There’s no question in my mind that mindfulness can make us all better parents, both by helping us to stay tuned in to our own thoughts and feelings so they don’t unconsciously dictate our actions AND by giving us the skills and tools to truly connect with our children so we can best respond to their thoughts and emotions with kindness. I have found that my own meditation and informal mindfulness practices have made a noticeable improvement in my ability to stay calm and choose how I want to respond to my girls, rather than reacting to them out of frustration or anger. I’m definitely not perfect, but it’s getting better.
To be honest, though, I had always thought that mindfulness was going to require more effort in my parenting. I worried that all of that awareness, all of that figuring out what is going on inside my crazy mind (as well as my daughters’ minds!) was going to be an awful lot of work. I decided to do it anyway, because the way I saw it, parenting is hard work no matter how you do it, so you might as well try to get it right, right?
Turns out I was wrong. I just read two studies by Karen Bluth and Robert Wahler at The University of Tennessee looking at the relationship between mindfulness and parental effort. They asked mothers of both adolescents and pre-schoolers to fill out scales measuring how generally mindful they are and also how much effort they expend in parenting. Not surprisingly, they found that “the mothers with high mindfulness scores reported less parenting effort and lower problems with their youth than did mothers with low mindfulness scores” (2011a, p. 177).
Basically what they’re saying is that mindful parenting actually takes less work than mindless parenting, which is how most of us (including me) move through most of our interactions with our children. The authors speculate about a couple of reasons why this might be true: Perhaps as we become better at being aware of and attentive to our children’s thoughts and feelings, it becomes easier to understand what they need and know how to respond. Just this morning my older daughter was having a really hard time. I was getting increasingly frustrated with her tantrums, and as I noticed myself getting all worked up, I decided to STOP. I took a few deep breaths, and tried to really observe what was going on with our family. I realized that my big girl was responding to a big change in our family—her little sister had decided she wanted to wear underwear for the first time today.
Instead of getting increasingly annoyed with my daughter, I sat down with her, and we talked about what was going on. She was able to tell me that she’s worried about not getting enough attention because her sister is getting so much attention during the potty training process. And I was able to talk to her about those feelings, and make a plan for how we can make sure she’s getting enough attention
Needless to say, the rest of the morning went a lot easier than if I had just continued reacting to each tantrum.
Bluth and Wahler offer another explanation for why mindfulness might make parenting seem a bit easier: “It is possible that mothers who are more mindful are also not as bothered or concerned about their child’s behavior, particularly in relation to how it may be perceived by others, possibly because they see the child’s ‘acting out’ as part of her developmental process and not as a reflection of their mothering” (2011b, p. 284).
This also made a lot of sense to me. I know that when my girls are melting down in the middle of a store, for example, I get totally wrapped up in it—I become obsessed with getting them to calm down quickly, and I worry about how my parenting will be seen (and judged!) but those around me. Yet I definitely stay much calmer when I’m with someone else’s kids who are freaking out, and I do think it’s because I don’t feel responsible for their behavior, while I absolutely do feel like my kids’ tantrums are a reflection of my own parenting flaws.
What if we could understand our children’s behaviors the way mindfulness teaches us to understand our own thoughts? They aren’t a reflection of who we are, and they don’t define us. We aren’t in control of them, and all we can do is notice them, take a deep breath, and respond as best we know how—knowing full well that they, too, will pass. That sounds like a lot less effort than getting all entangled in and worked up about any of it.
Bluth, K., & Wahler, R. G. (2011a). Does Effort Matter in Mindful Parenting? Mindfulness, 2(3), 175–178. doi:10.1007/s12671- 011-0056-3
Bluth, K., & Wahler, R. G. (2011b). Parenting Preschoolers: Can Mindfulness Help? Mindfulness, 2(4), 282–285. doi:10.1007/s12671-011-0071-4