Seneca’s most famous job wasn’t as a playwright or a Senator. It was as a teacher. He was hired to tutor and advise the young man destined to become emperor. That would have been an incredibly tough position—not only because Nero was clearly not cut out for the job—but because preparing any young person for the real world is difficult.
So clearly Seneca spent a lot of time thinking about what makes an effective teacher and how to balance the tension between encouragement and authority, criticizing while also cheerleading. It’s a tension every father knows well. How do you impress upon them the important lessons of life—especially ones with serious consequences—while also not becoming the enemy? How do you get them to buy in and like you without being a pushover? How do you manage your own frustrations and disappointments without losing your temper?
As Seneca writes:
“Which teacher is more worthy…the one who savages his students if their memory fails or their eye clumsily falters when reading, or the one who prefers to correct and teach with admonitions that bring a blush to the students’ cheeks? Show me a brutal tribune or centurion and I’ll show you one who makes soldiers desert—pardonably.”
As dads, our job is to be patient teachers. At least if we want them to keep listening, if we don’t want to be tuned out and ignored. Very little is taught effectively by force. Things learned resentfully rarely stick and no student—or son or daughter—who is made to feel small will enjoy their schooling.
You of all people see what they are capable of. You know how smart they are. How hard they can work when they want to. What potential they have in this life. Let that be what you use to inspire them, not shame or anger. Not harsh words or harsh punishments. If you were the student—and you were one not that long ago—what would you prefer?