Original post on emindful.com
Parenthood: You Can’t Stop the Waves, But You Can Learn to Surf
Growing up in Iowa, I remember marveling at the big maple trees in our backyard as the leaves turned from pale green to rustic orange to burnt red each fall.
No sooner, the leaves would trickle to the ground, and I would gather in the backyard with my neighborhood friends to run and jump in giant piles of crackly brown leaves.
This summer, I watched our daughter and son experience their own little wormhole in time in a game of cat-and-mouse behind our house. Our son cruised nonchalantly on his green tractor as our daughter, still new to walking, tried to catch him with her “lawnmower.” Their screams and giggles echoed through the neighborhood each time they “found” each other. It didn’t matter that it was buggy or burning hot outside. Nor did it matter that they were on their 30th round of the same bat-game.
Children as Live-In Zen Masters
Parents often ask: “How can we teach mindfulness to our children?”
No doubt a rich question, but I wonder if the inverse question is just as important: What can parents learn about mindfulness from their children?
On the one hand, children, in their slow-moving, relentlessly curious, sometimes shockingly impulsive ways, can liberate parents from the seriously-busy – and seriously-serious – mode of daily life.
Consider for a moment if your child has ever:
- Pointed out something cool in the environment you wouldn’t have noticed on your own.
- Lost himself in a seemingly mundane activity for what seemed like hours, as you sat back watching in amazement.
- Said or did something that made you laugh out loud, and completely shifted your energy.
Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to children as “live-in Zen Masters,” and for good reason. But you and I both know that children don’t always deliver their teachings in such welcoming ways.
They also seem to have a knack for pushing buttons (at impeccable times) and persistently magnifying limitations.
For example, has your child ever taken his sweet time getting ready for school when you were tired and low on patience? Or, scoffed at what you made for dinner when you felt vulnerable and were in need of a little appreciation?
For all of these reasons, and then some, I’ve come to think of raising children as an ultimate resilience-building opportunity.
Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight
In her research at Columbia University on the transition to motherhood, Aurelie Athan says, “Raising vulnerable others (animals and aging parents included) unwittingly teaches us about the core tenets of the world wisdom traditions like mindfulness, compassion, patience…”
She goes on to say that these inner strengths make-up the backbone of resilience, and, when exercised, lead to numerous physical and psychological health benefits.
The good news is, through parenthood, you’ll get one opportunity after another to exercise these strengths.
The not so good news: You don’t get to decide when and how these lessons are delivered.
Let’s peek at a few examples.
- Patience: A child learns over time – and in a non-linear way. Most learning, whether it’s getting dressed in the morning or solving a math equation, takes more time and patience than busy parents have. Even when you lose your patience, get frustrated and yell, your patience is simultaneously being tested and stretched. Yes, learning is a messy, imperfect process for parents, too.
- Tolerating uncertainty: You’ll repeatedly bump into new – and recurring – challenges. Why are the kids still fighting? Why is he acting careless on the soccer field all of a sudden? Many parenting struggles can’t be solved with a quick solution via Google search. Rather, they need time to fully surface and be understood. Waiting things out is a practice of learning to admit when you don’t know and learning to be more comfortable with emotions like fear and anxiety. I personally think this emotional “work” gets at the heart of how we learn & evolve as parents.
- Forgiveness: Your child will make mistakes, and so will you. Giving yourself grace, making peace with imperfect, finding forgiveness for yourself and others – all, of course, in your own time and way, is rich work on every parent’s journey.
- Trust: With so much external noise and distraction, it’s not easy to hear the wise, intuitive voice that lives inside. But, the invitation to lean-in and listen, to find your own voice – and way – as a parent, will present itself over and over again. And to that I say, good luck to ya! 😉
- Letting go: Have you ever set out to do something, and then, boom, plans change? Whether the kids got sick or pitched a fit, you’re continually re-routing. Like it or not, letting go, starting over, and changing things on-the-fly are such heavily exercised skills that you have no choice but to buckle up and learn as you go.
- Acceptance: Parenthood is messy. Heartache, exhaustion, and uncertainty are lifelong companions on this journey. Expecting it to be easy, or enjoyable, all the time makes it harder to be a loving, understanding parent. When does your heart naturally open to acceptance, and how might you (slowly) begin to replicate this?
- Humility: Somewhere along the way, parents got the idea that they should have all the answers. Maybe because we’re the older, more responsible person in the relationship. I see parenthood as a standing invitation to practice humility. To say I don’t know. To be willing to learn alongside – and from – children. And perhaps, most importantly, to develop more comfort with taking the path of vulnerability and allowing others to support you.
Looking at this list of strengths your children continually test, and inadvertently, help you grow, you might wonder what in the world you signed up for!
The nice thing is, it’s not for nothing. As you learn and grow these inner strengths, your children can’t help but do the same.
Raising happy, healthy, capable children is far less about parenting the right way, and far more about who you are & how you live your life.
May parenthood, in all its joys and messiness, inspire you on path to greater resilience and well-being.