Your #1 Responsibility as a Parent
What does mindfulness mean, in the context of parenting? It means that you bring your conscious attention to what's happening, instead of operating on auto-pilot. That allows you to CHOOSE your response to your child, instead of getting hijacked by your emotions. And since that's essential if we want to be the patient, emotionally generous parents that every child deserves, I think that cultivating mindfulness, so that we can regulate our own emotions, is our #1 responsibility as parents.
There’s an old saying: Raising children is the toughest work there is. But why is it so difficult?
When I ask an audience this question, parents usually propose two reasons. First, because the stakes are so high. And second, because there are no clear answers about how do it right.
One answer is right, and one is not so right. The stakes are certainly high. But we actually do know a great deal about how to raise a happy, responsible, considerate, emotionally healthy, self-disciplined child. There is a great deal of valuable research on this most important topic, and you'll be relieved to learn how sensible it is. Over and over, studies show that parents who respond with warm, respectful attunement to the unique needs of their individual child, setting limits supportively and coaching their child’s emotions constructively, raise terrific kids. Sensible, but hard. As every parent knows, the hard part is managing our own emotional triggers so that we can make this a reality even some of the time.
"Mindfulness: Allowing an emotion to take hold and pass without acting on it."
“Mindfulness: Not hitting someone in the mouth.”
-8 year old, quoted by Sharon Salzberg
Your child is fairly certain to act like a child, which means someone who is still learning, has different priorities than you do, and can’t always manage her feelings or actions. Her childish behavior is guaranteed, at times, to push your buttons. The problem is when we begin acting like a child, too. Someone has to act like a grown-up, if we want our child to learn how! If, instead, we can stay mindful—meaning we notice our emotions and let them pass without acting on them—we model emotional regulation, and our children learn from watching us.
There's a reason the airlines tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first. Kids can't reach those masks or be relied on to use them properly. If we lose function, our kids can't save us, or themselves. So even if we would sacrifice ourselves to save our kids, it's our responsibility to put on our own masks first.
Kids can't manage their own rage by themselves, either. They can't find their way through the tangle of jealousy that pushes them to whack their little sister. They need our help to handle the fear that we don't love them because they somehow just aren't quite good enough. They know that if they were good enough, they wouldn't want to hit their sister, or sneak that piece of candy, or throw themselves down on the floor and scream. But they can't help themselves, however hard they try not to. (Sort of like when we eat that extra piece of cake.)
So just as with the oxygen mask, it's your job to help your child with his emotions, which is what helps him with his behavior. Unfortunately, when you're stressed out, exhausted, and running on empty, you can't be there constructively for your child, any more than if you black out on the plane.
That's why your first responsibility in parenting is being mindful of your own inner state. Mindfulness is the opposite of "losing" your temper. Don't get me wrong -- mindfulness doesn't mean you don't feel anger. Being mindful means that you pay attention to what you're feeling, but don’t act on it. Anger is part of all relationships. It's acting on it mindlessly, with words or actions, that compromises our parenting (and other partnerships).
Emotions are useful, like indicator lights on a dashboard. If you saw a blinking red light in your car, you wouldn't cover it up or tear out the wiring that caused it, right? You would listen to the information and act on it, for instance, by taking your car in for an oil change. The challenge with human emotions is that so often we're confused about what to do when we feel them. We're hard-wired to respond to all "negative" emotion (those blinking red lights in your psyche that light up throughout your day) in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze.
Those strategies work well in most emergencies. But parenting—despite our fears—is not usually an emergency. Usually, in parenting and in life, the best response to upsetting emotions is not to take action while we’re triggered.
You can count on finding yourself triggered at times, but if you can train yourself to notice when you start to lose it, you have the choice to return yourself back to a state of equilibrium. That peaceful place inside insures that our actions are wise and loving.