302 – Stoic Fatherhood: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Dads

Hello, friends. My name is Erick Cloward, and welcome to the Stoic Coffee Break. The Stoic Coffee Break is a weekly podcast where I take aspects of Stoicism and do my best to break them down to their most important points. I share my thoughts on Stoic philosophy and talk about my experiences, both my successes and my failures, and hope that you can learn something from them, all within the space of a coffee break.

This week’s episode is called Stoic Fatherhood, Timeless Wisdom for Modern Dads. Are you a father? Are you close to your father? Today I want to talk about how stoicism can help you to be a better father and to appreciate your own.

So one of the interesting things at the beginning of meditations is that Marcus Aurelius takes a bunch of time to talk about the people who had a profound influence in his life, and he gives thanks to those. and he talks about what it is that he learned from each of them. And two of the main father figures that Marcus Aurelius had were his grandfather, Verus, and one of the things that he talked about Verus was that he taught him “good character and the avoidance of bad temper.“

The other most profound influence that he had in his life was Antonius, who was his adopted father, who was the emperor before Marcus. And when Marcus was adopted by Antonius, he knew that he was going to become emperor. And so he really looked up to Antonius. Antonius was a profound influence on Marcus’s life. And throughout Meditations, he refers back to Antonius. And one of my favorite passages and probably because of my own past experience, in speaking or writing about Antonius, he said, “He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion, but decisively, with no loose ends.”

And that, to me, is incredibly high praise. And to give a little bit of why that’s so important to me. I’ve talked a lot about on this podcast about my own challenging relationship with my father. My father was a complicated man. There were many things that I appreciated and really respected about him. He was very smart. He could be very kind. He could be very funny. And he was always there for us in a lot of ways that I really appreciated.

So the other day I was riding along on my bike and I saw a little kid on a bike with training wheels and I thought about what it took for me when I learned how to ride a bike. And in my case, what happened is we were riding, we were driving somewhere and my dad saw a bike that somebody had put in the trash, just sitting on the, on the curb in our neighborhood.

And because my father grew up poor, he was not one to waste anything, and was fine when things weren’t in perfect condition. So we pulled over the car and we went and looked at the bike and the only thing that was wrong with it was that the hard plastic seat, it didn’t have a nice comfortable seat the hard plastic seat had a crack on the back and part of it had come off.

So it wasn’t the most comfortable thing to sit on, but for me, I think I was five or six at the time, six at the time, it was just fine. So we took it home. He made sure all the tires were, were fine and that it was safe and everything was tightened up. And he helped me that day to learn how to ride a bike in one day. He would stand behind me while I was on the bike, holding onto the seat and holding onto the handlebar to help me steer. And we would move along the grass in our front yard. And so that I could get comfortable with being on it. And over time, over a few hours time period, I was able, he was able to let go.

And I was able to steer the bike down the grass. It wasn’t a very big yard, but steer the bike down the grass. And then I would stop, get back, go up to the slightly higher part of the yard and then do the same thing. And we did that for hours until finally I was able to get to the point where I could balance on the bike by myself and was able to ride around the yard that we had on the grass without falling over.

And by the end of that day, I was actually out riding on the street with my older brother because my dad had taken several hours out of his day to teach me how to ride a bike. I didn’t need training wheels. He just said this is something that I think you can do and I’m going to do my best to teach you how to do it.

And like I said, I was thinking about this as I was riding home. the other day on my bike, and it really made me miss my father. And I actually teared up while I was driving, while I was riding home and, and ended up crying a little bit, just thinking about many of the great things about my father, even though there were many challenging things.

And I learned a great deal from him, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to be much more forgiving of some of the things that he did when we were younger, that he wasn’t very good about being angry. And he’d loss his temper quite often over small things, which is not something that lends itself well to have a close relationship at times, because when you feel like you can’t trust your parent, it can cause a lot of damage.

Which is why, for me, talking about fatherhood is something that’s so important. And, one of the things that I remember, when I had kids. was that my guiding principle, sadly enough, was that I didn’t want a father like my father. I didn’t want to be that kind of father. I wanted to make sure that my kids always knew they were loved, that home was a safe place for them. And I worked really hard up until even now that we can talk about anything and everything, and that they know that they are absolutely loved and cared for, and that I will do everything in my power to support them in any way that I can.

So, what can we take from Stoicism to help us to become better fathers, for those of us out there who are fathers, or who are planning on becoming fathers someday? I think the Stoics teach us a lot of very powerful lessons, and the first one is you should embrace the role of virtue. As Marcus Aurelius said in, you know, the opening quote of this, was, “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be, be one.” And that means that we should do our best to embody the virtues that we want to see in our kids, that we should be the kind of people that we want our kids to be.

We want to practice wisdom and courage and justice, meaning how we treat other people, and self discipline in our lives. And that by being a good example to our children, that they will be able to see not only the things that we think are important, but how to actually live these things. It’s oftentimes much easier to learn things by example than it is just to read them in a book.

I know for me oftentimes that when I’m struggling with something or thinking about the type of person I want to be, I think about the role models that I had in my life and think about what they did and how they acted and try to, I guess, mimic that in a way to try and become that kind of person because I think that Again, learning from example is sometimes the fastest way to learn almost anything.

The next thing that’s important for fathers, and this is something that I really worked hard on when I was a father, or I still am a father, but when I was raising my kids, was that I practiced patience and that I practiced acceptance. And this is something that, because children, when they’re growing up, aren’t just small adults who know everything, They need to learn things.

They need to struggle through things. They need to fail at things. And they’re going to make plenty of mistakes. They’re going to do things that annoy us or frustrate us. But the more that we can be patient with them and accept them for exactly who they are and not try to make them become something that we think they should be but rather help them figure out who they want to be.

I think that’s one of the most important things that we can do as parents. And as Epictetus advises us to practice patience, we should make, you know, he said, “Make the best use of what is within your power and take the rest as it happens.” Because there’s so many things in life that we don’t have control over.

And things where kids are going to make mistakes, they’re going to do things that are going to cause problems. But, again, because we don’t control our children, they’re…we need to make sure that we’re controlling ourselves, we’re living the type of life that we want to be, we’re being the type of people that we want to be, and we’re doing our best to support them in also becoming the type of people that they want to be.

The next step that we can do that I think is really helpful is we can cultivate emotional resilience. So one of the struggles that I had with my dad was that he had a pretty explosive temper. And it was often unpredictable, which was probably the hardest part. So it was really challenging at times because we would just be playing around and doing kid stuff and he would be in a bad mood about something that had absolutely nothing to do with us, but it would set him off and he’d get very angry and oftentimes he’d pull out his belt. That was the worst thing that he hit us with.

And it was pretty scary and it reached the point where we would often avoid being at home around him because we were scared of him. And I didn’t want my kids to grow up that same way. So I really worked hard when dealing with my kids to practice that kind of emotional resilience. To be calm and to be, you know, keep that even temper as best I could because as kids are growing and they’re going to make mistakes. And if we can’t learn to control ourselves, then it’s going to be much harder for them to control themselves. And we can learn about this from Seneca, where, you know, we understand that it’s our own thinking around things –

like, in this case, my father and the internal demons that he was struggling with, is “That we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” That often times the things that we think are going to happen that our kids do, you know, are going to cause all these big things. When often times at the end of the day, it really wasn’t that big of a deal and we overreacted to that.

And I’ve had a few people write me talking about how they struggle with parenting and asking for advice. And often times it’s because the parents are trying to control what their kids do, because they’re afraid that their kids are going to make mistakes or do something, you know, that’s, that’s going to end up embarrassing them. But the thing is, is that kids are kids. And what they need more than anything is to know that you are always there to support and love them.

The next thing that we can think about is that we have lots of quality time and spend time with our kids. Because life is short. As Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Make sure that when you’re with your children, that the way that you treat them is always a way that if you died today, that their last memory of you would be something that you would be proud of, that they would have this great fondness for you.

And even if it’s just something simple, it’s just, you know, sending a text to your kid saying, “Hey, I love you. I care about you. I’m proud of you.” Whatever it is, making sure that you understand that you let them know that they’re loved because time is short in our lives.

So when we look back on the Stoics, we can also see that the Stoics were good examples of how to be good parents. Marcus Aurelius had a large number of children, and unfortunately there were only a few that survived him, but he tried his best to balance everything that he was doing as emperor with being a good father. And again, because the examples that he had, who were fathers to him, with Antonius and his grandfather Verus, I’m sure he was probably a pretty good father. And we can see that he struggled with being a good person. And when you try to be a good person, then those things naturally emanate out in the way that you treat other people.

Another great example, that’s not talked much about, is Epictetus. Epictetus didn’t have any children of his own. But later in life, when he had basically retired from teaching, he took in a kid who was going to be abandoned and raised him as his own with another, with a woman. It’s never said if they were married or if they were a couple, but he recognized that he could still do good in the world. And he took on a kid that wasn’t his own and raised it just like his own. And to me, that shows that he was willing to put his philosophy into action, that he was willing to step up and take care of somebody that he didn’t need to, but he chose to.

So what are some things that we can do in our daily lives that can help us become better fathers? I think the first is to set some time each day aside for reflection, taking the time to meditate or taking time to sit down and Be thoughtful about your life and be thoughtful about your day and maybe write about your kids and write about what you’ve learned from them.

And maybe write about things that you could teach them. And talk, think about how you are being as a father. Because if you’re not taking the time to actually reflect on that, then it’s harder for you to be deliberate about the things you want to do and the things you want to accomplish as a father.

So the one kind of a funny idea is to practice premeditatio malorum, which means to the premeditation of evils. And this is to take the time to contemplate all the things that could go wrong because there are plenty of things that go wrong when you’re raising kids. There’s all kinds of chaos when you have children around, but the more that you can recognize all those chaotic situations, the more you can keep your equilibrium and your equanimity within those situations, allowing you to be a good example and a good leader and father to your children, that you don’t overreact to situations because you’ve already thought about all the horrible things that could go wrong.

And I know that’s bad sometimes to, you know, people struggle with the idea of premeditatio malorum because they think it’s depressive. But premeditatio malorum is the idea of sitting down in a safe space and just imagining, “how would you handle these situations? What are the, what’s the worst that could happen”, so that you can be composed and you can handle these situations in a calm and measured manner.

Another thing that we can do is practice gratitude. Seneca advises practicing gratitude as a way to cultivate contentment, and by taking the time to practice gratitude, voice your gratitude about life, voice your gratitude about your children, to your children, and show them how great life is. And to help them to appreciate all the things that they have in their lives. And letting them know how much you appreciate them.

I know for me, I tell my kids all the time how much I love them. And one of the things that I really appreciated about my kids is that kind of a side effect of having children was it made me a much less selfish person. And that’s something that I’m grateful for. I had to learn how to put a lot of my needs aside because I had these two children that I needed to take care of. And it wasn’t always fun, but in doing so, I learned to be more patient. I learned to be kinder to myself. And I, like I said, I also learned to be a much less selfish person, which was something that I needed in my life.

So fatherhood, when viewed through a stoic lens, becomes, like I said, a profound opportunity for personal growth and virtuous living. These are great opportunities for us to practice the four virtues. We practice wisdom when we teach our kids. We practice courage in stepping up and being a good example for our kids and helping them when they need help.

We practice justice by treating them fairly and kindly and lovingly. And we practice self discipline because sometimes we have to put our own needs aside in order to facilitate the needs of our children. And for those of you who are fathers out there, it can be tough sometimes, but leaning on the framework of Stoicism, it can give you some good guiding principles of how to be a good father, principles that you can pass on to your children, and hopefully they they will make you proud and become the type of people that we need in this world.

And that’s the end of this week’s Stoic Coffee Break. As always, be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and thanks for listening.

Just want to remind you, if you’re not following me on social media, please do so. You can find me on Instagram and threads at And you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok at StoicCoffee.

Thanks again for listening!

Visit the Stoic Coffee Break website for more episodes, transcripts, and merch.

Find out more about the Leadership Mastermind.

Find me on linkedIn, instagram, twitter, or threads.