Most of us parents have an idea of what we think we “should” be doing to be a “good” parent. Maybe it’s the opposite of what our parents did, or it’s an approach we learned in a parenting class, or maybe the very phrases your parents wielded are the ones passing through your 5th chakra (visshudha) on a regular basis. Irrespective of what the “shoulds” are in your mind, they are your internal standard that your pitta is continually comparing your actual behavior with.
And this is the driver behind so many of the things we do as parents: This is what I should be doing to be a “good” parent.
The problem is that there are very few things that should not change in our approach to parenting. In fact, there’s only one thing in my opinion that should remain constant in our roles as parents: to love (to emanate self-love, to act loving in as many ways as possible, more on this later…)
The rest should be a fluid and dynamic dance of meeting the family’s needs. If we are to be truly fluid and adaptable, then how can we maintain consistency with meeting our internal “shoulds”?
By revisiting and consciously re-creating our “shoulds” or internal standards to reflect well-being as a priority over social mores.
You should always say thank you, or sorry (as appropriate). All the food should be organic. We should all sit down to family dinner every night. Your homework should be done before playing. Etc., etc.
Is that realistic? Do you really do anything EVERYTIME? The human experience seems to be much more variable in my short experience in life, and the lives of my clients. So why would we train our children with a bunch of these rules? Well, because these are good things and we want to have our “littles” experience some of the benefits inherent to these practices.
Okay, so we can create a baseline of these healthful approaches as our family culture. At the SAME TIME, we can encourage a practice of acknowleding individual experience for everyone in the family.
We can find case by case solutions, in fact, we can empower our kids to find solutions that encompass their needs at the moment with the family culture. For example, “It seems like you need to run off some energy so you can be a bit more grounded to do your homework. Why don’t you run around in the backyard for 20 minutes and then come back in to take care of your homework. Then if you finish before dinner, you are free to play.” This approach echoes the family culture of homework before play, but prioritizes where the kid is energetically. In our family we call these “solutions.” My kids were able to articulate solutions as early as 2 years old. By 3, my son could clearly articulate his feelings and needs; by 5, my daughter was coming up with solutions that I wouldn’t have thought of.
Do we want to teach our children to be ones who follow rules, or ones who have the ability to check in with themselves and communicate their needs?
Yes, it’s true that rules and schedules reduce vata (and we all benefit from that). However, we want that structure to be a grounding baseline, not a prison. If the kids nap for 4 hours, I let them, as my perspective is that this is obviously what their bodies need at that moment. I wouldn’t wake them because I think that will ruin their evening schedule, as that would be prioritizing the external construct of schedule over what their bodies are clearly communicating is needed. I trust the wisdom of their bodies’ communication, because that teaches them to do so. If they are full, or hungry, or tired, or not tired, or hot, or cold, I want them to be able to prioritize that signal, and communicate their needs.
That means I have to demonstrate the practice of prioritizing my body’s needs/communication AND emphasize that awareness practice by regularly asking them what their bodies are saying (and what their feelings are saying for that matter). Kids learn from example, not preaching. If you are not practicing what you are preaching, they lose trust in you and respect for your words. AND you teach them to be out of integrity with their words and actions with your example.
We can reframe the structure as one in which we check in with ourselves, we ask for what we need, and we communicate with each other our needs and feelings (and thus experience empathy and intimacy).
Now, this work starts with you doing this for yourself. That’s right, we’re not going to be able to implement this effectively if this is not a personal practice.
In general, kids don’t need much; food, shelter, love. I’ve lived in developing settings all over the world and watched how happy children in poverty are with these basics. (In fact, they seem more happy than those kids not free to explore and respond to their whims in developing country structure…but that’s another conversation.) In other words, THE KIDS WILL BE OK. They are super malleable and also resilient. They can eat all the candy grandma gives them, watch hours of TV, go to bed late, and in the big picture of things, they’ll be just fine.
The more important question is, will YOU be okay?
If you are constantly subjugating your needs to the kids’ or the family’s, you won’t. You’ll feel depleted and resentful and become more easily irritable, and then feel melancholic over time. This is inevitable when we ignore our needs for a sustained time. We stress out over these variations in life, and their feared effects on our kids. Really what we fear is our own anxiety and frustration because the variations draw us awry from our internal ideas of what should be happening if we were good parents. The true effects on the kids are usually not as troublesome as the regular stress we put ourselves through over the pressure of meeting our “shoulds.”
So do we hit the spa everyday and abandon our parenting responsibility? No; no extremes here. You set a structure that reflects BOTH your and the kids’ needs.
Try it. Take any given family situation (e.g. vacation, bedtime routine, grandparents visiting, choosing schools, etc.) and list out what you feel the kids’ needs are in that situation. Then, list out what YOUR needs are in that same situation. Try to find a “solution”–an approach to decisions that reflects all the needs in front of you, or meets the most needs, or meets the most pressing needs. This can be done for situations little and big–from what to do about lunch to how to handle an addiction.
My Internal Standards for Parenting (and just being):
- I love myself
- I prioritize my emotional needs (e.g. to be free of internal conflict, alignment)
- I communicate my feelings and needs
- I listen to and inquire after others’ feelings and needs
- I find solutions (that best attend to the matrix of feelings and needs of everyone involved)
- Rules are external structures
- They are helpful but not a priority over what our variable needs may be physically or emotionally
- Solutions are always there to find a meeting place between individual needs and family rules
- The first person who’s needs must be attended to and solutioned is YOU
In ayurveda, a true approach to health is to be in tune with and listen to our physical and emotional needs–to trust in the wisdom of the body’s self awareness and communication. Thus, teaching our kids this approach, via our example, is teaching them a path to greater wellness–physical AND emotional wellness.