Need to know
It is the question I am most often asked at the playground when other parents find out I am a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy: ‘Does Chinese philosophy influence your parenting?’ It’s a fun question to answer, because becoming a parent led me to look very differently at the texts I translate and teach. Chinese philosophy contains light and shade, and while some elements are undoubtedly patriarchal and authoritarian, and deserve to be left in the past, there remain many lessons that are useful, accessible and timely when applied to the challenges of parenting. In fact, I find that they guide and challenge me as a mother on a daily basis, but in ways that depart dramatically from what my culture and society tells me. And that’s what makes them so helpful.
Parenting is tough, especially because there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach. Different kids need different things, and we need different things as families. How do we stay focused on what matters most? How do we navigate difficult times with our kids and support them when they struggle? How do we prioritise the many demands on our time and on our children’s time?
All of us want our children to be successful, partly because we love them and want them to be happy. But it is easy to mistakenly equate ‘success’ with certain kinds of academic or athletic achievements, and, in turn, with how prestigious your college and chosen career are, or with your earning power. Of course, one can define success in this way; these are widely and uncritically accepted as indicators of success in our society today. But ancient Chinese philosophers believed that real success is not measured by prestige, fame, money or power. A successful life – a life well lived – is one in which a person flourishes: they are happy, fulfilled, and find meaning in what they do and who they are. This type of fulfilment, they argue, comes not from participating in the ‘right’ activities, attending prestigious schools or having earning power. Rather, it comes from loving and being loved by others within the context of meaningful, lasting relationships; understanding the way in which your own identity is bound up with the lives of those who have gone before you; giving generously of what you have to others; caring for and having a genuine love of nature; and finding your true vocation – no matter how humble it might be.
Indeed, Chinese philosophers advocate for us to recognise a much wider range of vocations, gifts and abilities (including different kinds of intelligence) than we do – and they urge us to avoid privileging certain kinds of achievements over others. They describe actual people who are happy and fulfilled, and note that they live many different kinds of lives and do many different things – often things that don’t bring wealth or prestige – but things that make them happy and their lives fulfilling.
Most of us know that having an Ivy League degree and a prestigious, high-paying job is not going to make our children happy and fulfilled in life. Yet we worry about how they will find things they love to do and that they are good at. We worry about how hard it is to get into college, and whether our children will be able to have the material comforts they want. And we find ourselves in a fast-paced society that urges us to pursue certain kinds of activities, achievements and competitions, including prestige and money, as avenues to happiness. But what are the sources of happiness and fulfilment that we should be seeking for our children? What do people who lead happy, fulfilled lives have in common, and what will it look like if we pursue those things in our parenting, for our children and for ourselves?
Philosophers from the two most influential ancient Chinese traditions – Confucianism and Daoism – talk more about human flourishing, virtue, happiness and fulfilment than about ‘success’. They understood flourishing in moral terms: those who are happy, fulfilled and who have truly realised their potential are those who have most fully cultivated virtues such as humaneness and compassion, and who have found their true calling or vocation in life. Chinese philosophers argued that we genuinely flourish – are happiest and most fulfilled – when we develop these virtues. This can never be measured in terms such as earning power, prestigious schools or jobs. Instead, it is measured in how we treat people – how one loves and is loved by one’s family and friends – and in what one does to make the world a kinder, gentler, more humane and beautiful place. While they encourage us to help our children learn more about the world around them, this does not mean they should be academic overachievers. Learning should make us wiser and better able to serve others. As the Confucian Analects says: ‘Learning is a waste if you don’t reflect on the larger meaning and significance of what you learn.’
The teachings of the most well-known and beloved philosophers from the Confucian and Daoist traditions date to the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. They lived in a difficult time in Chinese society – a time of growing political instability, which eventually erupted into warfare and violence – but they disagreed on the source of the problem and how to fix it. The Confucians and Daoists were a little like yin and yang: Confucians have a lot of active, hands-on ways to help children grow, such as participating in rituals and traditions, while the Daoists recommend simpler activities, such as exploring and savouring the beauty of nature. Their diverse views on living a good life are precisely what makes Chinese philosophy such a great resource for parents. Parenting is messy. It is not simple or straightforward but complex and difficult. There are no magic solutions that make things easy or smooth. Most of us will need to piece together different approaches in order to find something that works well and feels right in different situations, for different children, and at different times in a child’s life. Here are a few of the suggestions that ancient Chinese philosophers have for us.
What to do
Create and practise rituals
Confucian philosophers insist that rituals – including all kinds of simple practices such as writing thank-you notes, saying a prayer before a meal, or listing three things you are grateful for before going to bed at night – can help us to become better people, as well as happier people. Rituals are one of the primary ways in which virtues such as gratitude, kindness, compassion and generosity grow and develop. When we take the time to write a thank-you note, for example, it doesn’t just express our gratitude to someone (thereby strengthening a relationship) – it also deepens our gratitude for what we have.
Rituals connect us to others, creating and sustaining meaningful relationships in families and communities. But Confucius once remarked: ‘If you are not fully present at a ritual, it is as if you haven’t done the ritual at all.’ When done regularly and intentionally, rituals of all kinds can shape our children’s character and, little by little, help them to become kind, compassionate and grateful people who are able to have meaningful, lasting relationships with others. Confucian philosophers encourage us to be reflective about the rituals that we practise; Confucius advocated a return to some traditional rituals and a departure from others. He practised the traditional ritual of pausing before each meal and setting aside a small portion of his food in remembrance of his ancestors, not just as an offering to their spirits (which he believed continued to dwell in this world) but also as a way to remember where he came from and who he was, every day.
Since we live in a culture with relatively few daily rituals, think about what rituals your family needs – starting with the virtues you’d like to cultivate in your children and in yourself – and work to create them. Daily rituals (meditation, prayer, walks, expressions of gratitude) are just as important as annual rituals such as those we observe at birthdays and holidays. Be prepared to treat your rituals as sacred, protecting those activities and the time it takes to do them, and to be fully present at them – in mind, body and spirit.
Daoist philosophers have a message for any parent who has ever felt like their child doesn’t fit in or measure up: remember that your child’s flourishing is unique, so don’t be afraid to deviate from what everyone else does, whether that means encouraging different kinds of activities, or considering culinary school instead of a four-year college. Although individuality and creativity are hallmarks of American culture, we still tend to conform uncritically to what those around us are doing. We also uncritically privilege certain paths (activities, careers, etc) over others. Consider the road less travelled for your child, even if it is different from your path.
The admirable individuals whom ancient Daoist philosophers give as examples possess an exceptionally diverse array of talents, skills and abilities. They are not sages or scholars, who were widely admired in ancient China; they are skilled artisans, carpenters, cooks and butchers – professions that were not widely celebrated. Describing their remarkable abilities (and the joy they take in their work), Daoist philosophers challenge our understanding of intelligence and skill, pointing to forms of intelligence that are not measured by test scores. The 4th-century BCE philosopher Zhuangzi describes a woodcarver who prepares to create the beautiful carvings everyone admires: first, he meditates to clear his mind of all thoughts of money, fame and other distractions. Then, he goes out into the forest and looks at the ‘Heavenly nature’ of trees, until he sees the shape of what he will carve. He says that he is simply following nature when he does this work, or ‘matching up Heaven with Heaven’.
In such passages, Daoist philosophers emphasise the joy, fulfilment and deeper meaning that can be found in doing work you seem destined to do – a view that resonates with Confucian philosophers who insisted that enjoying learning is more important than how much (or how quickly) you learn.
Don’t be too quick to sacrifice yourself
Remember that your wellbeing is as important as your child’s wellbeing, and the two really aren’t distinct spheres. Confucian philosophers always maintained that parents and children are much more deeply interconnected with each other than we tend to realise. As parents, this is easy to forget: we sometimes focus too narrowly on our children’s needs and opportunities while neglecting our own needs. When making decisions about activities and schedules, consider how difficult it will be for you to manage transporting your children and attending practices and events, because that will affect your child and your relationship with your child. Everyone else might be hosting huge birthday parties, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for you to do. Confucius tells us: ‘When it comes to ritual, it is better to be spare than extravagant’ – not only because it helps us pay more attention to what we are celebrating and why, but also because such occasions should be joyful and life-affirming, as opposed to draining (emotionally, physically and financially).
Remember, too, that fostering relationships with friends and neighbours is key, both for your child and for you. The most well-known parenting story in Chinese philosophy is about the 4th-century BCE philosopher Mengzi (Mencius), whose mother moved three times – first living near a graveyard, then a marketplace, and finally next to a school – in order to surround her young son with the right influences. While this is partly a story about parental sacrifice, it is also about how it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps especially because she was a single parent, Mengzi’s mother understood that having good neighbours and friends around was important – not just for her son’s development, but for her own wellbeing, too.
This is one reason why Confucian philosophers urge us to carve out more time for rituals with friends and family; Daoist philosophers, meanwhile, recommend we give our children more free time to spend outdoors. Studies of happiness and flourishing suggest that they were both right: regular, mindful practices such as rituals, relationships and time spent outdoors are all key.
Avoid the tendency to think you can or should try to expose your child to every activity on the market to help them find something they enjoy or are good at. When it comes to your child’s flourishing, having a loving relationship with a healthy parent (who has not been run ragged) and others who love and care about them is far more important than a list of activities. The Confucian Analects tells us that loving, respectful and supportive relationships are the root of all of the virtues.
Look for the gifts in imperfections and challenges
One of the most difficult things about parenting is that, no matter how much you do for your child, they will experience pain, rejection and failure. There will be many things that you cannot fix. They will not always have the greatest teachers, coaches or friends. They will not always have the perfect home life (whatever that might be). They will face challenges – perhaps extraordinary ones, such as those that come with serious illnesses, disabilities or being different from others in any number of ways. Ancient Daoist philosophers urge us not to deny or minimise those challenges, but to look for the gifts that accompany them, and work at savouring them.
Among their examples of lives well lived are profoundly disabled people who cannot do the things most others do, but who see the world more clearly as a result of their limitations and struggles. One of them is an amputee who is admired for his keen perspective on life: ‘Someone like that must have a special way of thinking … He looks at the way things are done and does not see what they’re missing. He looks at losing a foot like shaking off dust.’ The classical Chinese term for ‘special’ in this passage also means ‘one-footed’: to be special or unique might mean you are missing something that others have. But differences often give us a clearer perspective on what really matters.
Daoist philosophers do not deny the reality of the difficulties or the pain, but they believe that profound gifts often accompany – and are sometimes disguised as – misfortune. They also recognised that it is better for us to look for and focus on the good things that come from the challenges and imperfections in ourselves and our lives, than to live in a state of grief, regret and bitterness, wishing things were different. Modelling this for our children might be the most important thing we can do, next to loving them for who they are. Life comes with joy and pain, and our ability to flourish rests in part on our ability to find rays of light in the dark.
Key points – How Chinese philosophy can help you parent
- Recognise a wider range of vocations and don’t privilege ‘success’. Chinese philosophers argue that our primary focus as parents ought to be helping our children to become happy, fulfilled people, as opposed to helping them to become over-achievers in areas that happen to be prized by our culture and society. We should be aware of the natural tendency to gravitate toward things that will bring prestige and wealth, because pursuing those things is not the same thing as pursuing a happy, fulfilling and meaningful life (even though many people equate them, or assume that one leads to the other).
- Cultivate the virtues that help your children genuinely flourish. Chinese philosophers urge us to prioritise cultivating moral virtues such as compassion, kindness, generosity, gratitude and resilience in our children (as opposed to simply particular skill sets, talents or aptitudes) since virtues help us to lead happier, more fulfilled lives, in part by enabling us to build and sustain meaningful, loving relationships with others – no matter what we do or where we find ourselves in life.
- Create and practise rituals. Rituals are important, and our culture lacks them, which means that we need to make an effort to revive, create and recreate them if we want to enjoy their benefits. Having and practising rituals is a great way of expressing and cultivating virtues, and building and sustaining relationships – which are a primary source of happiness and fulfilment in life. Both daily and annual rituals are opportunities to help your children become more thoughtful, generous and grateful for what they have.
- Resist conformity. Be actively countercultural in figuring out what is best for your family and your children. We naturally tend to conform to what those around us are doing, whether it is signing up our kids for the same sports or hosting birthday parties at the same places. But what works for one child is not necessarily the right fit for another child. And it is important to model not being a conformist, or giving in to peer pressure, for our children. Demonstrate what it means to genuinely understand, appreciate and celebrate the differences between individuals and families, by making choices based on your family’s unique goals and desires.
- Don’t be too quick to sacrifice yourself. Remember that what’s best for your child is not wholly distinct from what’s best for you. So don’t forget to take care of your own wellbeing, and to value and rely on the support of neighbours and friends.
- Look for the gifts in imperfections and challenges. There are hidden gifts in your child’s limitations, challenges and/or disabilities. Every society and culture tends to value particular things, but this doesn’t mean that they are the things we should value. It is better for us to recognise and focus on the good things that come with our limitations and challenges than to fixate on the losses. We are teaching our children to grapple with life’s challenges in a healthier way when we do this.
Challenges, by definition, are not easy to embrace. When my two older children began taking therapeutic riding lessons to help with their disabilities, neither of them had ever been able to participate in a competition in their lives. So I was surprised when they were invited to take part in a competition for therapeutic riders at the riding centre’s annual horse show. The day of the show, when we headed to a separate arena from where all the other riders were competing, I felt a twinge of sadness. But then I watched as volunteers helped my children mount their horses alongside the other therapeutic riders, some of whom had limited use of their legs and arms, and some who were nonverbal. Seeing this group of children ride out into the arena, volunteers and instructors by their side, brought tears to my eyes. Standing there with my youngest child on my hip, I looked around at the other parents who, like me, struggled daily to help their children with the most basic tasks. As we stood there savouring the wonder of what our children were doing, I had a revelation: This is the arena I want to be in. For the first time, I felt like it was a privilege to be in the arena with children who struggle to walk, read and speak, but who have learned to ride a horse. I didn’t choose this arena – no parent would – and I will continue to shed tears over my children’s struggles, but that day I felt grateful to be in the arena of those who do not take anything for granted.
An ancient Daoist text tells the story of a big, beautiful tree whose trunk is ‘so gnarled it won’t take a chalk line, and its branches are so twisted they won’t fit a compass or square. It stands beside the road but no builder looks twice at it.’ But although all the builders pass it by – indeed, because all the builders pass it by – it is the luckiest tree in the woods: it won’t fall to any axe’s chop; it will live out its years under the sun.
In the arena that day, none of us cared where or if our children placed in a competition. We were more than satisfied by the smiles on their faces, on the faces of the instructors and volunteers who helped them week after week, and the enormous victory of what was taking place in that arena. That morning, we all remembered what mattered.
What arena do you want to be in? It is a question Chinese philosophers would have us ask ourselves every day.
Links & books
There are a number of other helpful parenting Guides published right here, on Psyche. While they don’t specifically focus on lessons for parents today from the teachings of Chinese philosophers, they do implicitly endorse many of the same philosophic principles. For example, Tom Boyce’s Guide ‘How to Nurture an Orchid Child’ (2020) offers advice on supporting more sensitive children to flourish in their own individual way; Judith Locke’s Guide ‘How to Raise a Resilient Child’ (2020) focuses on the benefits of teaching children to be responsible, resourceful and respectful; and Bonnie Harris’s Guide ‘How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids’ (2021) asks parents to question long-held beliefs and assumptions about children and, instead of reacting, pause to respond calmly to their behaviour.
Back specifically to Chinese philosophy, and the article ‘Can Harvard’s Most Popular Professor (and Confucius) Radically Change Your Life?’ (2017) by Tim Dowling in The Guardian examines what is the third most-popular class at Harvard University and why its subject matter is so relevant to our lives.
Another article, this time in The New York Times – ‘Was This Ancient Taoist the First Philosopher of Disability?’ (2020) by John Altmann and Bryan W Van Norden – explores early Daoist insights into disability.
And the article ‘You Didn’t Get into Harvard, So What?’ (2015) by Michael Roth in The Washington Post takes an honest look at the motives (especially the concern with prestige and wealth) that drive college admissions and today’s parenting culture.
Finally, the article ‘Do You Have Family Rituals?’ (2020) by Erin Walsh offers helpful suggestions and ideas for parents who are interested in adding rituals to their children’s lives.
My own book Little Sprouts and the Dao of Parenting: Ancient Chinese Philosophy and the Art of Raising Mindful, Resilient, and Compassionate Kids (2020) offers detailed chapters on what Chinese philosophical texts have to say in relation to a wide range of issues facing today’s parents, including those discussed in this Guide.