“Motherhood was harder for me, I would say, than Chinese prison or pretty much anything else I’ve experienced.”– Kiri Westby
Being a mindful parent, like all aspirations around parenting, falls squarely into the category of easier said than done. When you come home from a long day of work and there’s spaghetti sauce on the ceiling, a smashed iPad in the sink, and an irate toddler on the floor throwing a tantrum, your ideals are easily lost.
What this stressful situation offers is a chance to take a deep breath, turn inward to pay attention to our own stress, our own emotions, our own feelings and move away from reactivity and towards mindfully choosing our response.
The renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said in his seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
With mindfulness practices, we open up that space between stimulus and response. By tuning into our present moment experience with mindfulness, we create distance from the painful stories playing out in our minds. We empower ourselves to pause, to find peace, even beauty, in the chaos. Within a mindful pause, there is room for compassion (including self-compassion). We can choose how we respond instead of blindly reacting. That’s the power of mindfulness.
When we are bound by reactivity, we lose our freedom; we lose agency over our actions and our own well-being. Our negative emotions run rampant, our stressors balloon, and our mental health decreases. We easily become lost in self-defeating loops of anger, overwhelm and despair.
What does it mean to be a mindful parent?
Mindful parenting is the process of bringing non-reactive, non-judgmental awareness and attention to your child in the present moment.
Mindful parenting is not about saying a certain thing or even doing a certain thing with your child – it is about how much you are able to be present with your child. This is true for the most trying moments of parenting as well as the most mundane: when there’s spaghetti sauce on the ceiling or when you’re just having a calm dinner with your child.
Being present takes training. Research has found that higher levels of mindfulness and self-compassion in parents leads to more mindful parenting, which leads to lower levels of parenting stress.
This is great news. The same mindfulness training that has been scientifically validated to increase our positive emotions of kindness, generosity, patience, joy, and our openness and ability to connect with others will also make us more mindful parents.
So how do we bring mindful parenting into our lives?
How to be a mindful parent
To demonstrate ways to be a mindful parent, we share several excerpts from parents who’ve appeared on our podcast to share how they bring mindfulness into their own parenting.
Scott Snibbe (Episode 76: Loving Our Parents, Loving Our Children): One morning our daughter was upset that she had a very long day at school for a play rehearsal and she said, “I don’t want to stay at school until 5:30.” She had an eight or nine hour day. She was angry and she also seemed afraid, a little bit afraid of that long day.
And of course with COVID, everyone’s a little stressed out anyway. So she was on the verge of tears. And all I did was I said back to her, “You don’t want to stay at school until 5:30.” And then she nodded. And it was almost like she was instantly pacified. She just sat down to finish her breakfast. That’s all we said.
A few minutes later, when she finished her breakfast, she just quietly went off to prepare for school, packed her backpack and went out the door with my wife.
It’s so amazing how sometimes less is more, as you’ve probably heard that phrase.
So similarly, one morning I said back to my daughter, “You don’t want to do the laundry,” after she told me she didn’t want to do the laundry, whining about this chore on a Saturday morning. And she nodded her head. Then I just wrapped my arm around my daughter’s shoulder. And without saying anything else, we just walked together to the washing machine. And we calmly loaded up the laundry without saying anything else.
So I was thinking, Oh, this technique, it seems to be effective sometimes!
And then again, another day that following week, our daughter whined that she didn’t want to make her lunch. “I don’t want to make my lunch.” And I just said back to her, “You don’t want to make your lunch.” After I said that, I handed her the loaf of bread. I handed her cheese and mayonnaise. And then she quietly put together her sandwich. I was really satisfied, obviously, in these moments, it was nice that they worked.
I want to acknowledge for parents out there that hearing parenting advice like this can sometimes be annoying. Because it can sound a little too good to be true. And of course it doesn’t always work and every kid is different. Every parent-child relationship is different. So what works for me may not work for you.
But these moments really delighted me. And they gave me this chance to try that practical application of “compassion as understanding” that Thich Nhat Hanh writes about.
Also, as a side note, I’ve noticed how when other people do this kind of listening for me, how happy it makes me, and how understood I feel.
Offering your full attention, your full self
Theo Koffler (Episode 68: Mindfulness for Teens & Young Adults): I’ve prioritized honest conversations at home. I wasn’t afraid as a parent to share my vulnerabilities and I encouraged my children to share theirs. We know that life is a mixture of joy and happiness and pain and suffering. These are natural vicissitudes of life that we as parents ride and our children ride. So one way to nurture a conversation and gain better understandings of where our children are is during mealtime.
I found mealtime to be an ideal moment to give my full and undivided attention to my children. The minute the meal got on the table, I would sit with them. I would ask them questions. What made them happy today? Not just, How was school? Because that becomes a very redundant question, but what made them happy? What challenged them? And talk it through.
And also show that I was available to be of service to them. That just because there was a conversation, it didn’t stop there. Each conversation was a moment for other conversations to emerge.
I think as adults and parents, it’s our responsibility to our children and to future generations to have these honest conversations and to be good listeners, to be open and curious. I think I’ve learned more from my children’s points of view than I have learned from my own.
And I guess, finally, the idea as a parent of demonstrating their best selves and their compassion and kindness to their children is really something that parents can do. Bottom line: you don’t necessarily need a program at school. I think that if you have a built-in focus to really bring this alive in your family, that’s the best way to start. It’s just be here now with your kids. That’s my thought.
Scott Snibbe: So practice mindfulness as you’re with your children to be completely there, completely focused.
Theo Koffler: Yes. And as I got busier, I had to be sensitive to the fact that the greater activity and busy-ness in my life shouldn’t impact the way that I was with my kids. There’s a balance there. Bringing your complete presence to your children takes a lot of motivation.
Creating space for yourself and your child
Elaine Jackson (Episode 86: Buddhist Relationship Advice with Elaine Jackson): As for having children, sometimes that can be challenging to find time to meditate as a parent. But children can also learn about solitude. Solitude in small bites is very important and also very nurturing. And everybody benefits, you know? They say, When mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So people learn that this is your time and you leave it. And if you can train a dog, you can train a human to leave it.
Scott Snibbe: Kids too need that. They need their space of solitude.
Elaine Jackson: They do. They do.
Scott Snibbe: I’ve learned that with my daughter. Mornings she’ll come to my meditation room and I’ll still be doing my practice. She joins me there one way or another every morning. But sometimes I have a lot more practice to do and it takes some time. But now she just sits quietly until I’m done.
She doesn’t sit with her hands in her lap and her legs in half lotus. But she does just absolutely sit there. And she’s in some kind of meditative state. I don’t want to disturb her either. It’s very beautiful because she’s quite an active person, but even a kid can learn that. We have to encourage each other’s solitude.
Sharing the practices with our children
Scott Snibbe: Is there anything as a parent we can do to help steer our children towards these kinds of mindfulness practices?
Theo Koffler (Episode 68: Mindfulness for Teens & Young Adults): I guess that’s a powerful question, because as parents, we have a number of opportunities. So the answer is yes, there are things to do. I want to set some context that my kids are grown up and I don’t yet have grandchildren to make my answers age appropriate for younger parents today. But there are ways parents can advocate for social, emotional learning in education.
Whether they have children in preschool or elementary or middle or secondary school. I literally encourage parents to speak up. If these types of programs that help build character and values and mindfulness are absent in your community schools, then make a point of addressing someone in your school district to get the topic on the next district meeting’s agenda. Take a stand. Have a voice. It’s your children’s education and advocating for that, I feel seems like an appropriate role.
And as far as the personal side of parenting, I actually think parents are the champions of social, emotional learning in the household. So it’s not just about finding a program at school. It’s about demonstrating these important soft skills so that parents and their children can grow together.
I’m not sure about your experience, but my education helped me with cognitive development. I learned languages. I learned all about science and geography and history and math. But once I stepped outside the classroom and began to face real world challenges, knowing the square root of Pi didn’t help, that was not what got me through my challenges. It was clearly my awareness around how to navigate the challenges that helped me grow, learn, and deal.
Modeling emotional regulation and self-regulation for young children
As caregivers, we model emotional regulation for our young children. And our own self-regulation teaches adolescents this critical aspect of child development. A mindful approach to parenting not only improves family life, but it leads our children into growing into their optimal selves.
One of the hardest elements of parenting is the truth that however deeply we care for our child, so much of their life is out of our control. We can influence them, but we can’t control a child’s emotions or even a child’s behavior, let alone control the world around them.
However, with mindfulness training, we can learn to control how we respond to our kids and the world around us. And by becoming healthier, happier humans, we model for our kids the way to be healthier, happier humans too.
If you’re interested in reading more about mindful parenting, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon-Kabat Zinn, wrote a wonderful book, Everyday blessings: The inner work of mindful parenting.
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