5 Steps to Mindful Parenting

As the parent of three (if I do say so myself) fabulous children ages 15, 12, and 10, I sometimes stand back in wonderment at how these individuals came to be such well adjusted, happy people.

I think the feeling of  gratitude especially hits me when I hear of the tragic lives other children live.  In my other life, I’m a special education teacher. I witness how precious young lives are changed forever by unconscious parenting.  I also hear the tragic stories of young people at my son’s high school who turn to drugs and alcohol to fill the holes they feel.

When I think of how my husband and I have chosen to raise our children, the best way to describe our style is mindful parenting.  Even before our children were born we’d spend hours discussing our views on parenting and raising children.  It was always our desire to help guide them, but never to mold them into our vision of the perfect child.  It’s always been important for us to help them uncover their inner genius or their own life’s purpose.  We’ve allowed them to explore interests and if something doesn’t resonate with them we’ve allowed them to move on.

What is mindful parenting?  Jon Kabat-Zinn, co-author of  Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting suggests:

“Parenting through mindfulness has the potential to penetrate past surface appearances and behaviors and allow us to see our children as they truly are, so we can act with some degree of wisdom and compassion. The more we are able to keep in mind the intrinsic wholeness and beauty of our children – especially when it’s difficult to see – the more our ability to be mindful deepens.

So,  here are my 5 steps to Mindful Parenting:

1.  Listen.  No, I mean really listen to them.  As I say to my class  at school, “Give me five!”  Five meaning:  listen with your eyes, your ears, your heart, with your hands free, and mouth closed.  This is so hard in a busy mom’s (and dad’s)  life!  Make it a point to really give your kids “five” everyday.  We all  just want to feel heard.  When we feel that we are heard, we feel validated and worthy as  human beings.  What message are we sending our children if we are so busy on facebook or our iphones that we nod politely and say a lot of “uh-huh, that’s nice sweetie” while they are telling us about their day?  What chance do we have that they will really listen to us when we have something important to say?

2.  Observe.  Mindful parenting requires us to be present enough on a day to day basis to notice small changes in behavior in our children.  When my oldest gets short fused and smart-mouthed, I know something is going on in his life.  If I were not present and mindful, I might just punish him for being disrespectful or belligerent. But that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.  When I observe this behavior shift from his usual happy self to a place of anger, I approach him instead with love and concern, then give him some space to let what I’ve said settle in.  Each and every time, within a short amount of time, he comes to me, apologizes for his behavior and tells me what is going on.  We then have a dialogue about what he may be dealing with at the time as I help him come to his own resolution with the issue.

3.  Be Firm with your Expectations.  Mindful parenting does not mean anything goes.  I am not suggesting that you don’t have rules.  On the contrary, I think it is important to have boundaries and rules within a family.  It is very confusing for young people to not have boundaries and rules.  I think that is why some of my students love school and hate when summer vacation comes; they desperately and innately need boundaries.   This provides a safe environment to grow and learn.  It is also important that family rules and subsequent consequences are clear and spelled out.  Nothing confuses a child more than inconsistency or surprises.

4.  It’s okay to express emotions.  Years ago I attended a Kirtan led by Krishna Das.  He told a story of his “adopted” family in India that he came to think of as his own.  He said one of the most  startling, but beautiful things he witnessed early on in this family was how they’d yell like crazy, vent at one another, and have truly knock down drag out arguments.  The beauty came after the conflict when they’d come back together, hug one another, discuss it, then move forward. No one was chastised for losing his or her cool, or for crying, or for feeling any of their feelings.   That story has always stuck with me.  How many times have we heard a parent (you may have even caught yourself)  say, “Stop crying!”  “You are too old to cry.” “Don’t raise your voice.” or “Don’t act like such a baby!”  etc….?  The harm in all of these messages is that we are in essence saying to our children, “The way you are expressing your emotions is WRONG”  or worse yet they hear us say “The feeling that you are feeling  itself is WRONG!”  So what do they learn to do?  Stuff their feelings so deep down, it can take years as adults to uncover them.  My children have witnessed me yell, cry, and totally lose it.  And I’ve seen them do the same.  We accept that these are just feelings and feelings pass.

5. Love your children as individuals.  As a parent of a soccer player, I have witnessed many a parent living via their children.  If their child makes a mistake, they take it personally.  If their child is a superstar, they take it even more personally!  So many children play a sport, play an instrument, or get straight A’s only because they don’t want to disappoint their parents.  The longer a child lives to please a  parent, the harder it will be to discover their own life’s passion as they grow and mature. I’m not saying that all children excelling at sports or music or academics are only doing so to please a parent!  There are many children who are intrinsically motivated to do well and excel at what they love.  I believe it is our role as parents to help them find out what it is that they love.  It is important to provide an environment of love, support, and compassion so that children will feel safe to venture out and try new things knowing that if they fall flat on their face, they’ll have the safety of home to come back to.

Mindfulness takes practice.  If you are new to the practice of mindfulness, be patient with yourself.  Start with baby steps.  Set an intention at the beginning of each day to practice being truly present for small, do-able increments throughout the day.  Keep a journal to document your progress.  Most importantly, don’t take it too seriously!  Have fun with it and include your children in on your new habits!

Namaste,

Lisa