Urban Mindfulness

Finding peace in the middle of it all.

Letting Go of Expectations: A Lesson in Mindful Parenting

Can mindfulness help you be a better parent?

Earlier, on UrbanMindfulness.org, I discussed ways in which our pets and little ones can serve as reminders to be more mindful in our daily lives (Click here: "Meow, Woof, Wah: Mini Mindfulness Masters in Your Home.") This week, I'll share a story about my own experience as the struggling-to-be-mindful father of a two-year-old boy.

Recently, I received an e-mail from my son's daycare program concerning his start of school in the fall. The program director, a wonderfully compassionate and enthusiastic person, knits blankets for all of the incoming children. She uses a design that is personally meaningful to each child in order to help him or her adjust better to the school (and make nap time more fun). So, she asked a simple question, "What does your child want on his blanket?"

Almost instantly, the responses from parents started flowing in to the listserv.

"Aiden would like a cowboy with a sword riding a blue dinosaur."
"Emma loves her cat, Sparkles, and princesses. So, please design a blanket with Sparkles wearing a crown. Here's a jpeg of Sparkles."
"Toshi adores Van Gogh and Monet (not Manet). Perhaps you could do a rendition of ‘Starry Night' or the ‘Haystack' series?"

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I was amazed by the sophistication and specificity of people's answers. "Well, I'm sure that my son, E., will have a very intelligent and cool answer, too." I thought to myself. I approached him confidently.

Me: "Next year, when you go to school, there will be a special blanket for you, E. What picture do you want on your blanket?"

E.: "Apple juice!"

Me: "No, on your blanket, what picture do you want?"

E.: "E. jump on bed!"

Hmm...this clearly was not working. And, my mind fill concernedly with thoughts about my son's ability to think and focus relative to his peers. "How come all the other kids get it, and my son can't?!" I wondered. (Parenthood, as I've discovered, is rife with the temptation to compare our children to others. Indeed, the whole parenting culture--at least in NYC--seems to perpetuate it, almost from birth. I almost expected the doctor who delivered our latest son, R., to declare, "Your son is a healthy 8 pounds even. My son was 8 pounds, 4 ounces." As you might know, it's not just comparison, but a hint of competition as well...)

So, I decided to try again later. "He's not articulating his blanket preference because he's hyper-focused on something else right now." I concluded. "This, unfortunately, is one of the drawbacks of his laser-beam-like attention." I thought smugly. Not surprisingly, this feeding of my ego helped me feel better over the short-term. And yes, I am equating my ego with my son--what's it to you?! (smile)

I tried again later. I sat him down on the couch and talked to him man-to-man, or rather man-to-boy (I don't want him to grow-up too early!). "E., this fall, you'll be going to school. At school, you'll get a special blanket which will have a picture on it. What picture do you want on your blanket?" He paused, reflected for a moment, and decided, "Daddy, play trains!" I persisted, "No, I mean on your blanket..." "E. go downstairs. No shoes!" he replied.

As you can see, I had little choice but to conclude that E. cannot grasp the concept of "a blanket in the future". He also displayed a disturbing penchant for ending his sentences with exclamation points. "What's wrong with him?! Is he delayed in some way?" I thought nervously. I tried to muster some confidence in his responses by putting them in a Buddhist perspective. "Well, perhaps he's embodying the ephemeral nature as reflected by his changing desires. Or, he might be taking the role of a Zen master posing koans. That's very wise of him." I though. These attempts to bolster my ego by elevating my son's karmic status were not very effective, though.

Ultimately, I gave-up trying to elicit a sophisticated blanket theme from him. Instead, I simply made a decision based on how I understand his preferences and interests. It was nothing too exotic, and even mundane. And, it's taken me a little while to come to accept it.

Fortunately, I learned a few things from this experience. First, parenting can be a quite a fruitful area for informal mindfulness practice. At a conference recently, Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn described parenting as an "18 year retreat." They noted how kids "push our buttons", which can prompt us to react negatively. As Myla stated, "Sometimes, we don't live love. We live fear and anxiety and the thoughts that take over us." In this instance, I started to feel anxious about my son's unhelpful replies and became lost in my own reactions. By seeing this cirumstance as problematic and trying to fix it, I unfortunately missed out on some fun play time.

Second, as parents, we need to see our children for whom they really are, not who we imagine, expect, or want them to be. The Kabat-Zinns refer to this as respecting the "sovereignty" of our children, or allowing E. to be E. in this instance. Now, this doesn't mean letting them do everything that they want: we need to set appropriate limits and boundaries out of love, clarity, and an empathic understanding of our children. Rather, it means tuning into their experiences and preferences unfettered by our own judgments.

Finally, parenting is a reminder to "stop identifying with personal pronouns," as stated by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Thinking of family members as my son, my cat, my family, my wife, etc. intensifies my own ego, and causes emotional turmoil when they aren't behaving in the way that I want. By not attaching my self to their behavior, I am more open to understand and accept their experiences. Also, I am less likely to view other parents and children in ways that are comparative and competitive.

All in all, applying mindfulness to parenting can be quite an enriching, enlightening, and humbling experience. It doesn't take much more time to be mindful, and it helps us embody what we seek to practice in our personal lives (both on and off the cushion). When we're mind-less as parents, we can act in ways that are unhelpful or even harmful. Through awareness, empathy, acceptance, and compassion, we can pave the way to develop what Myla Kabat-Zinn calls "heartfulness."

Jonathan Kaplan, Ph.D., has been practicing, teaching, and writing about mindfulness for over a decade. He maintains a private practice in New York City.

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