A few days ago I read an article by a blogger confessing to being one of “those” parents. She was admitting to the world, or at least to the readers of The Huffington Post, that she was guilty of being a less-than-perfect parent. You know the scenario: parent is tired, overwhelmed, emotionally triggered in some way and doesn’t respond to the child in a way that would win an award for Parent of the Year. Sound familiar? It certainly did to me! As the mother of three now-adult sons (the oldest biological and the two younger ones adopted from Russia), I have certainly had my moments of not exactly stellar parenting. Being a parent is a tough job, and as Daniel Hughes wrote in his book, Brain-Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment, "Although the process of becoming a parent may seem like a ‘no brainer,’ the process of parenting taps all the brain power we can muster.”
What I have learned through the years, from my sons as well as in my role as counseling professional, is that consciously tapping into our mental processes, and working at mindful parenting, can go a long way towards helping to allay the reactivity we all have with our children from time to time. In fact, it has been argued that the practice of mindfulness could be the single most effective way to improve your parenting skills.
What is mindful parenting? I’ve seen a number of definitions, and what they have in common is an emphasis on the practice of moment-to-moment awareness from a non-judgmental stance. My favorite description of mindful parenting is this one offered by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his book, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting:
Mindful Parenting involves keeping in mind what is truly important as we go about the activities of daily living with our children. Much of the time, we may find we need to remind ourselves of what that is, or even admit that we may have no idea at the moment, for the thread of meaning and direction in our lives is easily lost. But even in our most trying, sometimes horrible moments as parents, we can deliberately step back and begin afresh, asking ourselves as if for the first time, and with fresh eyes, “What is truly important here?"
How do we become more mindful parents? First, it is important to accept our own imperfection as parents. None of us will ever be perfect in our role as Mom or Dad. As the Huffington Post blogger pointed out, it’s impossible to remain attuned and empathic with our children at every moment. We do our best, but we are human. After acknowledging and accepting our imperfection as parents, it is a day-to-day, moment-to-moment endeavor to practice mindful parenting. It begins with each of us as individuals.
The benefits to the parent of parenting in a mindful way include a decrease in parental stress as well as increased pleasure in parenting. It also brings profound benefits to your child. There are a number of ways to practice mindfulness, from simple breathing exercises to formal religious practices. If all of this mindfulness talk is new to you, here are a couple of simple things you might try to help you become more mindful in your role as a parent and in every aspect of your life:
- Breathing exercise. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably in a chair, or on the floor, if you prefer. Close your eyes and notice your breath as you inhale and exhale. Focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale. If you find your focus and thoughts have wandered away, simply go back to noticing your breath as you inhale and exhale. That’s it!
- Listening exercise. Find a place to sit or relax comfortably, where you will have few distractions, and notice any sounds you might hear. You might be surprised at what you notice when you focus your attention in the moment and listen. A barking dog outside in the distance, the silent whir of the refrigerator motor as it clicks on at the opposite end of the house. It’s amazing what we can hear when we listen with mindfulness. Again, if you find your thoughts have wandered, simply return to focused listening.
Pick one of these and try it out once a day for five minutes. Expect that from time to time you will have to bring your attention and focus back to the moment during the exercises. That’s all. Even five minutes each day of one of the exercises described above can pay off in significant ways for you, your children, and your entire family. My guess is that after a while, you may want to increase your mindfulness exercise time to ten or twenty minutes once each day. It’s a small investment of time with the potential for big rewards.