. Whilst some of the things that Joe mentioned resonated with me, being able to identify with the frustration of seemingly minor things getting the better of my students, it also didn’t sit well realising that essentially the stoic model eventually promotes an apathetic student who, if adhering to the stoic principles consistently, becomes intolerant to observing others not being able to cope. Kind of turns everybody into the very cold almost robotic like people, rather than empathetic tolerant individuals. On top of that, obviously the bottling up of emotions surely could have nothing but a negative impact on somebody in the future.

  • Paul moss

    Very timely post Jane. Whilst reading Joe’s blog resonated with me in some ways, particularly addressing my frustration at observing students not being able to cope with seemingly minor issues, I couldn’t help but feel that the final outcome of the stoic Paradyne however would result in students effectively becoming apathetic to not only their own emotional issues, but also those around them. The ultimate result then of a successful stoic culture would be rather robotic I think, and as you say, miss out on what is to be truly human: empathic, tolerant, alive.

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