The Four Not So Noble Truths of Mindful Parenting
Not to get all Buddhist on you (I’m not even Buddhist, I’m not an expert, I don’t even play one on television), but you know, they really have some things figured out, some things that are intensely relevant to parenting and the kinds of things we talk about and promote in Visible Child. I’m not sure there are any things that I could offer to you about our parenting journeys that would be more valuable than these. Take them to heart.
Buddhism, to my understanding (I’m no expert, like I said) has as a core principle something called the Four Noble Truths. You can read a great summary of them here, if you’re interested, since despite my constant use of the word Buddhism, this post isn’t really about Buddhism, but rather, about mindful parenting. But for now, in abbreviated and admittedly simplistic form, they are (courtesy of my refrigerator door):
What I want you to notice here is the assertion that suffering comes from wanting things to be different (they say “desire”-this is one example of desire). While this simplistic version of “desire” isn’t precisely what they mean when they speak of this “second noble truth”, there is much that we can learn from a related interpretation or application. Let me explain.
I see SO many parents who struggle SO mightily so many ways, with parenting, especially with parenting young children. What I am witnessing is genuine suffering–wishing we hadn’t had children, wondering if we’re cut out for this, feeling oppressed and defeated and hurt by our children’s words and actions and emotions, feeling at the end of our ropes. True suffering. And what I want to say to you here is that that suffering is increased exponentially by expecting that parenthood and life with young children will somehow be otherwise, that young children will somehow be compliant and easy in a way that is not reflective of their age or developmental stage, that the happy magical life with children that we envisioned before we had children is real, that (this is the big one), that we are the only ones, that everyone else’s families seem to be more manageable or calm, that it must just be us and something we’re doing wrong and that if we could only do it right–get this respectful parenting thing right–our lives would be easier and better. This is all an illusion, my friends. One huge illusion. Everyone struggles. No one’s family is easy or perfect. It’s not only you. Parenting young children is challenging–some days or hours more than others, but definitely challenging. Young children (under 7 or 8) go through predictable and sustained periods of regulation/disregulation (or as the much beloved article calls it, equilibrium/disequilibrium). Chaos and upset and tantrums and unhappiness and limit testing and wanting control are how early childhood is SUPPOSED to be. When you find yourself saying “But things have been going so well, she has been so cooperative…and now I don’t even recognize who she is–WHAT HAPPENED?”, try to remember that “what happened” is development.
It’s hard. And the point here is that it doesn’t have to be quite as hard. You say that you see some families that don’t seem to have these problems, who seem to coexist more or less happily, where parents don’t seem quite as stressed. And I have told you above that this is an illusion. So now I’m going to backtrack on that just a teensy bit (so soon?) because another lesson that is sorely worth learning and invaluable to parenting mindfully is that it is possible for two seemingly contradictory things to be true at the same time. This one has nothing to do with Buddhism by the way, at least to my knowledge. It’s more aligned with cognitive development in human beings. One of the marks of healthy and mature adult cognitive development is the ability to hold two conflicting perspectives simultaneously. Which conveniently if indirectly brings us back to suffering…because i also see a lot of parents (and other adults) who can’t seem to do this. It comes up all the time, sometimes in the form of “But that other time, you said…” (or my favorite, “But Robin said…”) or “I screamed at my child today. I’m a horrible parent”, as if it’s not possible to scream at your child AND be a good parent. It’s AND. Not EITHER/OR.
So, how to make this happen for yourself, other than going and sitting on a mountain in Tibet (which sounds amazing and wonderful to me, personally, but may not exactly be your cup of tea, and besides, you have kids, you can barely leave the house, much less go to Tibet….unless of course, you’re reading this from Tibet or near Tibet, in which case HELLO! and I hope to visit you one of these days)?
What do those families have that you don’t have? What are they doing that you aren’t doing? I don’t know. But one thing they might be doing is accepting that this is how life is, not fighting it. When their four-year old says “I hate you and I’m going to cut you up in a million pieces,” they say to themselves, “I know that’s something four year olds say, they don’t mean it like it sounds, I have to be the adult and not lay adult interpretations on four year olds words” and they move on. When they go on vacation and the kids melt down and don’t want to go do all the fun stuff, they cancel all of their plans for the day, and just do what the kids want to do, like hang out by the pool all day and eat french fries. Because that’s what vacation (otherwise known as “parenting harder somewhere else”) is like with little kids (if that’s REALLY hard for you, maybe wait for family vacations until the kids are older.) When they see other children sitting like perfect angels in the restaurant while their kids are blowing loud bubbles in their drinks and throwing sugar packets at each other and sliding under the table, they say to themselves “Kids need to move, they aren’t made to wait and sit still. I’m sure that family has their moments. And all kids are different. Maybe they punish their kids and keep them really tightly controlled, and that’s why the kids are so quiet, I wouldn’t want to do that, I like my spunky kids.” When they have just the worst day in the history of the universe, and they’ve been kicked by their child, who wasn’t happy with anything, despite every sign that they’re eating and sleeping just fine, they say (with exhaustion) “Yeah. Some days with young kids are just a shit show. I expect that to happen sometimes.”
You get the idea. They accept what is, without wishing it to be different, and without wanting their kids to be different than they are. It takes practice. And mindfulness. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need to practice, and mindfulness is a practice, remember?
And that’s not all that helps. You know what else helps? Equipping yourself with knowledge about child development. No one tells parents what is normal or typical, and as a result, we are left in the unfortunate position of interpreting children’s behavior through an adult lens, and setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment.
- The baby is making so many struggling sounds and even a bit of crying while they are trying to turn over–we read “distress” that must be fixed or soothed, when that sort of frustration is actually a critical part of a child’s motivation and experience.
- The toddler takes a toy away from another toddler at the playground and we think “Oh, no, I need to teach them to share, I don’t want them to be a bully!” when toddler taking toys from one another is most often no big deal or a very transitory upset (i.e. seconds) to toddlers, and is how they typically interact socially.
- We notice that a three-year old mixes up their pronouns or doesn’t pronounce their r’s correctly, and we worry that they will have lifelong confusion or speech difficulties, when those things are not only typical, but common and expected in 3 year olds.
- We see a child who cries at drop-off at preschool and clings to us and we say to ourselves “they’re not ready” or “this is damaging her secure attachment!” or “What does it to a child when we abandon them and they don’t think we care about them?”, when crying at a new situation and new adults is not only typical and perfectly normal for almost all children, but is a test for us, as they are looking to us to see if we are calm and confident, which is the gauge they use to decide if a new situation is safe.
- We hear a 4-year-old say to another 4 year old”We don’t like him. He’s not our friend is he? He can’t come to our birthday parties, can he?” and the other say “Yeah. He’s not our friend” and we react with alarm, thinking that we are raising children to bully others and that children are being harmed by this “cruelty”, seemingly unaware that anywhere from five minutes to a few hours to a day later, the same words will be said in a different configuration, or the same children will be saying to each other “We’re best friends, right? You can come to my birthday party”, since this is the perfectly normal way that four-year olds experiment with how to navigate social relationships and explore what it means to be a friend or a “best friend.”
- We see a kindergartener counting out of order or writing letters backwards or holding a pencil with their fist and we think, with dismay, that they are “behind”, when those things are a natural part of the development of early literacy and numeracy.
- We see a school aged child who seems to struggle with peer relationships or have no interest in sports and we think that they need our help, or they’ll never have positive social relationships, when the struggle and ups and downs of friendship continue throughout the school years, with them learning as they go, a critical experience for learning how to navigate the complex social world of their peer group, in their own unique way and at their own unique pace.
- We see a pre-teen who sulks and speaks “rudely” and seems annoyed all the time, and we think “we’d better nip this in the bud, they can’t speak this way to us”, when these behaviors are utterly commonplace at the ages at which hormones first emerge and massive cognitive shifts are happening and children are confused at all the rapid changes in their bodies and their thinking.
- We see a teenager who wants to sleep all day and stay up late and who sometimes avoids responsibilities, and we call them “lazy” or “entitled” or “antisocial”, when in fact, they’re doing exactly what teenagers are supposed to do at a time of massive psychological, social, and physical change, and when they desperately need us to be their partners, to be on their side.
It doesn’t have to be this way, my friends. You can, with relatively little effort, take development a step at a time, right along with your children as they grow. You can read about one period of life at a time. My favorite resource, by far, for this is the short little Louise Bates Ames books “Your Three Year Old,” “Your Four Year Old,” etc. which are old (so very easy to find in used bookstores or online for almost nothing!) and dated in their language and examples, but by far the best thing out there about child development…come on, you’re a grown up, and remember, you can hold two contradictory things in your mind at one time, so you can hold on to these books as terrific resources for child development AND hold that they are not reflective of current language or social/political realities. Both things can be true–remember? In any case, you might be surprised by the immense power of knowing what is typical for different ages, and the impact of that knowledge on your expectations and distress, and in turn, your ease and joy in parenting (see above.)
So here they are, my four not so noble truths of mindful parenting, in more parent-friendly language, and not exactly in the order in which they are discussed in this post (because that’s how my mind works):
1) Life as a parent is hard. (Life is suffering)
2) Life as a parent is made SO much harder by expecting or wanting it or your child(ren) to be different than it is or they are. (Suffering comes from desire, i.e. wanting things to be different than they are)3) Educating yourself about child development, trusting your children, and letting go of what you thought parenting would be like or who you thought your child would be, and accepting what it is can offer you far greater joy and peace in parenting. (There can be an end to desire, i.e. when you stop wanting or expecting things to be different, your life will be easier.)4. It is both possible and valuable to remember that, as an adult, you can hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. (Not even remotely Buddhist at all, nor related to the Four Noble Truths, but I like the round number of four, and I had one more thing to say, and the 4th one in the actual four noble truths is about following Buddhism and that’s not what this post is about)
To be clear, this is not something you can change over night. But it is also not something that you can learn by practicing “what do say” or “what to do” or “how to intervene” or “what to do instead of punishing.” This is about a change in your mindset. This is about adopting a practice of mindfulness, and using that practice to gradually shift your lens in the interest of fully seeing and accepting the child in front of you right now. It won’t be perfect…but with every breath, every step, with every acknowledgement that this is just how life is with kids and that there is nothing “wrong” with your children, you take one more step to being one of those seemingly rare people out there who genuinely feel joy in their daily life with their children…even when things are hard. It’s worth a shot, no?