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How to become a conscious parent

Mother and child laughing together

Being in the moment with your child and engaging with him or her in a fully focused way is a skill in today’s hectic world where time is at a premium. It has never been more important. Here’s how to become a conscious parent.

My small daughter arrived in the kitchen this morning tugging on my hand, eager to show me something in the garden. This is not unusual for my little nature lover, and often leads to the discovery of a butterfly, caterpillar, stick or bee. But this time, she was leading me, with much excitement, to my brand new azalea bush in its carefully planted bed, from which she had stripped all the flowers and buds.

My immediate response when I saw the shredded shrub was anger and as I started to think of how I would reprimand her and explain that the bush was now ruined, she thrust her motley bunch of blooms towards me, grinning. She had picked them as a gift for me. Instead of careless damage, I saw that what she was doing was expressing her feelings through a kind and thoughtful act, and at the same time, revealing her generous and creative spirit. I saw that what was needed in response was not anger, but a hug, an acknowledgement of her kindness and a thank you. The azalea no longer mattered.

Parenthood offers many instances where you find yourself torn between the answer that comes to you in the heat of the moment, and the answer you know is better.

“This is what makes parenting feel like walking a tightrope,” says psychologist Dr Shefali Tsabary in her book, The Conscious Parent.

The knee-jerk response can become a default and is often based on our moods, lack of sleep, state of mind, and our own upbringing. A less-than-ideal interaction (you know the one, when you snap ‘not now’ at the end of an exhausting day while you unpack shopping and start the dinner while your toddler says ‘mommy, mommy’ for the fiftieth time) is a wasted opportunity to really listen to your child, connect with him, and see him reveal something of himself.

The better answer often takes a little more energy, patience and thought, and comes from a place of consciousness. Your child could shrink or soar, says Tsabary, depending on what you choose.

Here’s how to become a conscious parent:

1. Recognise your equal spirits

Let go of your need to control your child, of ideas of dominance, of superiority in your relationship with your child. Distinguish between your needs (to shape, to control); and theirs (to explore, express, create, be). Once we accept the idea of our little people as their own spirits (equal to ours) with their own individual, unique life paths, it changes the relationship to one less about getting them to do what we want, and more about us standing back and allowing them to be themselves.

“We all want the best for our children, in seeking this we can easily forget that the most important issue is their right to be their own person, ” says Dr Tsabary.

“We need to be sensitive to the wondrous ways in which our child reveals her uniqueness. We need to raise our awareness of her needs, not our needs,” says Tsabary. But, don’t worry, this does not mean abandoning boundaries completely.

2. Fill up their emotional tanks

There is no doubt that children need, even thrive on, boundaries. The key to effective boundaries is being emotionally connected to our children. Spending focused time doing meaningful activities together is one way to foster a close connection. Another is by stopping what you are dong when they talk to you. Children get the message that they are the most important person to you when you switch off your phone or stop unpacking groceries to hear what they have to say.

Your relationship is more powerful than any intervention or punishment and will have greater effect in correcting behaviour when necessary in later years.

We can set appropriate limits for our children while still respecting their individual needs and feelings – if we are aware of ourselves. In a heated moment, ask yourself: “Is this about me? Or is this about them?”

3. Tune in

All your child’s behaviour is communication. If you are not in tune with your child it is easy to miss her signals and messages. When you are connected you can more easily see what her behaviour is telling you, and you can more fully appreciate the parts of herself she is showing to you.

The issues that preoccupy adults (like my neat flower bed) are invisible to children… In an instance where you find yourself torn between a head response and a heart response, tune into the meaning behind what your child is doing.

Ask: “Is she expressing a need?” “What is she showing me?”

Rather than destroying my plant, what my beloved daughter was trying to tell me was that she loved me and wanted to give me a present. What a message I would have missed if I had gone with my first reaction and shouted at her for breaking the bush!

4. Take care

In order to be able to pick the responses that build our children’s confidence, help them feel understood and cherished, and encourage them to grow emotionally, we need to address some issues in our own lives.

Looking at where our knee-jerk reactions come from can help us decide what lessons to keep from our own childhood experiences, and which to discard.

It’s much easier to be short and snappy when we are tired and grouchy. I have often heard people say: Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your children. But it was like an epiphany when I heard it in the context of conscious parenting: Feeling healthy, strong and energized sets you up to be a conscious, present parent, choosing thoughtful, uplifting responses carefully. Eat, sleep, exercise, have some fun!

This kind of parenting is a work in progress. “It’s not about getting it 100% ‘right’ 100% of the time, but about doing the best we can,” says Nubabi psychologist Claire Toi. It can be very difficult not to fall back into our default reactions. But, the more we practice mindfulness, the more mindful we can be.

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