THE MYTH OF THE MINDFUL PARENT
Parenthood was never intended to be a peaceful, passive endeavor. Child development is-and will always be-a dynamic, embattled, and, at times, bewildering, process. A certain baseline amount of friction and ruthlessness is to be expected when both generations fight to do their jobs-when children fiercely rattle the family cage as they struggle towards freedom and self-sufficiency, and when parents painfully learn when to release their offspring from the grip of caregiving and how to tolerate feeling abandoned when they are left behind and nudged towards the margins of insignificance.
As a family psychologist, I believe that we do ourselves a tremendous disservice when we attempt to simplify and sanitize childrearing, which is why I find myself both intrigued and troubled by our contemporary fascination with "mindfulness" and its related variants.
In my day-to-day experience with many of the families whom I treat, this fascination often results in being misled into imagining that maintaining mindfulness will be the elixir to cure all developmental ills and produce children who are pleasantly lulled into being kind, conscientious and cooperative, dutifully (perhaps even dully) conforming to all that is expected of them. Succumbing to what I refer to as the "terrorism of transcendence", some parents are even encouraged to adopt the misguided (and quite unhelpful) belief that if they or their family members are experiencing any dark, hot emotions, any interpersonal struggles, any psychological or physical suffering, any setbacks or detours, then they have simply failed to achieve a sufficient-enough state of contemplative enlightenment.
With this in "mind", I recently attended a workshop for clinicians led by a highly-regarded practitioner of mindfulness who at one point promised (and I quote), "Parents who learn to be quiet and mindful will draw the most rebellious child out of her rebelliousness, and towards the peaceful place inside of her heart." Now if a parent has done little but bludgeon her daughter with criticism for eating too much or for studying too rarely over the years, I strongly suspect that some "quieting" would gradually increase the possibility of an improved relationship between the two of them.
But what this kind-hearted lecturer apparently failed to recognize is that a state of rebelliousness is also absolutely essential for growth-without some form of revolt, the emergence of a child's true self is stunted and the daunting cliffs of identity cannot be climbed. My fears about the future of the human race would worsen significantly if parents "mindfully" figured out a way to quell their offsprings' dogged mutinies and insurrections, disruptive and unnerving as these may be.
The beloved and revered teacher Thich Nhat Hanh tells the touching story of Angulimala, a hated and hateful serial killer, and how the Buddha, simply by being unfazed and unperturbed by Angulimala's murderous presence, disarmed him and helped this monster to become the embodiment of nonviolence. I greatly admire the inspirational work of Thich Nhat Hanh, but I would certainly hope that the parents of a misbehaving child would not aspire to be Buddha-like in this way. In fact, I would venture to say that nothing could be more dangerous to, or infuriating for, a developing child than being raised by the Buddha.
Because children need to see that their behaviors do faze and perturb their parents-that is one of the ways in which they know that they are alive, that they are reminded that they exist, and that they become aware that they can have impact. A staunch commitment to "finding inner peace" or "staying in the moment" just isn't going to do the trick for mothers and fathers, or for their sons and daughters, because child-rearing and child-development are not solo performances-as neuroscientists have known for years, "A mind needs another mind to grow." A developing family requires a series of bracing encounters between family members, encounters that may be comforting or comfortable-an embrace, an agreement-but that just as often will require discomfort-a jarring collision of perspectives, a jolting mismatch of expectations.
To me, the most important statement in a child's language-the one that she needs to learn to announce if she is going to develop-is some version of "I am!" Imagining that a parent can-and should-serenely hover above troubling or provocative behavior and hover in a state of unflappable calm deprives a child of experiencing the necessary, aggressive and dangerous deliciousness of "I am!", the two words that lie at the foundation of growth.
And while practitioners of mindfulness are wise to remind us that our thinking (or over-thinking) can sometimes get us into trouble and create unnecessary suffering, our thinking can just as easily get us out of trouble, too. A cartoon depicted one monk commenting to another, "Are you not thinking what I'm not thinking?" We laugh at this because we understand that, at some level, we are always thinking, even when we "think" that we are not thinking. When we think, we automatically transcend.
Raising children well actually requires tremendous thought-in fact, thinking things through catalyzes emotional growth, modulates some of a parent's worst reflexes and tendencies, and, as a result, heralds the mending and transformation of family life.
Attempting to neutralize or dampen thought isn't always such a good thing and, in some cases, deprives parents and children of the liberating powers of creativity, insight, and perspective. Meditation mentors encourage us to bring focus to our thinking, to not let our minds wander, but I believe it can be quite helpful when parents do let their minds-and let their children's minds-wander. Our species, despite its many worrisome tendencies, certainly did not rise to the top of the food chain by abandoning our formidable intellect and curiosity-it is that intellect and curiosity that got us here.
Don't get me wrong-I am not advocating a "throw the baby out with the bathwater" approach here, and do believe that mindfulness and related activities can be worthwhile pursuits for anyone, parents as well as children. But decades of personal and clinical experience tell me that mindfulness will not, by itself, raise a child, just as dozens of other laudable and potentially growth-promoting activities-exercise, prayer, childrearing classes, acupuncture, finding a good tutor, etc.-won't. Mindfulness can be a step on the path towards raising a child who embodies self-respect as well as respect towards others, and it may even smooth the path a bit, but it is certainly not the path, itself. We are constantly in pursuit of the algorithm that will elegantly decode the complicated calculus of family life-and "mindfulness" is currently one of the most popular names for that elusive algorithm-but, for better or worse, such a neat psychological theorem does not exist.
What I have learned from my own family and from taking care of hundreds of other families is that life is essentially characterized by a series of ultimately unsolvable impasses that prompt us to grow if we allow them to. So if we are going to do any "letting go", what we should really let go of is the myth that there exists a practice or pursuit that is going to steadily unravel the enduring and elemental problems associated with being a particular human being, and with being in relationship with the other human beings whom we need, and who need us.
The question is not how do we solve those problems, but how do we discover meaning, accrue wisdom, figure out what we are here for, and cultivate compassion, patience and care as we repeatedly bump up against the particular problems associated with being true to ourselves. And our true self emerges not from desperately trying to solve the unsolvable or to tranquilly rise above it, but from allowing ourselves to bravely encounter, and thus to be transformed by, the unsolvable.
All families suffer, children and adults alike. The most effective parents, from my perspective, should endeavor designed to help their children learn how to recognize why they are suffering, and then to enable them to think and to feel differently, and then to act and interact differently, so that they can learn from their suffering-which invariably results not only in less suffering, but also in a warmer, fuller, richer, life. Mindfulness is a valuable pursuit, but it is in actively exploring how we think, how we feel, and the very interesting spaces that exist between thinking and feeling, that such a life becomes achievable for both generations.