Mind Matters — Parenting with Presence Makes for a Better Future

“Your children are not your children: They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself. … You can give them your love but not your thoughts, they have their own thoughts.” These words of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese spiritual poet, have been ringing in my ears lately. That is because I have been singing them with the Anna Crusis choir in music arranged by Ysaye Barnwell, a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock. So these words are my segue to the theme of parenting.

Ever wonder what the hardest job in the world might be? Neurosurgeon? Nuclear Engineer? Firefighter? Nurse? Any number of professions may be difficult and require extensive study and training, but the hardest job in the world may be the one many of us perform with little or no education—and, yes, that is parenting.

Besides, any amount of training never prepares us for the reality of child rearing.

Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, authors of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting note “parenting is a mirror in which we get to see the best of ourselves, and the worst; the richest moments of living, and the most frightening.”

Marriage and family therapist Susan Stiffelman expands upon the Kabat-Zinn’s wisdom in her book, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids. Here she explores how parents can learn about themselves as they travel the path of parenting. If we are willing to be their pupils, all the while also being the pathfinders and authoritative (not authoritarian) guides, children can teach us much about ourselves. We learn about our shadow within, the influence of our family history, our foibles, our mistakes, our limits.

“One of the greatest teachers you could ever hope to learn from is living right under your roof, even if (especially if) he or she pushes your buttons or challenges your limitations,” remarks Stiffelman. We learn, for example, what kind of interactor we are with others, as well as with our children. Are we passive, aggressive, passive aggressive, or assertive?

When we are passive parents we so want our children’s approval that we tamp down our feelings in order to placate, collapsing into the child’s demands. An aggressive parent takes the opposite tack, intimidating and threatening the child, creating an atmosphere of fear which lacks any sense of emotional (and perhaps physical) safety. Shame and guilt are the dysfunctional tools of the passive, aggressive parent. The child in this situation can feel responsible for the parent’s emotions to the detriment of their own needs.

The fourth form of interaction, being assertive, is the one to strive for, says Stiffelman. An assertive parent maintains healthy boundaries so that the child has access to his or her own feelings, wants, and inclinations. The parent here accepts the child for who he or she is.

Remember Mr. Rogers, who would say, “I like you just the way you are.”? His television program was as brilliant a source of wise counsel for parents as it was for children. Certainly, he would agree with Stiffelman that when we are assertive parents, we don’t react to our children’s complaints by not taking their balking personally, thus avoiding the plunge into power struggles.

Although Stiffelman provides much practical advice on how to handle specific emotions and situations, she also gives instruction for deeper reflection. Thus, hers is a book not only of “how to’s” but also of “why’s.”

We cannot grow as parents if we do not reflect on why we may act as we do in response to our children’s behaviors. Often, our children’s personalities trigger is us reactions that arise from our experiences in our own family. Here are a few examples of Stiffelman’s questions for reflection:

The work of parenting can be the growth of our consciousness if we look beneath the child’s behaviors to our own unresolved emotions and losses. If we learn about ourselves from our own parenting, our children will be all the wiser for it. Stiffelman, in Parenting with Presence, gives us a concise travel guide for the journey.