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):
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 exactlybe 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)