You love your kids more than anything. You think they’re God’s gift (which they are, to you!).
You want them to know how you feel about them, and you feel bad when they feel bad about themselves. These are all perfectly healthy and laudable feelings.
At the same time, we have to make sure we’re not puffing up their ego with our endless praise and our very natural bias towards their virtues and blindness to their vices. Seneca knew this balance was not easy—it isn’t for any parent. It’s hard for grandparents and uncles too. But if our goal is to raise well-adjusted, self-aware kids, we’ll have to work for it. Even if our instinct is to rush over and tell them they’re the greatest, most special-est little kiddo there ever was.
As Seneca writes in his essay, Of Anger, this requires speaking honestly—with kindness—and holding them accountable for their actions. Even if that pains us. He explains:
Flattery, then, must be kept well out of the way of children. Let a child hear the truth, and sometimes fear it: let him always reverence it. Let him rise in the presence of his elders. Let him obtain nothing by flying into a passion: let him be given when he is quiet what was refused him when he cried for it: let him behold, but not make use of his father’s wealth: let him be reproved for what he does wrong. It will be advantageous to furnish boys with even-tempered teachers and paedagogi: what is soft and unformed clings to what is near, and takes its shape: the habits of young men reproduce those of their nurses and paedagogi.
Seneca knew what he was talking about because he saw Nero’s mother do the opposite. She indulged his every whim. She cleared every obstacle out of his path. She made him think he was infallible and invincible. By the time she brought in an even-tempered teacher like Seneca around to be a good influence, it was too late. She had ruined her son. And he in turn ruined himself and nearly ruined Rome.