One of the core ideas of mindfulness is acceptance. When we adopt a mindful stance towards life, we make a conscious choice to accept whatever is happening in the moment without judging it or wishing it was different.
Thus, one of the core ideas of mindful parenting is about accepting whatever is happening for our children or ourselves, without judging it or wishing it was different.
I don’t know about you, but there are many, many times each day when I wish something about my own parenting (such as my tendency to snap at my girls when they throw tantrums) or my daughters (their bickering, whining, and nagging come to mind) were very, very different. The reality is that I often do want things to be other than they are. I want to be a calmer, kinder parent, and I want them to be better communicators and problem-solvers.
At first glance, this does not seem to be a particularly “mindful” stance.
It’s easy to misunderstand this aspect of mindfulness, to assume that mindful parenting ends with acceptance, and that acceptance is the goal. If this were true, then mindful parenting would be nothing short of unbearable. Walls would be covered with marker and crayon drawings, meals would remain uneaten (and possibly flung across the room), tantrums would be unending, curfews ignored, and in general, rules and limits would be disregarded and ultimately irrelevant.
Rather, acceptance is just one step along the path of any moment of mindfulness. First, we have to actually notice what is happening. This may sound incredibly basic, but I can’t tell you how many times I have reminded my daughters two or three times to get their shoes on so we can head out of the house only to realize they’ve already done it. I can’t tell you how many times I have lost my temper at my daughters because I didn’t take a moment to stop, breathe, and notice that I haven’t eaten in hours or I have a terrible headache or I’m just plain tired.
Once we notice what is going on—for ourselves and our children—we have a choice as to how to proceed next. We can either accept it or fight it. Human nature (including my own) often chooses to fight. We just don’t want things to be how they are.
We don’t want this amazing moment to end, so we whip our own cameras and smartphones and insert a hunk of metal with a screen on it between ourselves and our children. We don’t want our children to be sad, so we try to make them feel better. (Which is such a ludicrous phrase when you think about it—who amongst us has ever been successful in truly making make someone feel anything other than what they are feeling? Even when it seems like it’s working, the reality is that we’re just communicating that their feelings aren’t acceptable to us. And yet we keep trying!). We don’t want to acknowledge how hard parenting can be or how exhausted we are, so we keep powering through to the point of utter defeat.
The truth that I have come to accept (albeit begrudgingly) is that fighting against reality is a losing game.
And so we are left with acceptance, a willingness to acknowledge and be with whatever is happening in this moment, no matter how beautiful or horrible it may be. Yes, this sunset will fade away forever in just a few brief moments, and so for now, we can soak it in. Yes, our children are raging, and once we make sure they are safe, we can sit with them in the storm and let them rage. Yes, we’ve forgotten to sign permission slips or register our children up for camp or whatever, and in that moment we can respond to our error with acceptance; rather than berating ourselves for our errors, we can just accept that we are human, and, well, shit happens.
But it doesn’t end there. The beauty of acceptance isn’t just about allowing ourselves to fully engage with life and the range of everything it has to offer (although that’s an amazing side effect). The real power of taking a moment to just be with whatever is happening is that it creates space. (The other choice—fighting with reality—ties up all of our energy in that very battle, and it becomes incredibly difficult to consider what other options we might have.) In the space of acceptance, we can choose how we want to respond to whatever is happening. Perhaps we just need to sit with a sobbing child and let her sob, or perhaps we need to step in and firmly but kindly remind our child that hitting is not ok, and if she continues, we will need to leave the playdate.
Sometimes I find that the space that comes from acceptance leads to a different and more skillful response than I might have otherwise offered my children. Other times, however, I end up setting the same boundary or limit, but I do it a much kinder way. For me, it’s the difference between telling my children they can’t watch another TV show and then getting irritated and snappy when they whine or cry about it, or responding to their frustration by acknowledging how much they like TV and how hard it can be when they have to turn it off.
Either way, the TV gets turned off, but in the second scenario, they usually calm down faster, I feel like a better parent, and our relationship is strengthened. The difference was whether or not I was able to pay attention to their feelings and accept them, which gives me the breathing room to make the best choice possible in that moment.