Ancient advice from Epictetus for students and parents: want what you can, not just what you want (setting realistic expectations)

All students are aspirational: they want to do well in school and for their parents. But when they fall off from expectations, the excuses and resistance begin.

Managing a teen student is complicated enough! Now you have to deal with enforcing rules, upping the oversight, and staying on top of a resistant child. Communication breaks off, and things get, well, unhappy.

At the A+ Club, we help students do better in school by engaging them in reflection, problem solving and goal setting — and following up week to week, along with assignments and grades oversight and direct tutoring when needed.

Our system helps students identify what is possible and feel empowered to get there. When kids don’t know what to do or can’t see past the next step, it’s usually because their expectations aren’t aligned with their realities.

Do not “require a fig in winter”

– Epictetus

When we adults say, “I want to lose weight” it’s as vague and meaningless — and counter-productive — as when a student starts a new quarter after low grades with, “I’m going to get straight A’s.”

Maybe. But  the more likely purpose of that goal is that it sounds good and that the wish dismisses the problem simply by saying it.

Epictetus, a 1st Century BC Greek “Stoic,” believed that self-control of “choice” and “volition” lay behind individual integrity, accountability, and happiness.

His simple advice not to “require a fig in winter” speaks to the heart of self-improvement: ask the possible.

First say to yourself what you would be;
and then do what you have to do.”

– Epictetus

The reason that our A+ Club short-term goal-setting works so powerfully is that it forces reasonable expectations and builds accountability to them.  If a student tells our teacher, “I want to get straight As,” we say, “That’s nice. Now, what’s the first step towards those good grades?”

Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and thence proceed to greater.

– Epictetus

When parents come to us, it’s often at that point where communication has broken down and both student and parent are taking extreme positions about grades and school. We have heard students claim they’re “too dumb” for school and parents that their child ” just doesn’t care.”

Those are platitudes and mean nothing other than “I don’t know what to do” and NOT  that “I can’t do it.”

As I have discussed in overcoming procrastination, the first step towards defeating it is precisely that first step, no matter how small. We start by talking about it – reflection, then we add the next little steps, such as identifying assignments and due dates, breaking them into bite-sized pieces, and setting goals to get started on them.

Figs Grow in the Spring

For the best harvest, fig trees need tending in the winter and early spring, with pruning and soil replenishment. So our short-term goal is not to get figs but to prune the fig tree.

When your child faces a barrier, it only becomes taller if we demand it be fixed now. By focusing on the outcome — fix your grades! — we parents are adding to the problem, not helping it.

Instead, identify the little things that can be accomplished realistically. These may include daily lists, setting aside work time, and giving a little help.  Kids need to see what’s possible.

Starting is always more possible than finishing, so focus on getting started as opposed to getting it done. If tended to little by little, those figs will come.


We parents must add accountability to it, of course. But think of it as “scaffolding self-accountability” instead of imposing external demands.

Here’s the difference: a demand looks like punishment, whereas scaffolded self-accountability looks like an inherent consequence. Try it out:

Demand: Get your homework done or else you’re grounded for the weekend!
Scaffolded Self-Accountability: What are you goals, and what should be the consequence if you don’t meet them?

When kids set their own goals, they are more likely to own the consequences of not meeting them — so long as those goals are reasonable and possible.

Keep it Reasonable & Keep it Coming

The cool thing about little steps is that they are realistic, and, once kids start taking them, the larger steps that before seemed impossible are now possible.

Kids love nothing more than to feel successful and to share that pride with their parents. We create that feeling of success little by little, and before you know it, those grades truly are looking better.

– Michael

More from Epictetus (see wikiquotes):

“No thing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”

“When you have shut your doors, and darkened your room, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; but God is within, and your genius is within, — and what need have they of light to see what you are doing?”

“Whatever you would make habitual, practice it; and if you would not make a thing habitual, do not practice it, but habituate yourself to something else.”