Parenting is all about discipline. It’s about being strict and firm and unrelenting.
Not with your kids, to be clear. That’s being a disciplinarian.
When I say parenting is all about discipline, I’m talking about the only form that matters: self-discipline.
There is a story about one of those legendary Beat parties in the early 1960s. Allen Ginsberg was hosting. Jack Kerouac was there holding court. There were drugs and ideas and romance. There was effortless cool and artistic genius on display. The kind of thing a young artist would dream of being invited to, and once in attendance, never wanted to leave.
Then all of a sudden a twenty-something poet named Diane di Prima got up to do just that, heading out right as things were getting started. The babysitter was waiting, she explained sheepishly.
“Unless you forget about your babysitter,” Keroauc said to her in front of everyone, echoing the famous belief that the stroller in the hallway was the death knell of creativity, “you’re never going to be a writer.” Yet di Prima, not interested in being lectured to by a deadbeat father in the midst of drinking himself to death, left anyway.
“She believed she wouldn’t have been a writer if she’d stayed. To write and come home on time, she argued, required ‘the same discipline throughout’: a practice of keeping her word,” Julie Phillips writes about di Prima in her fascinating book on creatives and parenting, The Baby on the Fire Escape.
Before my two boys, now 4 and 6, were born, a writer gave me similar advice, much more succinctly. “Work, family, scene,” he said. “Pick two.”
You cannot have it all. You have to choose.
These choices take discipline. . . constantly.
In fact, hanging on the wall next to my desk, between two pictures of my kids, is a little sign that just says “NO.” It’s a reminder: when I say no—to a request to get coffee, to the offer to go speak somewhere across the country, to appear on the podcast (it’s always podcasts)—I am saying yes to the two most important people in the world to me. I’m saying yes to a moment in their childhood that won’t exist ever again. And the opposite is also sadly true: when I say yes—especially to things in the evening or things that involve getting on airplanes, I am by definition saying no to them, to the people I claim to put first.
The tragedy is that we all know this on some intellectual and emotional level. But it doesn’t make it easy.
There are invites in my inbox right now that I know I should pass on, but the best I can bring myself to do is ignore them and hope the silence will take care of it for me. It’s a certainty that at some point in the future I will undoubtedly be willing to trade anything for one more minute with my kids, yet here in the moment, they’re fighting against other people who are asking me if they can “pick my brain.”
Love, I’ve heard it said, is best spelled T-I-M-E. So yes, we love our families, but who do we give our time to? Them? Or random impositions? And how much of it do we waste—out of a lack of self-control, out of insecurity?
One of my favorite bits from the comedian Tom Segura is the one where he says that since becoming a parent, he’s decided he has no time for arguing. Like most comedians, he’d always been opinionated, a conversational brawler, even with strangers. But not anymore. If he expresses an opinion to someone and they say, “I disagree,” he immediately changes his position and agrees with them—whatever it takes to avoid a pointless argument. To some this might sound weak, but actually it’s a strength that parents have to muster. His time, his energy, his patience belong to someone else. And nowhere, he says, is this truer than with his own parents—whose bait he now refuses to take.
I think about this when arguing with my own children. Is this actually something I need to be right about? Am I so insecure that I have to one-up a six-year-old? Do I really need to make him accept defeat in this discussion about whether dragons exist? “If you say so” is a magic phrase. So is “Sure, suit yourself.” My favorite is “Alright,” because it is. It’s alright if you let this go. It’s alright if they think that. It’s alright if they want to do it their way.
But man, it’ll test you. I sometimes look at the Twitter feeds of very important and busy people—people who I know have babies at home or teenagers in high school—and I wonder what they’re doing. Forget all the companies he runs, Elon Musk has 9 kids, ages 1 to 18, and he’s got time to tweet 30 times a day? He’s seeking out culture war issues to get sucked into?
“Things are not asking to be judged by you,” Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations. “Remember, you always have the power to have no opinion,” he says. That’s not just a philosopher and an emperor talking, it’s a man with a wife of 30 years and 14 children. He knew that the only way to make it through was to shut up. To let it go. Ignore it. Focus his energy where it had real impact, on his own behavior and his own choices.
So much of good parenting, like discipline itself, is about restraint—and you’ll find that the further upstream you go, the better you’ll be at it. The person who doesn’t fill up their pantry with junk food is less likely to grab it as a midnight snack. Deleting the app means you’ll spend less time on it. Setting up hard and fast rules means you don’t have to think about the decision. Hiring an assistant means some of the stress never even gets to you. Avoiding the provocation means you already won the argument.
These decisions help us be the person and the parent we aspire to be.
For instance, when I look back on a day that didn’t go well in our house—where tempers were lost, where things went sideways, when I wasn’t present enough, where we didn’t eat well or spent too much time on screens—they tend to all have one thing in common: I screwed up my morning. If I sleep well, wake up early, and get some exercise in, if I don’t get immediately sucked into my phone or some work issue that can wait, if I spend a few minutes with my journal, then it really doesn’t matter if the rest of the day blows up. I will have the capacity to deal with it. I can be what they need.
Yet again, discipline.
The other thing my wife, Samantha, and I are working on is just doing less. That was the word we set out as our intention for 2023: less. Less commitments. Less drama. Less busyness. Less screen time. Just less.
Part of the reason I want less is so I have room for more. More stillness. More presence.
The other day my family of four went into town for a children’s birthday party, and when we wrapped up, we decided to head down the street for dinner. It was going to be tight with bedtimes coming up, but it might be fun? Then we caught ourselves: less means trying to squeeze less stuff in. Discipline meant heading home, being content with the fun and relaxed day we’d already had. Especially when there were already signs of fatigue and the exhaustion of personal reservoirs. Discipline meant being fair to the kids, setting them (and us) up for success by not overdoing it, not trying to see how many straws the camel’s back can hold.
It’s easy to focus on the disciplinarian side of being a parent: These are the rules*. Listen to me.* In reality, we have so much less control than we think. What we truly have control over is ourselves, our choices, our decisions.
The most basic premise of Stoicism is the “dichotomy of control,” knowing what’s up to us and what isn’t. In fact, Epictetus, one of the great Stoic philosophers, would say that this is the chief task of the philosopher:coming to terms with what you have control over and what you don’t.
As the Stoics say, first you decide what you want to be. Then you need the discipline to make that happen.