Mindful Parenting: Why present is better than perfect
I recently asked my Facebook community what kind of parenting style they felt most aligned with, and whether they were familiar with the term ‘mindful parenting’. I wanted a sense of what they referred to themselves as, when they spoke of their parenting.
A gentle parent? Attachment parent? Conscious parent? Positive Parent? Peaceful Parent? Natural parent? Respectful parent? There are so many styles of parenting out there these days – so what kind of parent did they think of themselves as?
Well, of course, as you might expect, pretty much every single person who replied had a slightly different answer for me!
Does the parenting style I choose really matter anyway?
Well…yes. But also…no. What do I mean by that?
Well, there’s been lots of research on this topic, which I’m not planning to go into here because that’s a whole separate post (or two!) on it’s own. But research tells us that authoritative, rather than authoritarian or permissive parenting styles are better for children.
But ultimately, the most important element that impacts on our children and their future success, is their attachment and connection to their primary caregivers. It’s our relationship.
So if you are guided by your relationship and your connection with your child when you parent them, and your decisions are based on strengthening this connection, then this will produce the best outcome for your child.
And within the realm of authoritarian parenting, there are lots of different ways to foster healthy connection with our kids, regardless of which particular style of parenting you subscribe to.
Why did I choose Mindful Parenting?
Personally, I’ve never really found one single parenting style that felt like a perfect fit for me and my family. My own style has always been a bit of an amalgamation of a few different styles. I found some parenting styes far too prescriptive (and restrictive) for my liking. I felt like the message was: follow these rules, do things exactly like this, or else. Or else what? I failed? I screwed up my child for life? The pressure was too much!
Ultimately, I was interested in parenting my kids respectfully. With empathy and understanding. In a way that built them up, filled their buckets, boosted their resilience and created a strong attachment and connection with me that would help them thrive. I was interested in building resilient kids, a calm home and a connected family.
And when I stumbled upon Mindful Parenting one day, I realised that it ticked all of the boxes for me. And that it was kind of, more or less, what I was already doing. It felt like it fit. After all, at it’s core, mindful parenting is about being fully present, and I feel like that’s where all parenting needs to begin. We cannot fully connect with anyone, if we are not fully present with them.
So what is Mindful Parenting?
Mindful parenting is the act of bringing mindfulness principles into your interactions with your children. If you’re not familiar with mindfulness, it is the act of paying attention to your environment, as well your internal state (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations) without judgment. It’s about being fully present in the moment.
Now we’ve all been in a situation where we have reacted without thinking, right? Where we become so angry that we immediately begin to yell, or lash out. Where we become so overwhelmed by emotion that we no longer feel in control of our reaction. It just comes out. Mindlessly.
Well, mindful parenting is the opposite of that. It is the skill of leaving space between the situation and your reaction. Being able to feel a feeling, and not let it control you. It is the ability to feel an emotion, and then choose how to respond to that emotion, and how to respond to your child.
What does it mean to be fully present?
When we are fully present in a moment, we are aware of our thoughts and feelings, but we do not get caught up in them. We notice them, and allow them to be, but we do not engage with them. We stay present in the here and now so that we can make intentional choices based on the needs of our children, and what is happening for them now.
When we allow ourselves to get caught up in emotion, we are no longer able to remain in the present. We are reacting based on our own internal triggers – often unresolved issues from our childhood – rather than what’s happening right now in front of us. We are reacting to the past, and this reaction is often inappropriate or over the top, based on what’s happening in the present.
Benefits of Mindful Parenting
Studies have shown that mindful parenting has many benefits. Children of mindful parents:
- Have lower levels of depression and anxiety
- Are less likely to engage in drug use in teenage years
- Have improved social skills and demonstrate fewer negative behaviours with peers
- Have more positive relationships with their parents in adolescence and tend to ‘rebel’ less.
- Are better able to regulate their emotions
But how do you actually parent mindfully? What does a mindful parent do?
For me, the appeal of mindful parenting lies in the fact that there is no one way to be a mindful parent. There are no strict rules. There are so many different ways to be a mindful parent. In fact, mindful parenting is less a parenting “style” and more a set of skills to bring along to and complement, your usual parenting style. It works well alongside any parenting strategies that focus on respect, empathy and connection.
Do you consider yourself a peaceful parent? You can also be a more mindful parent. Do you call yourself an attachment parent? Positive parent? Respectful parent? You can also be a mindful parent! As long as you’re parenting in an authoritative way (you offer warmth, are responsive to your child, set boundaries with empathy, and are supportive rather than punitive with your discipline), then you can also be a mindful parent.
Mindful Parenting is a journey, not a destination
Much like mindfulness itself, mindful parenting is a journey. It is not about being mindful all the time. It’s not about always being calm. It’s not about never getting angry. Of course mindful parents still feel angry. And frustrated. And disappointed. But they don’t let these emotions dictate how they respond.
Mindful parenting is about being present, not perfect. It is about noticing when you have moved away from the principles of mindfulness, and gently, with compassion, bringing yourself back. Back to the present, back to the needs of your child. Back to the guiding principals of mindful parenting.
And what are those guiding principals? Well, in my mind there are four. Mindfulness (or awareness), acceptance, empathy and compassion. Lets look at each one and how they can guide us to be more mindful parents.
The four guiding principles of Mindful Parenting
So of course mindful parenting begins with mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness yourself, and teaching your child mindfulness, is a great place to start. A mindful parent is fully present in the moment with their child. In order to be fully present with our children, we must first learn to be fully present with ourselves. A daily mindfulness practice will help.
A mindful parent is also mindful of their own thoughts and feelings. They are able to recognise them and acknowledge their presence, without being controlled by them. This awareness means they are able to respond, rather than react to stressful situations. They put strategies in place to mindfully manage stress so they can choose a skilful response, rather than reacting to their emotions.
A mindful parent is mindful of their own triggers and stressors, and the way that their own beliefs and experiences from childhood shape the way they respond to others and to particular situations. A mindful parent is aware that they will constantly be learning about themselves in the process of parenting and is open and willing to continually self reflect, learn and grow along the way.
A mindful parent accepts that all emotions are valid. Their own emotions and the emotions of their child. They accept that emotions come and go, and they accept that their child has emotions and experiences that are separate and different to their own.
A mindful parent accepts their child, as they are right now in the present. They accept that they are the person they need to be. That they have limitations, due to their development, age, skill level, or circumstance, as well as a unique set of skills.
A mindful parent also accepts themselves, as they are right now in the present. They accept that they are human, and therefore flawed. That they will not always ‘get it right’, but that they are “good enough”. They also accept that “good enough” is, strangely, good enough when it comes to parenting.
Because a mindful parent is able to accept themselves, their child, and all the experiences and emotions that come along with that, they are able to respond from a place of empathy. They validate how their child feels and help their child to understand and organise their own emotions and experiences.
Because they understand and accept the limitations of their child, their developmental age and stage and the effect of the stress response on their child’s body and brain, they have realistic expectations of their behaviour. The mindful parent therefore disciplines their child from a place of understanding and respect, not coercion and control.
The mindful parent is willing to listen intently to their child and consider their point of view, even when they disagree with it. They are able to understand the “why” behind behaviour and listen to the message that behaviour is conveying.
Mindful parenting is not about perfection. A mindful parent is not mindful all the time. They make mistakes and they forgive themselves for those mistakes. They treat themselves with compassion and kindness, and in the process, teach their children how to show compassion for themselves and others.
A mindful parent also shows compassion to their child. They do not expect anything of their child that they would not expect of themselves. They forgive mistakes. In fact, they understand that mistakes are vital to the learning process, both for them and their child. That by making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, they are giving their children permission to be imperfect and make mistakes, too.
The ultimate goal of Mindful Parenting
Ultimately, when we are able to embrace these guiding principals and use them to parent our children, we are teaching them to embrace these values too. We are raising children who are able to be mindful, and manage their emotions appropriately, and have empathy and compassion for others.
Children are always watching us. Learning from us. Learning by doing. And it is our actions that have the most impact on them. They will do as we do, whether we like it or not. So the goal as a mindful parent, is to be the kind of adult we want them to be. Not perfect. Not someone who never makes mistakes and gets it right all the time. But a person who values others enough to give them their full attention. To be available. To show up again, and again, even when it’s hard. To do our best to be present.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.