By Christopher Joseph
“Every day our children spread their dreams beneath our feet – we must therefore tread softly!”
This quote by Ken Robinson, who is a world leading speaker on the development of education, creativity and innovation, is pinned to the back of my kitchen cupboard along with a few hundred other ones! But, this one in particular strikes me every morning when I reach for the breakfast bowls. It serves to remind me of the great responsibility that I have as a father. Sometimes the enormity of this responsibility feels overwhelming and at times even a burden, but at other times I realise what an incredible opportunity I have to contribute to the nurture and development of a young individual in this world, and then I feel very privileged. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t, but my intentions are always positive.
I have two children with my wife Sharon. Aled is six and Anwen is almost three. Aled goes to a local Welsh school and I currently share the care of Anwen with a local childminder, as my wife works as a full-time teacher.
The quality of the time that I’m able to spend with Aled and Anwen varies immensely, and what I’ve come to realise is that that quality is dependent not on the activity we’re engaged in but on my own state of mind when I’m with them. If I have a lot on my mind, then the degree to which I am able to be fully present in body and mind, and parent mindfully is severely eroded, and looking after them can sometimes feel like a chore. If I am able to be fully present, however, and completely engage with them, then the time we spend together can transform into what can often feel like a spiritual practice.
Over time I have learnt that the degree to which I am able to maintain this open and aware presence for them is dependent on two main factors: The frequency and depth of my own mindfulness practice and the amount of ‘other stuff’ I have going on in my life. This ‘other stuff’ more often than not relates to my work. As a friend recently commented, running stress reduction mindfulness courses can actually be very stressful! This is because it involves all of the things such as marketing, administration and accounts that go along with running any other small business.
But, so what? Isn’t it quite natural for us to have things on our mind? Does it really make a difference whether we are fully present for our children or not? As long as they are safe and have toys to play with it’s okay, isn’t it? They know we love them, don’t they? …Maybe!
These justifications of the mind are quite natural but then, as so often happens, something comes along and cuts through it all, and the veils of delusion fall away. This happened to me recently when I read an article by Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. (http://www.dailygood.org/more.php?n=4765a).
In his article he says:
“The most precious gift you can give to the one you love is your true presence. What must we do to really be there? Those who have practiced meditation know that meditating is above all being present: to yourself, to those you love, to life.”
He then asks: “Do you have enough time to love?”
My honest response to this was: “Sometimes!” And, furthermore, the stark realisation that I took away from this article was that love was an ongoing process that could potentially imbue all of my communication with my children, in all of its forms, be it verbal or non-verbal. Love after all is a verb. This, however, is only true if I am able to be present for them, and if I am not present, then how can I love?
It’s not easy of course. It never is. The things that often preoccupy my mind when I’m with my children and sit with me during meditation are the things that pay the bills! But, a question that I always carry with me, and one that I don’t think we should stop asking ourselves is: “Can I simplify my life?”
The answer for me at this present time is yes! I have already simplified my life since leaving behind the pursuit of an academic career in University. I am far more centred, content and happy since doing so, but there is always more that I can do, and am going to do, to simplify it further.
One of the corner stones of mindful parenting in my opinion, therefore, is our ability to be present for our children. I think that a big part of ensuring presence is not just practicing the art of present moment attention through meditation, but also taking whatever action is necessary to provide ourselves with enough space in which to be present in. What this means in practice for me is allocating sufficient time to simply be with my children, as free from distractions as possible, rather than trying to cram parenting time into an already busy schedule. The most precious gift that I think we can give our children, or anyone for that matter, is the ability to be present for them.
I think space is very important. Not only do we need to give ourselves space to parent mindfully, but I think our children also need space to be children mindfully! It’s a challenge as a father these days not to be overly influenced by the negative media portrayal of the so called ‘state of our society’, and the perceived dangers that are supposed to exist ‘out there’ for children.
The word balance comes to mind here, and that of course means different things to different people. As an example, we live on a road in a modern housing estate which has a cul de sac at the end. We have let Aled play on his bike out on the pavement by himself since he was 4, but we wouldn’t let him play on the busy mountain road behind our house. So I think with space comes the necessary boundaries which serve to define that space. I therefore believe that the provision of clear boundaries is also an important part of mindful parenting. Personally, however, myself and my wife try and establish these boundaries based on our own perceptions and experiences of the world and potential dangers that may exist rather than what we read in the papers.
My son has a veracious appetite for asking questions and uncovering how things work. I think, in part, this is due to the space he has been given when growing up to explore, to experiment and to discover, as well as to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. I haven’t always got it right by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes I’ve been over-controlling, over-critical, I’ve shouted and I’ve smothered rather than supported them. These times have largely been born out of my own fears, and my own negative mental states, rather than anything terrible Aled or Anwen have actually done. I often find myself apologising when I feel that I have acted unskilfully, and I think this is also another important part of mindful parenting – admitting when you’ve got it wrong and taking whatever action is necessary to make amends.
I feel that the desire to try and control situations and my children’s behaviour is strong as a parent. I believe this is mainly due to a failure on my part to see things from their point of view, to recognise their needs as well as my own, and to my resistance in accepting who and what they actually are at this very moment – i.e. children. What I have come to realise over time is that through trying to control their behaviour to meet my own expectations, by repeatedly telling them what to do, I am inadvertently and subconsciously sending them the message that I don’t trust them to decide for themselves. Children do of course need guidance since generally they don’t possess the maturity to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions on themselves and others. I believe this guidance, wherever possible though, should come from exemplification in our own behaviour as parents and role models, rather than from controlling commands or critical comments.
And this, once again, isn’t easy of course. I think that mindful parenting is possibly the hardest work in the world, but it’s also potentially the most rewarding. In many respects I think mindful parenting follows the Breathworks 5 Step Process of Mindfulness. Firstly we have to bring awareness to our parenting, not only present moment awareness, but also awareness of their needs, our needs and the interrelation between the two. Secondly we have to be open to the unpleasant aspects – and I don’t just mean the dirty nappies! We have to be mindful of the expectations that we carry for our children, no matter how subtle, and the ways in which these expectations can serve as obstacles to our full acceptance of them and their behaviour in the present moment – they are after all, as well as being ‘little angels’, individual human beings who are constantly developing and growing up in what is an ever increasing complex world. Thirdly, we should seek out and fully appreciate the pleasant aspects; the cute smiles, the innocent comments and the unconditional love. Fourthly, we must try and hold both the challenging ‘unpleasant’ aspects of parenting and the pleasant rewarding aspects together in some form of equanimity, without being excessively swayed and consumed by one or the other. And, through doing so, we arrive at the fifth stage of choice – the choice to respond creatively rather than react habitually to whatever parenting situations arise.
It is often said that life’s a stage and that living is a dance. As a father who is trying to parent mindfully I feel that my role is one of a support dancer in the wings: supporting them where necessary, picking them up when they fall over, and above all letting them dance their own dance in their own way on their own stage of life.