Mindful Parenting: How Parenting and Mindfulness Practice Can Support Each Other

mindful parenting for parents and children

Mindful parenting is a rich and multifaceted topic. How can mindfulness inform our parenting? And how does parenting affect our mindfulness and meditation practice? In this article, we’ll look at three related questions:

  1. How mindfulness and meditation can support us as parents.
  2. Mindfulness practices we can offer both ourselves and our children to support healthy and positive parenting.
  3. How parenthood is likely to affect our own meditation and spiritual practice.

In addition to sharing resources on mindful parenting, I spoke to a number of parents about their own experience. I asked them a few initial questions, including: How does mindfulness affect your parenting? and How or why does being a parent motivate you to meditate? You’ll hear what those parents shared about the many facets of mindful parenting throughout this article.

Mindful Parenting: How Mindfulness and Meditation Can Support Us as Parents

Quite often, what our children need most is for us, as parents, to be positive, open, and present. There is a saying in the world of Chinese medicine, “To benefit the child, nourish the mother.” This is a poetic explanation of a specific approach to treating illness, but it is based on a simple truth: a child’s health and development are largely dependent upon the health and stability of their parent(s).

A child’s health and development are largely dependent upon the health and stability of their parent(s).

The important question here is, How do we accomplish this? Numerous practices can help us, from deep breathing, physical exercise, and meditation, to seeking counseling, scheduling regular acupuncture or massage sessions, and more. All these can support us in enjoying the benefits of mindfulness parenting below.

Mindful Parenting Benefit: Clarity in Decision-Making

Many decisions we make as parents are not easy. Economics, social pressure, ubiquitous technology, environmental factors, and more often require us to make difficult decisions. 

Meditation and mindfulness practice can help us to be clear about how and why we are making a decision. That way, even if the situation is not ideal, we know we made our choice from a good place, and we can release the anxiety or blame we may otherwise feel around it.

Mindfulness practice can help us be clear about how and why we are making a decision, and release the anxiety or blame we may otherwise feel around it.

Sometimes, this means making difficult decisions that require us to be particularly clear in order to bring our family through a tough time. Meditation and mindfulness practices can help us recognize unsafe situations and have the clarity to act decisively and appropriately. 

This may be something as simple as seeing a child playing in a place that is unsafe and helping them move to a safer location; it may also mean recognizing that a relationship or long term living situation is unhealthy for the family and making the choices to get into a healthier or safer situation as soon as possible. Sometimes, it is just recognizing that we need to ask for help.  

If you are experiencing a crisis or are in an unsafe situation and need help, there are a number of websites and hotlines that can help. A list of these resources are available here.

Mindful Parenting Benefit: Staying Sane in Difficult Situations

One parent I spoke to shared their experience parenting through divorce. This parent said that divorce can make it much more difficult to model the positive behaviors we want our children to learn, because of both emotional turmoil and physical distance.

In difficult situations like this, mindfulness practices serve to help keep us sane, which is an important distinction from utilizing mindfulness practices to achieve higher consciousness.

In difficult situations, mindfulness practices can help keep us sane.

The parent shared how difficult it was for them to continue meditating and practicing qigong—which they had done for many years—during the process of their divorce. It was too painful to have all of the negative thoughts arise in the midst of the silence provided by those practices.

The parent mentioned the saying, “The mind is a self-purifying mountain stream,” meaning that if allowed to run its course, the mind will become calm and thoughts will cease—and noted that this saying assumes that the sources of pollution at the stream’s source are curtailed. That wasn’t the case for this parent during the divorce’s painful aftermath.

Finding Different Ways to Incorporate Mindfulness

If we are embroiled in conflict, court cases, custody battles, etc., then finding ways to relieve the deluge of negative thoughts is key–and sitting still might not be the best way for every person to achieve that.

Finding ways to relieve the deluge of negative thoughts is key–and sitting still might not be the best way for every person to achieve that.

In this case, this individual turned to cultivating presence of mind in daily activities like cleaning the kitchen, working on a car, caring for tools and kitchen implements, and focusing on work. 

Instead of reciting mantras, they practiced the mindfulness of financial responsibility; instead of qigong, they started playing basketball. In this way, they could model positivity in the midst of adversity to the best of their ability, and also achieve some internal calm without being bombarded by thoughts related to their difficult situation.

It is easy to judge others based on abstract ideas; but if it were easy to cultivate higher consciousness, deep wisdom, and profound compassion, then we wouldn’t have monasteries dedicated to creating conditions conducive to enlightenment. 

Mindful Parenting Benefit: Accepting Failure

We all have certain standards and ideals we aspire to as parents, calm parenting being a common one. The reality is that nobody is completely successful at living up to those standards: we all lose our cool sometimes. Mindfulness can help us recognize and be present in the moments when we fall short. 

Mindfulness can help us recognize and be present in the moments when we fall short.

Willingness to be honest with oneself, to see things as they are, is a central focus of Buddhist meditation. Allowing ourselves time to do this can open up space to apologize, explain, and make up when we recognize we have fallen short of this goal. This is important to model for children.

Being honest and gentle with ourselves allows us to admit and apologize when we behave in ways that are hurtful, rather than compounding the harm by blaming others or seeking to justifying the behavior.

Myla and Jon Kabat Zinn wrote a wonderful book called Everyday Blessings on these topics. The authors remind us that being honest and gentle with oneself allows us to admit and apologize for our actions when we behave in ways that are hurtful, rather than compounding the harm by justifying the behavior or blaming the child, our partner, or someone else.

The authors present many useful and intriguing ideas, including relating a child’s sovereignty to the concept of Buddha nature. A lovely summary and review of the book can be found here: Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindful Parenting: How to Use Mindfulness Practices to Support Healthy and Positive Parenting

Meditation is perhaps the best-known mindfulness practice, but let’s be honest: not everyone is interested in meditation, and that’s okay. Still, each of us has to find our own way to solve the problem of decompressing, relieving stress, and so on, ideally in a healthy way. Some options include archery, yoga, taiji, qigong, martial arts, art, crafts, reading, caring for and spending time with animals, nature walks, birding, and fishing.

Not everyone is interested in meditation, and that’s okay. There are many other ways to bring mindfulness into our lives.

These can be done alone for the purpose of relaxing and bringing the mind to the present moment. We can also engage children in these activities which, by their nature, encourage silence, focus, awareness, equanimity, stillness, and respect. 

When we take time to reflect on how our children react to our psycho-emotional states, it becomes clear that regularly making space for mindfulness can go a long way toward creating a more happy and harmonious life for our children and ourselves.

Regularly making space for mindfulness can go a long way toward creating a more happy and harmonious life for our children and ourselves.

A Case Study in Mindful Parenting

One parent I spoke with reported that he and his wife, both family psychologists, practice mindfulness with their kids to help them recognize how they are feeling, what their needs are, and how to communicate those feelings and needs effectively. 

One parent reports that he and his wife practice mindfulness with their kids to help them recognize how they are feeling, what their needs are, and how to communicate those feelings and needs effectively. 

Emotional regulation is a big focus for them. It’s about recognizing physical sensations and how to interpret them. Taking space is something each person, parents and children alike, is encouraged to do when needed. This allows time to understand, process, and return when ready to communicate.

Their children, ages 2, 4, and 6, are at the early stages of learning these practices, but since it is practiced as a family, it has become part of the family culture of how things are done in their household. 

When mindfulness is practiced as a family, it becomes part of the family culture. 

By modeling things like taking space, apologizing, and making up, they are allowing their children (and themselves) to experience big emotions and work through them in a loving and supportive environment. In their view, the house is like a big sandbox in which the children work out how to deal with big feelings so that they don’t come out in a negative way in other places, like school.

These early efforts at encouraging self-regulation seem to be paying off–sometimes their children will even put themselves to bed early when they are tired! 

Perhaps most importantly, this is helping them as parents work through their own traumas and difficulties so that they do not pass them on to their children. He says that it’s not necessarily about pushing down our feelings or responses, but recognizing the unhealthy ones and working to “smother” them with more healthy ways of responding, so over time the positive wins out more and more.

Meditating as a Parent

Thankfully, beginning a meditation practice can be both simple and enjoyable. One of my favorite practices that I stumbled upon while writing this article is a nighttime meditation focused on connecting with one’s sleeping child or children. I recommend simply sitting with and observing your children after they have fallen asleep as a way of recognizing their love, beauty, and innocence.

I recommend simply sitting with and observing your children after they have fallen asleep as a way of recognizing their love, beauty, and innocence. 

A Nighttime Meditation for Compassionate Parenting – Left Brain Buddha

Here are some more simple and effective tools for anyone beginning their journey with mindfulness practices,  looking for a fresh perspective, or interested in sharing meditation or mindfulness practices with their children:

Meditation for Parents: A Guide for Beginners

Mindfulness & Meditation Exercises for Children & Parents

Encouraging Your Children to Meditate

Practicing meditation ourselves makes it easier to encourage our children to meditate.

Practicing meditation ourselves makes it much easier to teach our children to meditate (or at least feel the benefit of periods of calm silence). The benefits are evident when you see the change that can come over a child over the course of a few minutes of such a practice. It can change the course of a day (or more).

In addition, there is evidence that meditation has positive effects on attention span, ability to focus, and the development of self-regulation skills. Who wouldn’t want those things for their children, let alone themselves? 

The following links provide activities and meditations to do with children. Sitting Still Like A Frog is a particularly rich resource.

Sitting Still Like a Frog – Shambhala Pubs

5-Minute Mindful Meditation for Children

2-Minute Mindful Meditation for Children

Practicing Self-Compassion

All of this requires that we learn to be gentle with ourselves, as well as our children. As many readers have likely experienced themselves, being compassionate with ourselves is often much more difficult than being compassionate with our children. It’s very important: giving ourselves love and compassion allows one to be much more open and less reactive to others.

Being compassionate with ourselves is often much more difficult than being compassionate with our children.

The effects of practicing self compassion are so profound that Stanford Health and the Harvard Business Review have even published articles on the subject. It turns out that being kind to oneself can improve many aspects of one’s life, from health and relationships to career and finances.

If this is a topic that interests you, I encourage you to try Tara Brach’s guided meditation, “The RAIN of Self Compassion,” and to read our full article on meditation for self-love.

Mindful Parenting: How Becoming a Parent Can Affect Our Meditation Practice

I asked parents at various stages of raising children—from recently becoming new parents to having all adult “children” who long ago moved out on their own—how parenting had affected their mindfulness and meditation practice. Many people automatically thought, “How can a parent find time to meditate?” Or, as one person said, “My initial response was not really a thought… I just laughed.”

Others had specific reflections on how becoming a parent changed their meditation practice, with the largest group reporting that they used various mindfulness practices but did not meditate specifically.

Most parents I spoke to reported that they used various mindfulness practices, but did not meditate specifically.

Interestingly, the goals these parents shared for their practice were strikingly similar, regardless of differences in tradition or approach: to be more centered, calm, compassionate, gentle, and present–and less reactive, angry, frustrated, distracted, and confused. 

We’ll explore some ideas that came up in these conversations, and I’ll share some resources that I or others have found helpful.

Personal Experience

As I began investigating this topic, a theme seemed to be that having children might make meditating more difficult. This surprised me, because my own experience has actually been the opposite. From the time my daughter was born, her presence during meditation (or even just meditating as her father, on my own) has brought purpose, depth, and lightness to the practice. 

From the time my daughter was born, her presence during meditation has brought purpose, depth, and lightness to my practice.

Like most parents, I have periods of frustration, outbursts of anger, and times when I am overwhelmed, exhausted, and otherwise less than my best. 

It is precisely for these reasons that I find meditation (and other mindfulness practices like yoga, taijiquan, and qigong) to be so helpful, even necessary, to my parenting journey. Perhaps most importantly, such practices allow me to admit to myself and my family when my own traumas or difficulties lead me to project my frustrations on those I love.

Perhaps most importantly, meditation and mindfulness practices allow me to admit to myself and my family when my own difficulties lead me to project my frustrations on those I love.

Can Parenthood Change Our Reasons for Meditating?

One father I spoke with took his first deep dive into meditation (long before becoming a father) through specific teachings and techniques for relinquishing attachment to the material world–an enticing goal at the time. Once he became a parent, however, he found that he could not continue these practices while being the engaged father he wanted to be. 

One father I spoke with first began meditating through teachings and techniques on relinquishing attachment–and shifted his focus significantly upon becoming a parent.

Eventually, his reasons to meditate became (and continue to be) that he wants to wake up happy and have the ability to be in the moment he is in; to be in control of his emotions, not caught up in what is going on outside. His practice changed accordingly, and he says he can clearly see the positive impact this has had on his children.

We can’t fake it. Kids sense hypocrisy and feel love. They emulate our behavior more than they learn from what we tell them, so as it turns out, we actually have to work on living the dharma, not just lecturing about it.

Having a meditation practice that supports engaged, compassionate, thoughtful parenting allows our children to see for themselves the positive benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices, whether or not they consciously recognize the cause for the difference.

Parenting gives very concrete reasons to meditate, and meditation provides immediate feedback on its effects on our parenting.

Parenting gives very concrete reasons to meditate–and meditation provides immediate feedback on its effects on our parenting. The experience of this parent illustrates this beautifully. Because he was paying attention, he could feel that the type of meditation he was doing was not helpful for his ability to parent in a way that he felt was healthiest for himself and his family. He adapted his focus, redefined his purpose, and was able to cultivate a beneficial practice.

Nonattachment and Engagement

The parent’s story above highlights an interesting question: what does the Buddhist teaching of “nonattachment” look like when one has children?

Nonattachment and engagement are not mutually exclusive. Entire Buddhist traditions make balancing the two a central focus–the Shambhala tradition certainly takes this approach. Still, it is important to understand how to use any tool properly, and different practices produce different psycho-emotional states. Some practices are much more useful when the goal is engaging the world, and others are more useful when we are practicing what various traditions refer to as nonattachment, relinquishing the world, returning to the void, and so on. 

Some practices are more useful when the goal is engaging the world, and others are more useful for practicing nonattachment.

An in-depth discussion of these differences is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important to consider the general idea when preparing to begin any type of meditation practice. Those interested in a more detailed discussion of different approaches to internal cultivation may appreciate an article I wrote on this subject: Taijiquan and Qigong: Exploring Concepts and Uses.

Mindful Parenting: Being vs. Doing

One parent I spoke with shared that before becoming a parent they had plenty of ways to distract themselves. There wasn’t as much pressure, so they didn’t really need a regular “practice.”

After becoming a parent, they realized how easy it was to get wrapped up in all of the doing required as a parent. They realized that years could go by just being caught up in all of the doing, and they needed to find a way to just be.

One parent I spoke with needed to find a way to just be, and found that reading fulfilled this need.

This parent found their way in reading. It allowed them to stop the cycle of doing while remaining physically present with their children. An article titled “Can Reading Make You Happier?” in The New Yorker is full of examples, many evidence-based and some anecdotal, of the ways in which reading benefits mental health. According to the article, “Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm.”

Conclusion

Parenting is a beautiful, complex, challenging, and rewarding journey. Meditation and mindfulness practices can help us to move through the difficult parts with more patience, understanding, and compassion; they can also make it easier to be fully present during the many precious and fleeting moments that come with raising children. I hope that this article has provided you with some useful ideas and resources to aid you in your journey.

If you wish to continue to explore mindful parenting, here are two additional links containing a wealth of useful information and resources on the topics of mindful parenting and self care for parents.

Mindful Parenting | Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Child Development | Stanford Medicine

Self-Compassion for Parents | Greater Good

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

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2024-06-20 02:29:04