Finally. After making our way through intention, attention, the present moment, and kindness and curiosity, we’ve come to the my favorite part of this whole mindfulness shtick: choosing what you’re going to do next.

The ability to be thoughtful and intentional about how we respond to our children is the pot of gold at the end of the mindful parenting rainbow.

It’s why most of us got into this in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong; paying attention to whatever is actually happening in a kind and curious way can be a reward in its own right. The ability to be fully present and not beat ourselves up when the present moment is less than ideal (aka “reality”) can make our lives feel easier and more enjoyable.

And the trick to moving mindfulness from our minds to our interactions with our children is simple, but not always easy. It’s about using our mindful mindset so we can choose our next behavior.

This is the part where a lot of parents get hung up. Whenever I give talks on this topic, I inevitably get some variation of this question:

But what do I do when my kids throws a massive tantrum? Or won’t put his shoes on? Or hits me? Or steals toys from her little sister? Or won’t go to sleep at night? Or… (insert your parenting conundrum du jour here). 

These parents want me to tell them what to do. I get it. I really do. I can’t tell you often I find myself thinking, “I have been on this planet for nearly four decades, and a parent for nearly a quarter of that time, and nothing in my life history – not one single experience – has prepared me for this moment. I have literally no idea what to do.”

Even so, I generally don’t give parents a straight answer to their “But what do I do when…?” question, for a few different reasons:

If I were to give specific advice (usually something generic along the lines of, “get down to your child’s level, look him in the eye, and calmly say…”), I would be communicating to this parent (who I don’t know) that there is a right way – one right way – to handle this particular parenting situation.

There are two problems with this inference. First, it’s not true; there are many effective ways to handle any given situation, and even the “experts*” disagree about the best approach. Second, if parents are led to believe that there is a right way to do things, what will they think if that way doesn’t work for them? They’ll think they’ve failed, when it’s much more likely that the advice failed them.

In addition, such advice reinforces a common misconception among our parenting generation: that “parenting experts” are the best source of information about how to respond to our children. Now, to be sure, there are many folks out there, from psychologists to pediatricians, who know a lot about children in general. But unless we’re talking about your psychologist or your pediatrician, they know essentially nothing about you and your kiddo and your particular dynamics.

Which is why, at the end of the day, their advice only makes sense if it happens to work for your family.

Our most accurate and useful sources of data about how to parent live in our own homes. When we slow down, notice, and get curious about what’s happening for ourselves and our children, and what works with all of us and what doesn’t, we become aware of the triggers, patterns, styles, and preferences of each member of our family.

This big picture awareness, combined with the present moment awareness of mindfulness, represents our best possible shot at responding to our children in the most skillful way possible.

I realize that this fundamental idea of mindful parenting – that approaching each moment with kindness and curiosity is the first step to knowing what to do next – is both empowering and terrifying. Fortunately for all of us imperfect parents, this is just one piece of the puzzle. We also need lots of support, self-compassion, coffee, sleep, and a deep, unwavering commitment to not taking any of this too seriously.

One more point while I’m at: I am not promising perfection. Perfection in parenting is neither possible nor desirable.

Sometimes the best choice is to tell our children that we need to step away and take a few deep breaths so we don’t yell at them. Sometimes all we can do is put them in front of the TV so we can sit quietly for a few minutes and drink a cup of coffee. And sometimes mindful parenting means apologizing to our kids after we yell at them, because we just couldn’t catch ourselves in time.

These may not seem like ideal parenting choices, but we’re not parenting in fantasyland. We’re parenting in reality, folks. And our best shot at getting this whole thing right is to keep coming back to reality and making the best possible choice we can from there.

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