This article is the first in a series of articles about mindful parenting. Stay tuned for more to come!
Mindful parenting is a practice; it is an awareness of our connection to our children, our environment, and to ourselves as individuals – a practice that will result in a more peaceful, grounded and fulfilling existence. As mindful parents we are better equipped to cultivate an environment for healthy child development. Healthy development here refers to a child who grows into the body she was born with – regardless of genetic and environmental influences that may interfere with “perfect health” – with a strong sense of self, capability and identity. In order for a child to thrive in her present existence she must feel safe and capable. Enabling her to make choices that nurture her mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health is a great gift.
Parents come in many forms; birth parents, adopted parents, foster parents, siblings, grandparents, friends and so on. The emotional, financial, spiritual or physical climate at home will often dictate the level of stress and therefore the level of connection and awareness. In other words, the more stress in the environment the more patience and practice the mindful parent will need. The “health” of the home and the parent will usually determine how naturally this practice will come.
Parenthood is one of the most difficult jobs – as you know, it can wear your down and blur your vision – obscure your view of the happenings inside your body, mind, as well as the world around you. It is easy to get lost, and is therefore critical that you find ways to rebuild and conserve energy so that you can navigate through life with joy as you immerse yourself into parenthood.
My goal is to remind you of ways to celebrate in everyday life.
Simple things like a five-minute dance party with music that YOU love while getting ready for school or work, throwing on a fun hat or a bright color when you go out, telling your kids a silly joke as you say good bye, or taking a bath with your babes. My personal favorite way to celebrate with people I love is to sit at the table and eat together. At our house when we sit for dinner we tell “a thorn and a rose” which means to tell each other one bad thing and one good thing that happened in our day. Remember to find ways to honor and celebrate your hard work and your relationship with your children.
In my practice, some of the most burnt out and sick patients are parents. Typically these people are mothers – being the milkmaid and the ultimate hostess can, after all, take a toll. Increasingly, men are taking a beating as well; as more men are staying home with the kids and are sharing the responsibilities of homemaker they are realizing the magnitude of the job. Regardless, the sleeplessness, constant changing, feeding, inconsolable crying, body fluids, scheduling, staying out after curfew, puberty, sex, drugs…it can all seem overwhelming at times.
Many of us want to run away. Instead, try and celebrate. Pay attention, lean in, be clear and present – be unwavering. Children generally crave two things, love and boundaries. Take these overwhelming, crazy, confusing situations and turn them into opportunities to nurture yourself and satisfy their craving. Specifically, tell your children when a behavior is unacceptable and create a consequence, walk away and collect yourself for a moment, say no, ask for help, and so on. Parents are often too tired, afraid, consumed, or distracted to enforce a discipline and be consistent; as a result children get mixed messages. It is difficult for children to learn when the instructions are ambiguous and always changing. Try a little less multitasking, focus in on the situation, collect energy and decide how to handle the struggles.
For example, lets say your two year old asks for something sweet while grocery shopping, you say no, and they begin to throw a temper tantrum. What do you do? You still have more things on your list, your kid is trying to exert some power, and you don’t want to cave. Step one; offer an alternative, “How about some fruit or nothing?” They still get to choose but they do not get a sweet (because you already said no). If that doesn’t help and she is still crying, she needs to be told that her behavior is inappropriate and that she needs to turn it around or you are leaving. Put an end to the negotiation as quickly as possible — you are in charge. If you have to, leave.
By responding the same way every time she will learn that it is not okay to freak out when she doesn’t get her way. Eventually, the behavior will change. When you give in to her request to quiet her she will work that angle for months, or even years to come. Be unwavering and you will ultimately be more efficient and able to make more time for you — imagine that.
Learning to celebrate during the most difficult times is not only rewarding, it positively impacts your child’s development. Another way to celebrate is to embrace your struggles as they are. Try to avoid blaming the source, criticizing yourself or losing hope. Stay with what is right in front of you. Humans waste so much time and energy being angry and afraid during struggles.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t be emotional. I am saying that even when you are really struggling, if you pause, you can see the problem for what it is, recognize the emotional response, and then channel your energy toward solutions or maybe even just seeing how the problem unfolds. So often struggles are out of our control, so try to make room to let them simply pass. Celebrate your power by steering clear of the blame game and facing the fear. You may even find humor — especially during the little ridiculous times like traffic jams and mouthy road rage.
You can also celebrate by modeling humility. Your children see you navigate through life day in and day out and eventually, they see you struggle. It is then that our children learn about difficult times, emotionality, problem solving and coping mechanisms. Sometimes you freak out and other times you gracefully juggle the problems; regardless of your response, pay attention.
Where is the joy in those moments? I believe it is in the resolution and the acknowledgment; and in the bigger picture it is in the food you prepare, the bedtime stories, the interactions with each other, the color of your sweater, or the time you took for yourself for just five minutes to regroup, to breathe. These tiny offerings are little parties. They may not seem like much individually and may not even be noticed during a temper tantrum, a headache, danger or sickness. However, the reflection of the cumulative will be beautiful and is something to celebrate.
Our children begin absorbing information from the moment of conception. They are collecting data from every person the meet, food they taste, television shows they watch, Internet waves they surf and trees they climb. In the early stages of life — conception through young childhood (5-8 years) — most of their choices are made for them (such as food, water, shelter, adventure, media exposure, social influences, spirituality). As they grow older they begin to develop into what is sometimes referred to as the “memory stage.”
Children begin to form memories, morals, values and opinions – especially opinions of themselves. They begin to make choices and express themselves based on early experiences and choices as well as from his or her constitutional make up (their hard wired personalities).
What we caregivers hope for is that our children will learn, from those experiences, the qualities that Arlen Harder refers to as “the highest qualities of the human spirit — such as honesty, kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, courage, beauty and integrity.” The best we can do is demonstrate those “highest qualities.”
We can also do our best to provide a safe and loving physical, mental and emotional environment for a kid to be themselves — a place where they can feel safe expressing their feelings, making mistakes, taking risks, sharing ideas and expressing love. Because we cannot possibly control, or would want to control, every experience and exposure, we must teach them to be media savvy. We must sit with our children and discuss what they are watching, reading, and listening to, not so we can take it away or criticize it but so that we can have a provocative discussion. Again, we must strive to provide a safe place where our children can be themselves.
Now take a deep breath and redirect. I have an exercise: recognize that when we pay attention, I mean really pay attention; we are fully aware of our surroundings and present in the moment. Now lean into the experience, like on a cliff against a strong wind. Teetering on the edge with trust. At this point we are most courageous and connected to the experience, we have nothing to learn, only our own inner wisdom to draw on for guidance.
In this courageous and grounded place we are able to clearly and conscientiously care for ourselves, guide and care for our children, and contribute to our community, simply because we are clear. Free from distractions, fears, insecurity, burden AND responsibility. It is the place of truth, love and ability.
Now you have visualization, a meditation if you will, to guide you through your daily rigmarole. Take a deep breath and jump into the moment with your entirety.
Over the next several months, I will be presenting a series of articles that can be used as a leaping point for becoming a more mindful parent. These articles are not step-by-step, how to guides – you already have all that you need to be a mindful parent, so trust yourself.
Treat the ideas as a pallette that you can paint your own masterpiece from. Not only will you become more engaged with your child, you will be a model for your child that you can be truly proud of, and you will have a good time doing it (mostly). I firmly believe that our experiences guide our development. Let us grow.
The colors on the pallette are those of nutrition, communication, movement, intimacy, play and choice. The canvas is modeling. In other words, we caregivers are going to model our goals, morals and values, for ourselves and for our children. The colors mentioned above are a metaphor for the foundation of healthy growth and development.
Ideas for modeling:
Nutrition: my practice as a physician has been built heavily on my passion for nourishing and TASTY food. Primarily because I love to eat, I love gardens, I love knowing where food comes from and I LOVE food as medicine.
The number one thing I hear from patients is that they do not have time to eat well. I want to debunk that belief by saying, if something is important to you, then you make time. If it is merely a necessity, then you have to plan ahead and work it into your schedule, so that its just part of the routine. I feel that nutrition is BOTH important and necessary.
Simple things you can do to make nutrition mindful and manageable:
•Shop the perimeter of the grocery store to ensure that you are eating whole food (and saving money).
•Shop with your children and let them eat in the store, start in the produce section. Teach them early and expect appropriate behavior. Treat it as a privilege. Enjoy the praise from other shoppers as your babes request tomatoes, string beans, and cucumbers.
•Build menus with your kids, let them choose and discuss their favorite foods. If all they mention is junky food, search for a recipe that offers a healthy version of that food. For example, homemade pizza is cheap, easy, delicious, and can be loaded with lovely ingredients. Pizza is also easily modified to meet the needs of a special diet. Try not to criticize their choice, simply model the joy and nourishment of that food.
•Continue to try new flavors, discuss cultures and ways of life associated with food. Try a new veggie, fruit, recipe or spice every week.
•Remember, set boundaries and encourage choice by making foods they like and offering something new and nutritious. One rule that we have at our table is “eat one bite of everything and all of one thing”.
•Eat as a family as often as possible. At least one meal a day!
Remember, you are the provider, not a short order cook, and your job is to offer healthy food. Like bamboo, be strong AND be flexible. There will always be days where you don’t have it together, go with that. Make breakfast for dinner, order in and have a picnic, let them cook with your help — your kids will love it! You can make excellent choices while still being flexible.
Communication – listen, express, reflect, absorb, engage, and think. Try to harness your reactions and acknowledge theirs. Discuss inappropriate responses regardless of who made them. Ask questions. Express love, gratitude and appreciation.
Play – be joyful, have fun, relax, let loose, be silly, imagine and create. Let you children guide you – THEY are the experts. Open your heart and remember what it means to play. Turn off the TV, video games, and computers and engage in age-appropriate play. It can be as simple as singing a song to your toddler and as involved as an official game night. Channel in to the age of your child.
Intimacy – self-esteem, love, courage, awareness, consideration and personal space. A healthy relationship with your body, your childrens’ bodies and intimacy is a core requirement for healthy sexual development. If you are insecure or anxious about the subject, begin to explore ways of freeing yourself from those fears. Whether you read books, seek out a counselor or a support group, become the expert — have your children learn about their bodies and sex from you, not their teachers or other grownups — they can be a second opinion. If you want your children to come to you with their problems you need to show them that you can actually speak to the subject knowledgeably, compassionately and with open ears.
Movement – daily breathing, stretching and sweating. A strong, healthy body will always set a great example!
Choice – responsibility, integrity, power. As parents, we need to be able to go with the flow, let go of some of the control, let the children guide us at times — especially with play, movement, intimacy and sometimes choice. In many situations it is their job to choose and our job to provide the choices.
Regardless of the behavior that we are modeling, we must remember that our kids are watching. Therefore, we must practice what we preach. A singing teacher once told me, “Don’t be afraid to sing to your children even if you can’t sing. If you want your kids to sing, you sing, if you want your kids to read, you read.” Her words have always stuck with me.
One of the hardest parts of modeling is when you do something that you are not proud of, like yelling, cursing, gossiping or judging. In my opinion, this is where it gets good — the thing I love about being a jerk is how I deal with it. It is what I say to my children, friends, husband and co-workers in response to myself that really matters – that is where the magic happens. Remember to be real and transparent.
Simply put, demonstrate to your kids that everyone makes mistakes. How you handle and learn from them is what’s important. Exemplify that it is okay to admit when you are wrong, be willing to laugh at your behavior and be willing to apologize. Demonstrate humility and self-love at every opportunity.
Mindful parenting is hard work, is ever changing, and incredibly rewarding.
The ultimate goal of mindful parenting is to have a more satisfying parenting experience, allowing for a strong sense of self and a well-developed child. Many parents are working very hard to do right by their children and as a result, the parents suffer, which can actually be harmful to the children in the long run. Always strive for a healthy balance of self-care and child-care.
With this in mind and in practice, parents are better equipped to join the community with their children and make a difference in the world.
Image courtesy Greg Livaudais