I came to parenting with a strong belief in the innate goodness and wisdom of children and with a sense that a parent's role is a collaborative and supportive rather than controlling one. Once I had kids, though, authoritarian beliefs and conditioning started to come up that I hadn't even suspected. Life, including growing up with an authoritarian dad and going to Catholic school, had instilled deep conditioning around compliance, authority, and obedience.
For all of my years as a parent, I've worked with the conflict between my core beliefs and my actual behavior. It hasn't always been pretty, especially in the years before I had a mindfulness practice. When my kids were little and loved to drop food over the side of the high chair, the part of me that knew they were exploring and discovering was at odds with the part that wanted them to stop making a mess and 'do the right thing.' When they were a little older and resisted going to bed, a small part of me understood their resistance while a large part felt frustrated and angry that they weren't listening. Now as they are older, new power struggles come up.
I don't like this authoritarian, controlling aspect of myself! I know it was in me before I was a parent, but I know that my experiences as a mom bring it out in the open where I can (and have to) see it. The truth is that my beliefs and ideas about children are not fully integrated with my conditioning. Bit by bit, I am recognizing the physical, emotional, and mental habits that play a strong role in my parenting. Each time I run into a conflict between how I act and how I want to act--and those conflicts are ever-changing through my kids' developmental stages--I get to see more conditioning.
I have learned that fighting it does not help. What does help is awareness and curiosity. Bit by bit, time by time, as I see old habits of control, authority, and suppression arise, I am becoming able to recognize them without acting on them. As I sit in the discomfort of this internal conflict, something loosens or shifts, leaving me more able to be present with my kids as they are.
I was walking home yesterday and passed a truck left in the parking lot of a convenience store with its engine running. I was kind of indignant, thinking, 'Now who would do that?' My internal tone was self-righteous and even smug. Almost as soon as I thought it, I realized that I was judging, making this anonymous truck driver into the 'other,' the 'enemy.'
Noticing created a shift. As I walked, I contemplated the situation and explored my own feelings. I still felt uncomfortable with the truck running, it's one of those things that seems so unnecessarily wasteful. But instead of projecting my feelings onto the driver I never even saw, I felt them., noticing that I don't like it when people leave their cars running and that I felt annoyed. I noticed that I felt sad and helpless about the truck and waste, climate change, social change. I noticed that I felt uncomfortably separate and alone, different than this truck driver. I still feel confused, wondering what I should do in those moments, and scared of being a freak who goes into stores and makes a fuss, scared of speaking up in a way that makes it worse (leaving him wanting to leave his engine running more often), scared of doing nothing.
Judgment of 'the other' was kind of protecting me from the discomfort and complexity of my own feelings. Working with that complexity is allowing me to dismantle a bit of the wall between me and the world.
This kind of thing happens a lot. I judge a person or situation and fall into a stream of critical thoughts. I judge myself, thinking something like 'Now why would I do that?' or 'What a stupid idea.' I keep trying to notice the judgment and then get curious about what I'm feeling and sensing.
This judgment and self-judgment play a direct role in my parenting. When I'm aware of my feelings and thoughts AS feelings and thoughts (rather than Truth), I respond more sensibly and wisely to and about my kids. When I'm caught in unaware judgment of my kids, their friends, their grades, the cleanliness of their rooms,how quickly they get up when their alarms go off,, etc., I am more reactive, internally and/or externally.
There's a story (with several, somewhat conflicting versions including in Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart) of a thick and heavy clay statue of the Buddha in a monastery in Thailand. This statue was damaged in a move, opening a crack in the clay and revealing gold underneath. As monks chipped the clay away, they discovered that the statue was actually made of solid gold. Historians believe the Buddha statue was covered with clay to protect it from a military attack many years earlier.
I love this story! It reminds us of something important and true. We are each, at our center, a Buddha, a Christ, a being of great love. We have been covered with layers of mud and plaster, layers that were meant to protect us. There comes a time that those layers begin to fall away. That's a scary and often painful process, but ultimately frees our golden inner nature to shine.
If cracks are appearing in your life, maybe things already didn't seem great and are now kind of falling apart, Look beyond the surface. What is being revealed? Is your own golden Buddha-nature ready to make its appearance?
I've been remembering adopting my first cat at the SPCA. To take her home I had to sign a paper saying that I would not let her go outside. I was not comfortable with this, but, having already chosen a sweet little kitten who was not going to survive much longer at the shelter, was not about to leave without her! The shelter volunteer explained the rule to me, saying that cats who go outside don't live as long as indoor cats.
I guiltily signed the paper, knowing that my new cat would go outside. This was years before I had children, but I remember thinking the same thing was probably true about kids. If we never let them outside they might live longer, but who would want that kind of life for them?
As a mom, I've remembered this story, but it isn't as easy for me to let my kids take risks as it was with my cat! Part of me wants them to stay in, to be safe. and to be careful. I want to know where they are and what they're doing. That's attachment. Fear of losing them or having to see them be hurt. Love is allowing them to live, to go outside and brave the sometimes dangerous world of friendships, driving, parties, even homework and school performance.
I know people who monitor every assignment their kids are given, and who use their child's cell phone to trace their movements. I've never gone that far, but do recognize the attachment in me that is similar. The work of parenting is to love them enough to let them grow through real and even hard experience. To be available again and again, supporting them as they integrate their experiences. To trust the life energy/soul presence in them that leads them to experiences they need and want. To know that they will make mistakes, but those mistakes may be the very ones they need to make as they learn to be fully alive and awake.
Lately, I've been quieting the part of myself that tries to tell my kids to 'be safe' and 'be careful' each time they go out. Instead, I'm saying 'have fun,' and 'I love you.'
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.