Health Team

Three questions, from Tolstoy, for mindful parenting

Posted November 16, 2017 11:34 a.m. EST

— Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" is one of literature's greatest hits. It also contains more than half a million words. I'll get to it eventually, possibly not before I retire.

But for now, as a parent, one of the more impactful writings of the great Russian author, thinker and pacifist is a 132-year-old short story of less than 1,600 words. Even if you're a slow reader like myself, it will take you only seven minutes to finish.

Don't have seven minutes? I'll summarize it for you in 300 words.

Tolstoy's "The Three Questions" is a parable of an emperor who seeks out a holy man on a mountain for answers he believes will help him be a great ruler. His questions are:

1. What is the right time to begin anything?

2. Who are the right people to listen to?

3. What is the most important thing to be doing at any given time?

The old man is too good a teacher to just tell the emperor the answers. The wisdom needs to be internalized, not given away. So while the ruler patiently waits, he helps the old man dig a garden he's struggling to start.

Hours later, they're interrupted by the distressed sounds of a third man who has been stabbed. The emperor and holy man bandage him up, saving his life. It turns out the injured man was planning to assassinate the emperor to avenge his brother's death in war. He had been waiting to attack the emperor as he came back down the mountain. Tired of waiting, the man leaves hiding, only to be ambushed and almost killed by the emperor's guards. That's when the holy man and emperor step in and save him.

In return, the assassin reconciles with the emperor. The old man's garden is completed. And the emperor gets his three answers.

"There is only one time that is important -- now!" the wise man explains, "the most necessary person is the one with whom you are," and the most important thing is to "do that person good."

If the emperor hadn't stayed to help dig the garden and then rescue the assassin, either he or his enemy would be dead.

How does this ancient (and admittedly violent) story apply to parenting?

The time you are with your children is the most important time. And they are the most important people at that time. Paying attention and trying to do them good, which usually just means giving them your full attention, is the most important thing for you to do.

Of course, simple lessons are not always simple to live. But the story is a reminder that we should strive for that kind of mindfulness in all moments, and I find it particularly helpful to apply it in the moments I have with my kids.

One very enjoyable way to remind myself is to read Jon J. Muth's version of "The Three Questions" to my daughters. The beautifully illustrated book recasts Tolstoy's tale with animal characters (and no violence). A young boy replaces the emperor and a wise turtle the holy man. The character in trouble becomes a young panda and his mother.

My daughters love the story, but every time we read it, I feel the message is more for me than them.