This week, in one of our rambling conversations about what's up in our lives, my son schooled me in military leadership. Turns out it's really similar to parenting.
'A general can't really lead through fear or violence or rewards. He has to make the troops love him. Because people will fight for love. But if it's just fear, they'll run away as soon as they can.'
So similar to parenting, right? Using force (physical or emotional or mental) is not sustainable. If we control a child through fear (of what we'll take away, of disappointing us, of bad things that will happen if they don't listen) or rewards (a cookie or a new phone, the lure of getting into a 'good' college, our approval and love), they're going to run as soon as they can. 'Running' might look like moving far away from us when they grow up, but it's more likely to look like distancing. Maybe they won't talk with us about their joys and sorrows, won't reach out for our help when they're confused,
'But a general has to command respect. He has to be tough. And be able to do the things soldiers do.'
Same with us as parents, huh? It's important to earn our kids respect by speaking honestly and respectfully, by treating ourselves with respect, by living with dignity. And we have to be courageous enough to set clear and fair limits, even when we know that the limit could blow up into a drama.
Parenting is leadership, and a good leader builds a solid foundation of connection. Not intimidation, control, or placating, but connection. When we love them exactly as they are, they feel safely connected. Then, things go better.
Sometimes it's hard to have enough energy to slow down and really talk with our kids when they are upset. Sometimes we've had long days full of unreasonable people and just want a break! "isn't this kind of parenting really hard?" we may wonder.
Ask yourself, is it harder than what you're doing now? How does your current approach to a problem (whether the problem is your child's anxiety or temper, their homework or chores, an illness, etc.) feel? A conscious parenting approach probably won't actually feel any harder once you try it.
Consider a mindful approach to parenting this week and see if things get harder or easier. One thing to try is listening. Instead of talking when you are at odds with your child, try listening. Get curious about what's up for them. Invite them to talk about it. Listen deeply, not just to the words they say, but also to their body language and behavior. Promise yourself not to fix anything, argue, teach, or correct until you've taken the time to understand your child's point of view.
It will take longer to listen than to tell them what to do. But once you've listening, you may have a wiser suggestion for your child. And they may be much more likely to listen to you!
Sitting down between chores and meetings, I notice a rushed feeling in me, a 'need' to do more than I can. And then I notice that I'm having this feeling/thought.. As soon as I realize it, it shifts a bit.
Staying with the feeling, I notice that I feel inadequate, like there's too much to do but I should somehow be able to do it. I feel frustrated, why isn't anyone else doing some of these things? I feel cranky. There's a heaviness in my body.
Taking care of those feelings, I stop and breathe for a bit. remembering to be tender with myself. Rather than rushing past the feelings, I allow them. I take care of myself.
I remember a conversation that I had this week about gratitude, and try it. Starting with something easy, I look outside and see the sun shining through leaves. It is beautiful. I love autumn sunshine. 'm grateful for the beauty of a tree outside my window. I love the sound of leaves falling.
After a few moments, I turn the gratitude toward myself. I imagine talking to myself like a friend--'It's okay, sweetie. You're doing a good job!' I spend a few minutes listing things I'm grateful for about myself. I cleaned a lot yesterday. I am healthy. I really connected with my kids this week. I taught a good class last night. I remembered to take the trash out. They're not the deepest appreciations, but it helps to shift my mood.
I move a little deeper into gratitude, treasuring a moment that I shared with each of my kids. I remember several people I love--a hug with one, a phone call with another, Facebook messaging a third. I notice that my life feels rich. The gratitude is blossoming now, filling my heart and making me smile.
I am not a perfect parent.
And my kids aren't perfect kids.
I don't teach and write about parenting because I've got it all figured out, because I truly do not. A lot of years ago, though, I was suffering a lot more than I am today. I was yelling way too much. I got into frequent power struggles with my kids. By the time they went to bed I was often in my own bed cringing with shame that I had lost it again even after promising myself to stay calm and reasonable.
Discontent and a desire to be better and more aligned with my values brought me to mindfulness. I knew that kids need calm and steady parents. I knew that kids aren't supposed to be compliant and 'good.' I knew that my temper was hurting my kids. But again and again, without wanting to, I got caught in the same dysfunctional behavior.
In the beginning, I hated practicing mindfulness. It was almost painful. I sat, tense, thinking about how soon I could stop, how bad I was at it, about everything that was bugging me. Then the chime on my timer would go off and I would hop up and do something. Not the deepest practice, but something actually started to happen.
As painful as it was for me to sit and practice and to deal with all that I was discovering about myself, it was also amazing. There were small moments when I could feel something like peace. And moments when I could look right into the heart of my anger or fear or judgment and open to it, really opening to myself and connecting with the soft, loving center of my being. I started to be strong enough to feel things without doing anything about it. And I'm saying 'I started' because there were forward steps and backward steps, not a dramatic turnaround in my parenting once and for all.
Somehow this challenging practice of sitting and basically doing nothing changed me. I still do things that I regret. I know there's more to discover. Still, I suffer less every day. Bit by bit, day by day, this practice has changed my life. And I work with parents not because I have the answers, but because I know this simple practice of connecting with presence is an effective one.
Sitting this morning, I remembered how important the very start of a mindful practice is. Sometimes I sort of slip into my practice by trying to check out of regular life. But when I'm having an intentional practice, I start by being really aware of my body. I feel myself sitting. I feel the air. I listen a bit to sounds outside. Instead of trying to get somewhere, I show up HERE. After a bit, I connect with my breath.
I know there's nowhere to get, nothing to be. I just sit here. Sometimes I'm cranky and out of sorts. Sometimes I'm relaxed and smiling. Sometimes I'm bored and uncomfortable. Being present with any of those states is the real point. It often leads to a more relaxed, open, pleasant experience, but not always.
This, for me, is fiercely analogous to being a mom.
Sometimes I sort of slip into interactions with my kids, trying to avoid challenging or unpleasant situations (emotions, responsibilities, tasks, worries, etc.). But when I'm having an intentional interaction, I start by being really aware of myself and my child. I feel myself sitting. I pay attention to how I feel. I attune to them and listen deeply to what they are really saying to me, verbally and non-verbally. Instead of trying to get somewhere, I show up HERE. After a bit, I can really sense our connection, how I am responding to them and how they are responding to me.
I know that I don't need to change myself or them. One or both of us may be cranky, relaxed, or bored. We may disagree. They may need my emotional support. Whatever is happening, I know that I don't need to change myself or them. I practice staying true to myself and open to them exactly as they are.
My mindfulness practice supports my parenting practice. Every day.
Power in parenting comes not from our ability to resist or control what our children do, but from our ability to be solidly, clearly aligned with what is good and right.
Instead of reacting to or against our children, our work is to be awake to the experience we are having, to listen, look, and observe. To be open, letting it in, putting aside our defenses and resistance. We need to feel our feelings and care for them. Notice judgments and create some space before reacting to them. Pay attention to the tension and discomfort in our bodies. This allows us to connect with our true and wise selves, informing a response that reflects our hearts and our wisdom.
The same is true in our world. You, like me, are surrounded by political coverage as we enter the last month of our presidential election. You, like me, are faced many times a day with events and words and opinions, in election coverage and so many other important things happening in our world right now, that range from unsettling to shocking and horrifying.
Just as with parenting, let's not react impulsively, feeding the drama and separation. Let's choose how to respond. Sometimes, like with our testing toddlers, we will realize that it's best to not respond at all, because any response will add energy to something we don't want to support. Other times we will feel that it is wise to respond--from our hearts rather than from our reactivity. Those heart-based offerings, aligned with Truth, are unlikely to be dramatic. They won't be judgmental or hostile or violent. They are likely to be simple, clear, and direct.
We can hear provocative, rude, even untrue things without reacting in kind. We can bring truth, real love, and wisdom into conversations at home and in the world. This what I'm working on (imperfectly). Will you join me, sitting in the experience and responding from the heart?
I used to jump into the middle of issues with my kids, reacting impulsively before I even thought about how best to proceed!
For me, that might have looked like:
Over the years, practicing mindfulness and taking care of my emotions has changed me. The reactive habits are still with me, but they aren't as strong. I appreciate this shift, and at the same time it makes me realize how uncomfortable it is not to know what to do. Because I often don't know what to do.
I do know that it helps me to sit and feel my feelings, but it's still not easy for me to do it. I usually avoid them first. I get busy with work, run mostly errands, spend time on Facebook, eat, think about how I wish things were. Sometimes I even clean, go for a walk, or balance my checkbook.
Eventually I realize that I have to direct my attention inward and sit with my feelings. Because knowing how I feel isn't the same as feeling it! Once I turn inward, feeling the discomfort of not knowing, my irritation or worry about my child, or my helplessness about something going on in the world, then I start to create inner space. I notice how my body feels, to feel my emotions, to watch my thoughts. I breathe into the feelings, allowing them to be here.
Sometimes there's a dramatic shift--I relax or cry or soften. Other times it feels like nothing much happens. But doing this creates the space for my wisdom to show up.
My life and work are guided by the these core understandings: that all beings (including me!) are capable of transformation and joy, that healthy parenting matters profoundly, and that simple practices can support each of us.