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Mindful Parenting and the Four Stages of Skill Development

The phases of becoming better at anything, including parenting, are universal.

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

Most parents want to be good parents. I’ve never met anyone who wanted to be a lousy parent. However, wanting to be a good parent, doesn’t lead to that outcome any more than the wish to stay clean and sober will keep people in recovery. Though some people take to it more naturally than others, healthy and attuned parenting is a learned skill. Becoming a quality parent doesn’t happen by accident or coincidence either; it necessitates conscious awareness and ongoing intentional effort.

With conscious intention and effort, outdated thought processes and unskillful habits can be discarded and replaced with new and healthier ones. Engaging in this change process can help you to become the parent you want to be, the parent your kids (even if they are now adults) need you to be, and maybe even the parent you needed when you were growing up.

Milton Erickson was a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who had an extraordinary grasp of human perception and behavior with an emphasis on unconscious processes. His approach to clinical hypnotherapy brought light-year advances to that method of helping people make positive, healthy change, and his work was instrumental to the development of brief forms of psychotherapy, as well as solution-focused therapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

According to Erickson, the process of learning and skill development in any area has four stages: unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence is a state of obliviousness—not knowing something but also not knowing that you don’t know it, and therefore not caring about it one way or another. In terms of parenting, being unconsciously incompetent means that parents have no awareness of their parenting as problematic and unskillful, and in turn, no interest in even considering doing anything differently.

At the point of recognizing that their parenting approach isn’t working well and contributes to distress for both their children and themselves, parents progress to conscious incompetence. They become consciously aware of the potential value of making changes in how they parent and may have an understanding of what they want or need to do differently, but don’t know how to make those improvements. They may try to make positive changes in their parenting but struggle in their efforts, which they know are often awkward and unskillful.

Through ongoing awareness and practice, they gradually move into the stage of conscious competence, building the knowledge and skills to implement their desired improvements proficiently and consistently. Conscious competence reflects the ability to do something well or skillfully. However, the action requires thinking intentionally about each aspect of it. For instance, when my daughters express emotional pain, it still precipitates distress for me, and I experience an immediate and automatic wish/need/impulse to try to “fix” or take away their pain. I have to be consciously aware of my internal reactions and be present with my own pain in order to simply be present and co-exist with theirs. Then I can take deliberate care in finding the words most likely to be attuned and helpful. This is an example of mindfulness in action.

Unconscious competence is also known as mastery. When athletes describe being “in the zone,” they are in a state of unconscious competence. They perform at such a high level as to seem unstoppable. Yet, every aspect of their performance appears effortless, almost as if they’re operating on autopilot, in sync with cadence of the universe. They don’t have to think about what to do, it just happens, often in a way that appears to flow naturally.

John Wooden was the legendary men’s basketball coach at UCLA whose teams achieved an unparalleled degree of success. They won ten national championships during a twelve-year span from1963 to 1975. Wooden thought of himself first and foremost as an educator; a teacher whose primary responsibility was to prepare the young men he coached to be successful in life, rather than just in basketball. He did this by teaching and instilling in his players an incredible foundation of values in addition to skills, through continuous repetition.

It’s unclear if Coach Wooden knew of Milton Erickson’s model for learning and skill development. What is clear is that he was intimately familiar with the concept of unconscious competence/mastery and sought to operationalize it at the team level. His approach to preparing his teams was based on uncompromising conditioning and meticulous execution achieved through the mastery of universal team and individual fundamentals. His teams achieved a degree of unconscious competence by practicing virtually the same way every time they took the court. Coach Wooden taught that failing to prepare translated into preparing to fail. He maintained an unwavering belief that if his teams practiced the right things the right way and performed to the best of their ability, winning would take care of itself; and it did.

The more present-centered and mindful I am, the more intentionally I can act; the more I have the capacity to choose how I wish to respond to specific circumstances in any area of life, including parenting and recovery. Riding a bike, reading, swimming, playing sports, keyboarding/typing, and playing video games are examples of everyday activities that all progress through Erickson’s four stages of learning—improving with enough practice and repetition to become unconscious and automatic.

As challenging as it can be to learn and develop new skills in any area, in comparison to recovery and parenting, the above examples are simple and concrete. Skills such as accepting things you really want to change but can’t, observing your thoughts, maintaining present-moment awareness, communicating in ways both supportive and responsive, and coexisting with distressing emotions without pushing them away or acting on them in ways that make situations worse are incredibly difficult skills to master.

Attuned, skillful parenting requires a high degree of moment-to-moment, conscious attention and awareness, especially in emotionally charged situations. As a result, unconscious competence in parenting may be unrealistic, but more importantly, it may be unnecessary because mindful parenting is the real goal.

Once you have learned a skill well enough to successfully apply it in action, it becomes a resource you can use in a broad assortment of circumstances. In other words, once you’ve learned how to read, it doesn’t matter whether the length of a book is forty pages or four hundred pages; once you know how to swim, you can swim in water that’s five feet deep or five hundred feet deep. The terrain may be quite different, but the application of learning and skill remains fundamentally the same. The same dynamic applies to parenting knowledge and skills.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW