Oh no, not another person telling us how to best raise our kids! I normally avoid parenting advice like a Hand Foot and Mouth epidemic at the local playgroup, but I just couldn’t resist picking up “The Conscious Parent” by Shefali Tsabary. Partly because Tsabary is a Psychologist and partly because the book is based on a concept I hadn’t even heard of before in relation to parenting. Conscious Parenting is about measuring child rearing success by your child’s ability to connect with and express their true self, as opposed to more traditional markers like a prestigious career, or more modern ideals such as the child’s ‘happiness’.
So who’s a conscious parent? A conscious parent is a mindful parent, as far as I can work out. They are present in the moment, non-judgemental of the moment and their child, and in doing so, they allow their children to become aware of, and then express, their own true selves, says Tsabary. Her anecdotes about clients and their families focus on parents with rigid belief systems who end up with a child who does not fit into these (e.g. conservative Christians having a gay child), and parents who are high achievers and push their children to be the same –a recipe for teenage rebellion apparently so watch out! It’s a book that requires a bit of thought whilst reading, not quite beachside material. If you’d like to become a conscious parent, read on.
How to be a Conscious Parent
Tsabary tries to avoid prescriptive advice, saying that conscious parenting is about being in the moment and responding to the moment, rather than a set of rules or even guidelines. This sounds like mindfulness to me (if you want a reminder on what mindfulness is, check out my blog post ‘How Mindfulness Can Help You Reach Your Goals’). Despite the lack of specifics, I still managed to dig out some easy to do, practical pointers that improved my parenting. These included:
1. Say ‘I love you’ and ‘thank you for being in my life’ when children are doing nothing at all. Literally nothing – lying on the couch. The rationale is that this helps children to understand that you love them not for their achievements or their physical or mental abilities, but just for being themselves. A beautiful idea and very easy to implement!
2. Honour emotions. Say how you’re feeling and why, rather than trying to hide it, or just letting it escape through your actions and tone of voice. E.g. if you’re frustrated, say you are and why, rather than smiling and pretending it’s all okay, or allowing frustration to build and then exploding when your child slams the door.
As well as teaching children that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling by showing them negative emotions exist, by naming what’s happening for you it stops you from displacing it onto them. E.g. ‘I’m feeling scared because I just missed a call from my boss and I’m worried he’s calling for some information I don’t have’ explains why you’re yelling about some spilt milk and by putting it into words, your fear will change – or you’ll do something about it! To practice honouring emotions, you have to look at why you’re reacting to a situation the way you are – are you afraid for your children’s safety, is it because you’re worried what others will think, is it because you’re afraid of being a bad parent if you don’t? If you can work this out, you give yourself enough distance from your emotion that it is no longer controlling your reactions to your children. Sometimes, though, this can be challenging – especially in the midst of things going wrong.
3. Honour your child’s innate preferences. E.g. Asking your child if they liked something or not and just accepting their like or dislike, without trying to make them wrong if they don’t agree with you or celebrating if they do agree with you. Another easy one to implement!
4. Don’t be uptight all the time. Show your children you can be silly, and that imperfect is the way of the world, not something to shy away from, so they don’t end up striving for an impossible perfectionism but can be fully themselves. I loved this one – permission to have fun and relax.
5. See your children as your teachers, rather than just as your students. Tsabary asserts we have way more to learn from our children in terms of honesty, vitality, expressing joy and being in the moment than we have to teach them about the world. I found this advice relaxing and it helped me to enjoy my children’s company more.
Are we conscious yet?
There is a focus in the book on how our unconscious is driving most of our reactions to our children, particularly when we act out of anger or frustration. Tuning in to why I was being so reactive, and finding a reason in my past, was often too hard. I could grasp surface reasons pretty easily (I’m frustrated because I’m putting pressure on myself with regards to time, rather than it being my daughter’s behaviour) but beyond this, I struggled. It’s difficult to self-analyse and more so when under stress!
The book stresses that a failure to consciously parent your child results in all sorts of potentially devastating consequences for your disconnected-from-self child, putting the responsibility for later rebellion to be the result of unconscious parenting. A heavy burden to bear – it’s all your fault, parent! However to be fair, Tsabary does also remind you throughout the book that conscious parenting is not about being perfect but just about doing your best (in fact, being imperfect and allowing children to see this is integral to her ideas about parenting). Again, this is mindfulness – something you can only do in the moment, and so can never master until the moments stop coming.
One final idea
Tsabary makes a bold statement that I found thought provoking –if you’re losing your patience with your children on a near daily basis, then you’re stretched too thin. She advises that if this is you, you need to be seriously evaluating your life and examining what you can change to reduce your stress so you become more relaxed and therefore patient.
I really enjoyed the book although at times I found the sentiment of being present in every moment to be overwhelming. Reading it did increase my ability to be mindful with my children and I found myself slowing down more and going at kid pace and feeling okay with that, rather than worrying we weren’t doing enough activities.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.