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Mindful Parenting

Sarah van Gelder talks with Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn about how the Buddhist concept of mindfulness can help us to see the wholeness and beauty of our children in each moment.

 Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, the authors of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, were married in a Zen ceremony in which their wedding vows were to help each other “attain ‘big mind' for the sake of all beings.” Jon Kabat-Zinn is founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic. He is also the author of Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. Myla Kabat-Zinn has worked as a childbirth educator, birthing assistant, and environmental advocate. The Kabat-Zinns are the parents of three children aged 22, 18, and 14. Sarah van Gelder recently met with them to learn more about the art of mindful parenting.

SARAH: What do you mean by “mindful parenting?”

JON: Mindfulness, which lies at the heart of Buddhist meditation, means moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It's cultivated by refining our capacity to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time. It means becoming more in touch with our life as it is unfolding.

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.

SARAH: You mentioned in your book that “unconscious parenting” – dealing only with your child's surface behaviors and not looking at the feelings beneath – can have long-term consequences.

JON: In my work in the Stress Reduction Clinic, I see people all the time whose feelings were not respected when they were children. For many people, childhood was a time of betrayal, when one or both parents were out of control to some degree, raining down terror out of their own addictions, deep unhappiness, or ignorance – even when they loved their children.

One woman, whom I describe in the book, attended a five-day mindfulness retreat with me. After a meditation session, she said she felt there were pieces of her missing, as if she were “Swiss cheese.” She realized she'd given parts of herself as a child to feed her parents – who had gone into a deep, lifelong depression after her sister died – and now she felt she couldn't get them back.

This is a chilling image, but it shows that the consequences of unconscious parenting can reverberate throughout the lives of the children.

MYLA: These days we're pushing our children to be independent so early that they're really ending up being incredibly dependent. The whole cycle of addictive behaviors – of children reaching for alcohol, drugs, sex, or whatever – is a symptom of this dependency. Many young people use addictive behaviors to try to take the place of their deep need for love, nurturance, and for feeling as if they're a part of something.

SARAH: Kids, as you point out in the book, know how to push our buttons. So we may be reacting as parents in ways that are much more based on the way we were raised than on our truest values.

MYLA: Right. And half of the work of mindful parenting is being aware of those old patterns that so often rule our behavior as parents. Those patterns come from deep wounds in our past, and they don't have anything to do with what's really happening in the moment.

The wonderful gift of mindfulness is that we can stop ourselves and ask: What am I feeling? What is it like from my child's point of view? When you can do that, you often see things that you didn't let yourself see before because you were so caught up in the reactive mode, which is very limiting.

SARAH: I think the “Aha!” for me in your book was the notion that a spiritual practice isn't just something you do in isolation, or in retreat centers; it's part of parenting, which is one of the grittiest parts of life. Could you talk a little about how that works?

JON: Well, I believe that spiritual practice is about life, not about retreat from life. The real work of spiritual practice in any tradition is to come to a deep understanding about what it means to be human.

Sometimes it's wonderful to just be very, very still for long periods of time, but for most of us, that can only happen occasionally. The real meditative practice is to open up to the full range of what happens in life. And parenting is a fantastic arena for doing that kind of spiritual training. It's as much a potential door into enlightenment as anything else.

It's interesting to look at your children as live-in Zen masters who can put their finger on places where you're resistant, or thinking narrowly, in ways no one else can. You can either lose your mind and your authenticity in the process of reacting to all of that stuff, or you can use it as the perfect opportunity to grow and nourish your children by attending to what is deepest and best in them and in yourself.

We're not trying to erase conflict and send messages like, “Only harmony allowed in this family. Let's all behave like little Buddhas.” That kind of requirement imprisons the family.

SARAH: There is this image of people who have a spiritual practice as being extremely even-tempered. Particularly that a good parent is one whose emotional life – except for a vague affection – may not be expressed a lot around the children.

MYLA: Having everybody be nice all the time may mean that people don't get to be who they are. Certainly in our family, we really value authenticity. It's important to give children some latitude for trying out different behaviors. If they always have to be in a very constricted framework of what's acceptable, they don't get to explore different aspects of themselves. And they also don't feel the amazing transformational power of our acceptance.

This doesn't mean we have no restrictions – we'll say, “You can't run into the street. No, you can't hit Johnny.” We might also say, “We're having a hard time with the way you're acting, but we love you.” We're able to look beneath the surface at what's going on. Often our children have lots going on, and we don't get to see it because we're so quick to label them, judge them, and see them within just the framework of our own expectations, which can be kind of a straitjacket.

SARAH: Can you share a story that helps to capture the kind of complexity and the vulnerability that you're asking of parents?

JON: One time, a friend of ours had taken her son to visit her mother, who hadn't seen him more than two or three times in his life. The grandmother had invited one of her friends over at the same time and proceeded to ignore her nine-year-old grandson as she chatted with her friend.

Meanwhile, the child became bored and restless, and he proceeded to run around the room and knock into furniture.

Embarrassed by her inability to control her son's unruly behavior, the mother angrily dragged him out and took him home. She was furious and admonished him for behaving rudely and not listening when she told him to stop. He looked at her pleadingly and said, “But Mom, Grandma didn't even talk to me!”

Suddenly, a veil fell from her eyes. Here her mother had not made any effort to reach out to her grandson, to engage him, to think about what would be fun for him; yet when he reacted in a totally normal way for an active, energetic child, he was blamed. Her son could see that his grandmother was ignoring him, but his mother had been unable to see it until he pointed it out. Another example of how our children can teach us, if we are open to listening and learning.

In thinking about this later, the woman said she felt that it would be unrealistic to expect her mother to change, but that the next time they visited, she would bring some things for her son to do, or meet her in a park, or insist that her mother come to her house.

She also did something that was very important in rebuilding trust. She acknowledged that she was wrong and apologized to her son for getting angry at him for having a difficult time in a difficult situation.

No matter how hard we try to be mindful and present, there are inevitably many times when automatic behavior simply takes over. When that happens, we can apologize, or we can stop and say to our child, “Let's begin again,” and do it over differently. In this way, we nurture –or begin to heal and rebuild – a trusting, caring relationship.

MYLA: Those moments when our children are disruptive or difficult can be tricky, because I think children want so many different things.

Oftentimes, what they say they want takes on material form, and because parents are so harried and overworked, it's often a lot easier to just give children what they want. The objects start to take the place of really soul-satisfying, connective moments.

I think it's very useful to ask ourselves, “Does my child need this? Is this in my child's best interests?” When we ask ourselves that, it can lead us to see that something else is needed, and not necessarily something material or tangible. That's when this work of parenting calls upon our own genius to be really creative in those moments. Every parent has that ability.

JON: When our son was in nursery school, his teacher was struck by something that happened one morning. As the children sat on the floor in a circle, she asked each of them what they liked to hold when they went to sleep at night. Some children mentioned stuffed animals, others, their baby blankets. When our son's turn came, he looked at her and said simply, without embarrassment, “My mommy.”

We might ask ourselves, is it healthier for our children to be reaching for blankets or toys when they are distressed, or reaching out to human beings?

SARAH: Finding time has become one of the real big issues for many people with both parents working, and with so many more single-parent families. Is the kind of attentive parenting you're describing doable in this society?

MYLA: I think attentive parenting requires the desire to really examine the fabric of your life. If we look at our family life, and we ask ourselves, “Is this really working for all of us?” that may mean making choices. And that's very difficult.

It's not just the economic pressure to work – it's also the desire that we have to fulfill ourselves in our work. It would be wonderful if the culture supported both parents working part time, because children need both parents. But I think that sometimes if we're willing to give up things and find some creative solutions, we do find them.

JON: There are very few people who, on their deathbeds, smack their heads and say, “My God, I wish I'd spent more time at the office.” I think a lot of people reflect back on how they were as parents, and they realize that they did not bring enough perspective to it. They were too economically focused, or too stressed. All understandable, but not necessary. It just takes attention – attention in the present moment.

SARAH: Could you talk a bit about the effects of media and especially television on the family?

MYLA: In some ways, the media is raising our children instead of us. Whatever we can do to create a haven in our home from that broader culture, which has a lot of very toxic elements to it, is a worthwhile endeavor. And I think that people don't realize that it's not just the TV that's turned on that affects your family. Just the mere presence of a TV in the home controls what happens in those moments when there's nothing to do. It's hard to compete with something that's such a quick fix.

I think that one thing that we can do with our children is to start asking them when they turn off the TV, “How do you feel?” Very often you see that they're grumpy, that they're fighting, that in some way, the watching has not really given them anything.

JON: It hasn't sustained them. But it has erased time, and it can erase very large amounts of time from your life.

SARAH: One of the things that helps us raise our eight year-old and our 12 year-old is that we live in a cohousing community where there are always other children of all ages for our kids to play with. I'm very aware from having spent time in Third World countries that the isolated single family is rare in other parts of the world, and it was here, too, until recently.

JON: As they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

MYLA: That's wonderful that you have your village, because so few people do. We all need support in this. In some ways due to the pressures on us, we are becoming managers of our children's lives rather than really loving, connected human beings in relationship to our children.

JON: Society conspires to disrespect the work of parenting in many ways. It's totally socially acceptable to give 150 percent of your energy to work. It's so misunderstood what the potential would be for a kind of wise attention given to the children. It's not smothering attention. It's not neurotic attention. It's not an overprotective attention. It's the recognition of the relationship and the sacred quality of the parent/child relationship.

SARAH: How can you start to bring this sacred quality to your parenting?

JON: The first thing is to intend to bring mindfulness into one's parenting on a daily basis. You also need to focus. It's through sustained attending that we develop insight.

We're not saying that this is easy to do. There's no formula for a perfect way to raise children, or that results in “perfect” children, whatever that would mean.

What we are saying is that our children are perfect just the way they are – including their imperfections. It's important that we are authentic, and that we honor our children and ourselves as best we can, and that our intention be to, at the very least, do no harm.

Mindful parenting is the hardest job on the planet, but it's also one that has the potential for the deepest kinds of satisfactions over the life span, and the greatest feelings of interconnectedness and community and belonging.

Twelve Exercises for Mindful Parenting

  1. Try to imagine the world from your child's point of view, purposefully letting go of your own. Do this every day for at least a few moments to remind you of who this child is and what he or she faces in the world.
  2. Imagine how you appear and sound from your child's point of view; imagine having you as a parent today, in this moment. How might this modify how you carry yourself in your body and in space, how you speak, what you say? How do you want to relate to your child in this moment?
  3. Practice seeing your children as perfect just the way they are. Work at accepting them as they are when it is hardest for you to do so.
  4. Be mindful of your expectations of your children, and consider whether they are truly in your children's best interests. Also, be aware of how you communicate those expectations and how they affect your children.
  5. Practice altruism, putting the needs of your children above your own whenever possible. Then see if there isn't some common ground where your needs can also be met. You may be surprised at how much overlap is possible, especially if you are patient and strive for balance.
  6. When you feel lost, or at a loss, remember to stand still. Meditate on the whole by bringing your full attention to the situation, to your child, to yourself, to the family. In doing so, you may go beyond thinking and perceive intuitively, with the whole of your being, what really needs to be done.
  7. Try embodying silent presence. Listen carefully.
  8. Learn to live with tension without losing your own balance. Practice moving into any moment, however difficult, without trying to change anything and without having to have a particular outcome occur. See what is “workable” if you are willing to trust your intuition and best instincts.
  9. Apologize to your child when you have betrayed a trust in even a little way. Apologies are healing, and they demonstrate that you see a situation more clearly, or more from your child's point of view. But “I'm sorry” loses its meaning if we are always saying it, or if we make regret a habit.
  10. Every child is special, and every child has special needs. Each sees in an entirely unique way. Hold an image of each child in your heart. Drink in their being, wishing them well.
  11. There are very important times when we need to practice being clear and strong and unequivocal with our children. Let this come as much as possible out of awareness and generosity and discernment, rather than out of fear, self-righteousness, or the desire to control. Mindful parenting does not mean being overindulgent, neglectful, or weak; nor does it mean being rigid and controlling.
  12. The greatest gift you can give your child is your self. This means that part of your work as a parent is to keep growing in self-knowledge and in awareness. We have to be grounded in the present moment to share what is deepest and best in ourselves.
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