The Best Parenting Advice I’ve Ever Gotten
In his letters, Seneca writes about the habit of finding one thing each day that makes you smarter, wiser, better. One nugget. One quote. One little prescription. One little piece of advice. And that’s how most of Seneca’s letters close: Here’s a lesson, he says. Here’s one thing.
Obviously that’s the logic behind the daily emails I write (Daily Stoic and Daily Dad) but it’s also the way I try to live. Every time I listen to a podcast or record one myself, I try to grab at least one little thing. That’s how wisdom is accumulated—piece by piece, day by day, book by book, podcast by podcast.
So today, coming now a few days after a quiet Father’s Day camping with my kids along the Llano River in Texas, I wanted to share some of the best pieces of parenting advice I’ve picked up from conversations with people on the Daily Dad podcast (which you can subscribe to here), reading, and interactions with other ordinary parents.
If you’re a parent or will be one day, these are 25 pieces of advice you will want to regularly return to:
–When your child offers you a hand to hold, take it. That’s a rule I picked up from the economist Russ Roberts. You might be tired, you might be busy, you might be on the other line—whenever they reach out, whenever they offer you a hand to hold, take the opportunity.
-There is no such thing as “quality” time. On my desk, I keep a medallion that says Tempus Fugit (”time flies”) on the front and “all time is quality time” on the back, so I think about Seinfeld’s concept of quality time vs. garbage time every day.
-This solves most problems. When you’re grouchy and frustrated and anxious and short with your spouse and your kids—you might just be hangry. In 2014, Researchers from Ohio State University found that most fights between couples are because someone is hungry. Same goes with parents and kids and between kids, I imagine.
-Just be. Before we had kids, I was in the pool with my wife. “Do you want to do laps?” I said. “Should we fill up the rafts?” “Here help me dump out the filter.” There was a bunch of that from me. “You know you can just be in the pool,” she said. Now when I’m with my kids, I remind myself, Just be here now. Just be here with them.
-Do this over dinner. Some families watch TV at dinner. Some families eat separately. Some families talk idly about their day. Dinner at the philosopher Agnes Callard’s house is different. She told me that she, her husband, and her children have philosophical debates over dinner. The topics range from serious to silly, but it’s the activity itself that really matters. It’s that for an hour or two every night, she is not doing anything but connecting with the people she loves. My kids are younger, so our dinner discussions range from silly to sillier. But again, it’s the time together that really matters.
–Routine is EVERYTHING.
–You are constantly losing them. Every parent’s deepest fear is losing their child. And the terrible, beautiful tragedy of parenthood is that, indeed, we are constantly losing our children. Day, by day, by day. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that they are constantly growing, changing, becoming someone different. On a daily, if not an hourly, basis. On the podcast, Professor Scott Galloway told me about the profound grief he felt looking at a picture of his 11-year-old, who was now a great 14-year-old. The 11-year-old, Galloway realized, was gone for good.
-A child’s life should be good, not easy. There is a famous Latin expression. Luctor et Emergo. It means “I struggle and emerge” or “wrestle with and overcome.” The gods, Seneca writes, “want us to be as good, as virtuous as possible, so assign to us a fortune that will make us struggle.” Without struggle, he says, “no one will know what you were capable of, not even yourself.”
–There’s a difference between having a kid and being a parent. In one of his Father’s Day messages as president, Barack Obama pointed out that the ability to have a kid isn’t what makes you a parent. It’s actually raising a child that makes someone a father – or a mother.
–Let them know your suitcase is packed. One of my favorite stories we’ve written about at Daily Dad is one about Jim Valvano’s dad. In high school, Valvano told his dad he was not only going to be a college basketball coach, but he was going to win a National Championship. A few days later, his dad pointed towards the corner of his bedroom, “See that suitcase?” “Yeah,” Jim said, “What’s that all about?” “I’m packed,” his dad explained. “When you play and win that National Championship I’m going to be there, my bags are already packed.” As Nils Parker pointed out on the Daily Dad podcast: The suitcase is a metaphor. It may have literally contained clothes, but it was really full of love and faith and limitless support. Valvano’s father was not making a statement about basketball. He wasn’t even telling his son that he expected him to be a great coach. What he was saying was much simpler, much more visceral. He was saying, I believe in you. He was saying, I support you. No matter what it is you want to do, or where life pulls you, I will be there for you.
-Be demanding and supportive. From Angela Duckworth: “The parenting style that is good for grit is also the parenting style good for most other things: Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive.”
-Spend money to teach values. Ron Lieber—the longtime “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times and author of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money (one of my all-time favorite titles)—told me a story about a time his three-year-old daughter asked, “Daddy, why don’t we have a summer house?” He said that she clearly had been pondering the question for some time, that she clearly had an interest in where her family stood in relation to other families, and that she clearly had a hunch that her family could have a summer house but made a decision to not have a summer house. It struck Lieber in that moment: how you spend money is a signal of what you value. “Our choices, not just our words, but our choices have meaning. They are modeling something. They model a certain form of trade-off.”
-Go the f*ck to sleep. That’s the advice of a book I love to read to my kids: Go the F*ck to Sleep! Morning routines are great but a bedtime routine is maybe more important.
-Give power to get power. Randall Stutman, leadership coach to some of Wall Street’s biggest CEOs, told me his teenage kids taught him an important lesson about power. You gotta figure out how to get people to think it’s their idea to do what you want them to do. “You gotta give up power to keep power,” he said. “You gotta give up power to maintain power.” One of the interesting things about power is that the harder you try to hold on to power, the less of it you actually have. The harder you try to force your kids to do things, the less likely they are to do those things. Whatever it is you want them to do, you gotta figure out how to get them to think it’s their idea.
-Give what you didn’t get. Josh Peck never met his dad. Thoughts about his absent father haunted him throughout his life. When he died in his 80s, Josh was 26 and for six straight years, he was haunted by the thought of never getting amends. Then at 32, Josh and his wife had their first child. “When I had my son,” he told me, “I realized that I received the amends I’d always been looking for.” How? “By being the father to him that I never felt that I got. Correcting generational trauma can be as easy as just not giving it to the next generation.”
–Let them see you loving your work. Our instinct is to find “work-life balance.” Our instinct is to take the job that can afford the best life for our kids. But what if these instincts are wrong? Paul Graham has written about how these instincts can actually do more harm than good. “If you take a boring job to give your family a high standard of living, as so many people do, you risk infecting your kids with the idea that work is boring. Maybe it would be better for kids in this one case if parents were not so unselfish. A parent who set an example of loving their work might help their kids more than an expensive house.”
-Carve out sacred time for yourself. Speaking of not being so selfless, James Clear, author of the wonderful bestseller Atomic Habits, told me that when he became a father, he carved out “two sacred hours” in the morning to do his writing. Sometimes he gets more, but never less. This idea of sacred time is important. You have to carve it out. You have to stick to it like clockwork, protect it like you would a doctor’s appointment or a big meeting. You’ll marvel at what you can accomplish in that sacred time you’ve kept all to yourself.
-You can only pick two. I asked the prolific artist and father of two, Austin Kleon, how he makes time for it all. “I don’t,” he said. “The artist’s life is about tradeoffs.” And then he added a little rule that we should all keep with us always: Work, family, scene. Pick two.
-Hang their pictures on your wall. In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a twenty-minute presidential inaugural address to the people of Ukraine. Despite being one of his country’s greatest success stories, making a fortune in the entertainment business and then holding its highest office, Zelenskyy asked not to be celebrated or held up as a model. “I really do not want my pictures in your offices, for the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait,” he said. “Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
-Everything you say “YES” is saying “NO” to something else. Related to the last two bullets, a few years ago, Dr. Jonathan Fader, an elite sports psychologist who spent nearly a decade with the New York Mets, gave me a picture of Oliver Sacks. Sacks is in his office speaking on the phone, and behind him is a large sign that just says, “NO!” I have that photo hanging on the wall in my office now. On either side of it, hang pictures of each of my sons. I can see them—all three photos—out of the corner of my eye even as I am writing this. It’s a sort of embodiment of the options Austin Kleon had laid out. I’m working. I have my two kids and my wife. I’m tapped out.
-Your living is the teaching. Socrates’ students said of their teacher that for all the genius he possessed, Plato and Aristotle and all the other sages who learned from him “derived more benefit from [his] character than [his] words.”
-Make fast transitions. Another from Randall Stutman: “Your job as a leader is to make really fast transitions…Your job is not to carry the last conversation…if that means you need to settle yourself and sit out in your car for a couple of minutes before you walk in the house so you can now be Dad, then that’s what you need to do. But your job is not to walk into that house and carry with you anything that came from before.”
-Don’t do everything for them. General H.R McMaster, a father of a millennial, told me about how he and his daughter jokingly refer to her peers as the “start-my-orange-for-me generation.” Meaning, they can’t even peel an orange without having their parents get it going first. And why is that? Because for as long as they’ve been conscious of it, their parents have been doing stuff like that, whether it was with science fair projects or arguing with teachers over their grades or funding the downpayment for a house. There are lots of reasons for this snowplow, helicopter parenting style: Narcissism, fear, insecurity, economic uncertainty and, of course, real love. But regardless of the emotion behind it, the effect is the same: It creates a kind of learned helplessness. It creates dependency. It creates resentment too—at the parents, at the world—as they face difficult problems without the necessary tools for solving them. I think Plutarch’s line about leaders applies to parents too: “A leader should do anything but not everything.”
-They do most of it. When the comedian Pete Holmes heard that Mitch Hurwitz, the creator of Arrested Development, had two daughters who were both in their twenties, he congratulated him. “You did it!,” he said, acknowledging that his friend had made it through the gauntlet, successfully raising two daughters to adulthood. But Hurwitz refused to take the compliment. “You know, they did most of it,” he joked. Which is true! While being a parent is incredibly important…we’re not nearly as important as we think we are. Our kids are doing the most of the work.
-Every situation has two handles. And as Epictetus said, we always get to choose which handle we grab. The pandemic has been hard on our family, like all others, but instead of grabbing onto that, I grab onto one of the things I’m most grateful for: the time at home it gave me with my family—all the meals together, all the time in the pool with my kids, all the bathtime and bedtimes, and all the time working on…
Last year, Daily Stoic put out The Boy Who Would Be King. I’m excited to share that we’re following it up with Epictetus’s story—from a slave to a symbol of the ability of human beings to find freedom in the darkest of circumstances—in another all-ages fable, The Girl Who Would Be Free.
I’ve probably read The Girl Who Would Be Free to my kids 50-60 times over the last year.It started out as rough notes on pieces of scrap paper, then coalesced into a narrative and then were laid out as the drawings came in from my awesome collaborator Victor Juhasz. They saw it not just evolve, but be trimmed and tightened and then ultimately made real, into this thing we can hold in our hands. I’m really proud of it and hope you check it out. It is available right now for pre-order over at dailystoic.com/girl where we are offering a bunch of exclusive bonuses and deals to everyone who orders The Girl Who Would Be Free through the Daily Stoic Store BEFORE July 8, 2022.
Anyway, I look forward to hearing what your family takes from this delightful story filled with timeless lessons.