I came across Christina Fletcher of Spiritually Aware Parenting online, through our shared passion for seeing children thrive mind, body and spirit. Her website is full of great resources for parents wanting to honour and nurture their children’s spirituality. When Christina invited me to contribute a guest blog post, I was thrilled to be part of her great work.
Here’s the link to my guest post, Co-operation Instead of Control. There are times when we just need our children to do what we want them to. This post looks at how to get them to do those things in a way that is respectful and encourages them to think beyond themselves…and maybe even want to help.
Looking over what I have written so far in Nurturing Little Souls, I have said often that I believe spiritual parenting requires us to be led by our children. Our role is to empower them to be themselves and, to do this, we need to tune into them and follow the direction that they are going. I have also said a number of times that we are spiritual equals with our children to remind us not to be over-bearing or heavy-handed in our parenting. But, being equals with our children also means that we parents must be respected and have our needs and wants valued too. Our whole lives do not have to be child-centred to be good parents.
TWO EXTREMES OF PARENTING
There are as many parenting styles out there as there are parents. When it comes to the position our children have in our lives, everyone lies somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes.
Children as Accessories – Many expectant parents express an intention for their children to fit into their lives, believing their children will be flexible if, from the start, they are taken along to their parents’ social events and activities. Some baby capsules become accessories to the parents’ lives, while the occupants’ needs, especially for quality sleep, aren’t prioritised. We can’t fully understand until we’ve had children that, if we don’t want our lives to change, it’s not a good idea to have them.
Children as the Centre of Everything The other extreme is parents who sacrifice everything – losing social connections, time for their interests and rest to become slaves to their child’s every whim. I don’t think this is necessary. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup”.
If we allow our lives to be entirely child-centred, we quickly become depleted, with nothing to give. Tending to our children’s needs & wants and rarely our own will see us become emotionally and physically exhausted. When this kind of imbalance continues for too long, we can’t help but grow resentful because our lives have been reduced to the drudgery of “serving” our children. When we are with them, we’re really far away, dreaming of that movie we’d love to see…or just sleep. Our hearts aren’t in it and our children can sense that.
For example, I am hopeless at dramatic play when I haven’t had enough time for myself. I have no energy, enthusiasm or creativity. Thomas loves playing firefighters and he saves our playroom from multiple fires a day. He often wants me to join in so we start by making a firetruck together with cushions. On an empty cup day, I’m grateful to be able to just sit in the truck while we journey to the emergency, joining in (half-heartedly) with the “nee-nah, nee-nah”. When we get to the fire, Firefighter Mummy sends Firefighter Thomas to put out the fires while I “look after the fire truck”. It’s a poor effort. Thomas must think I’m no fun and, on some level, probably realises that I don’t really want to be playing firefighters at these times. On other days, when I’ve felt adequately rested and full from doing something for myself, playing firefighters with Thomas has been fun and I’ve cherished my time with him.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
As my boys have gotten older and their physical needs less urgent, I have gradually reclaimed more of my own needs and wants. I’m writing this blog for starters! I nip out to see friends for coffee some evenings once the boys are tucked in. If I’m out shopping with my boys, we take turns choosing which shops to look at and try to wait patiently while each other has their turn (Thank you Max fashions for having a toy box!) I have also protected my coffee-drinking time in order to drink a whole cup, sitting down, before it goes cold. My husband and I have introduced a new rule that our boys can’t ask us to play if we still have coffee in our cups. They can chat with us, have a drink too if they wish, but we get to stay seated and enjoy our coffee. (If you have a baby and none of these things are possible for you yet, trust that the day will come when they will be and, in the meantime, take as many tiny moments for yourself as you can.)
I want my boys to feel equal, valued and loved unconditionally for the unique beings that they are but I don’t want them to expect everything in life to be organised around them, as if they are at the centre. From a broader perspective, I want them to see themselves as part of the whole of humanity. Almost all of the world’s spiritual traditions emphasise the oneness we share with others.
The dynamic we create in our homes sets an example to our children of what to expect out in the wider world. In our family, mutual respect and consideration of everyone’s needs and wants is important and I hope my boys will take this perspective with them wherever they go. At times, one of them will complain because I have made a decision that doesn’t go his way. I’ll say to him, “What you want is important but what everyone else wants is important too”. I enlist my boys’ help in many ways so that they feel part of the family team and realise they can contribute. For example, they help to carry bags in from the car and they do their bit in the mornings to get us out the door in time. Practicing co-operation and collaboration in small ways makes it a given when bigger things come up, within our family or in the wider world.
IN SUMMARY: CHILD-LED IS NOT CHILD-CENTRED
Life with children will always be a little lop-sided in their favour but we can still practise the give and take of community within our homes. We don’t want our children believing they are the centre of everything but we do want them to see their unique value – each piece of a jigsaw puzzle is important to the bigger picture. And, when we parents have our needs and wants met (at least to some extent), we have the resources to deal with the challenges – big and small – that parenthood throws at us and to enjoy the beautiful moments.
Recently, I was invited to contribute a guest post to the blog at kidsmindbodyspirit.com. Kids Mind Body Spirit is an online directory of holistic services and resources for children, parents and educators. It is based in Australia and there are hopes of expanding into other regions of the world too, including New Zealand!
Here’s the link to my guest post called What is Spiritual Parenting? When I first started writing Nurturing Little Souls, I couldn’t have defined spiritual parenting but, now that I’ve been writing about it for a while, I have a fuller understanding of what it means. Essentially, it comes down to what our intentions are as parents. I hope this post helps clarify your intentions and that you will share it with others who might find it valuable.
A journey in the car with the kids in the back can go many ways. Sometimes, we feel harassed by incessant squabbling that we’re not able to get to the bottom of because we can’t see what ‘s really going on. Other times, we get to quietly listen in on the conversations between our children and feel our hearts flutter with what they say. This is a story about the latter.
It was a Friday afternoon. Thomas (almost 3 years old) had been to kindy and Jake had been to school. As I drove, they were exchanging notes on their days – sandpits, train sets, playground adventures and friends. Then, totally unprompted, Thomas said, “I’m grateful for kindy”. Fortunately, we were stopped at traffic lights, otherwise I might have driven off the road. Even Jake realised that this was a momentous moment for our family – “Mum, Thomas just said he’s grateful for kindy!” This was the first time we had heard Thomas spontaneously share his gratitude.
Gratitude is important in our family. We have a few simple habits – rituals – to help us keep gratitude active in our hearts and minds. When tucking the boys into bed at night, we each share something we’re grateful for. This year, we also began a gratitude jar. Every Sunday night, we each write something we’re especially grateful for from the past week on a piece of paper (we each have our own colour). We then fold the pieces of paper up and put them in the large jar that sits in the hall. The idea is that, on 31 December, we’ll each have 52 special moments to reflect on and appreciate. If it’s been a tough year, we’ll realised there has still been lots to be grateful for. If it’s been a “good” year, we’ll appreciate it even more. We also get to think about the things we have written on our pieces of paper every time we walk past the jar in the hall.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough”. – Meister Eckhart
GRATITUDE AS AN ANTEDOTE TO ENTITLEMENT…AND SO MUCH MORE
Of course, there are plenty of times when it feels like the “attitude of gratitude” I’m trying to cultivate has disintegrated to dust. On that Friday afternoon, Thomas and I had picked up Jake from school and surprised him with the news that we were taking our scooters to the skate park. Currently one of Jake’s favourite hang-outs, he was thrilled. But there was no “thank you” on hearing the news. In fact, his first words were, “can we get ice-creams too?” *@?#! When our scootering was finished and it was time to go home, he kept whining, “why can’t we stay a bit longer?” I found myself recycling my mother’s sentiments – “I’m not going to take you for treats if you’re always going to ask for more. Why can’t you appreciate what you have?!” (In Jake’s defence, he did thank me afterwards and is often very appreciative of his own accord.) Then I grumbled to myself, “I don’t know why I bother doing nice things for them, it’s never enough. How did they become so entitled?” I want to be able to treat my boys sometimes without them expecting it all the time.
We can become a bit complacent about gratitude these days. It’s been a bit of a buzz word for a number of years now and every gift shop has items with sentiments of gratitude on them – mugs, prints, journals, ornaments, magnets… (I do like the quote “When I count my blessings, I count you twice”, though.) But gratitude is powerful – it cultivates real joy and empowerment. On one occasion when entitlement was in full swing, I said to Jake, “When you’re grateful, you’re too busy enjoying yourself to think about what else you want and it helps you to notice even more things to be grateful for”. Gratitude gives us a sense of our cup running over and, in turn, our capacity to be generous, creative and forgiving, for example, expands.
So, gratitude is not just a temporary pick-me-up technique. Gratitude helps us to tap into the abundance (in all senses of the word) that is available to us and our own capacity to serve. I imagine how I would have felt as a child to know that I had so much myself and so much to give. I would’ve been happier and felt more powerful.
BUILDING OUR CHILDREN’S ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Here are some quick ideas we can use to start building our children’s gratitude.
Create regular opportunities to share something they’re grateful for. Get the whole family involved in quick, simple moments of gratitude.
Be a grateful example – when I’m grateful for something, I sometimes share it aloud, in the moment. I try to point out a variety of things I’m grateful for. My boys pretty much stick to toys, outings and unhealthy food at this stage, but I try to include acts of kindness, beauty in nature, health and other people, for example.
Encourage genuine appreciation instead of polite thanks when they receive something (eg. a gift or help). This is hard and I haven’t yet discovered the best way to do this. With young children, it can be difficult to get a genuine “thank you” from them of their own accord. When it comes to gifts, after each birthday party, I help Jake to write thank you notes. We discuss the effort each person has gone to to select the gift for him and include in the note one thing he likes about it.
When my boys are behaving in an entitled way, I’ve started saying, “Put on your gratitude glasses”. I think I’ve lectured enough for Jake to know what I mean. It’s a fun reminder rather than a disapproving instruction to choose gratitude.
Avoid calling our children “ungrateful”, as if they have done something wrong. This turns them off gratitude because it seems like something they should be rather than what it really is – a choice to live in fullness, joy and service.
IN SUMMARY: PLANTING THE SEED OF GRATITUDE
Entitlement seems to be a modern-day parenting issue that is difficult to navigate – ironically, a case of external abundance and internal lack. My hope is that a focus on gratitude can do something to offset it. We can’t make our children be grateful but we can demonstrate a life of gratitude and invite them to share in it with us. Hearing Thomas announce that he is grateful for kindy, is reassuring. Perhaps all those things we try to teach our children don’t just go in one ear and out the other. Even if we don’t currently see any evidence of our children taking it on board, they are absorbing it. We have planted the seed.
When Jake was a pre-schooler, I often noticed him hanging on to things after giving him a firm word or disciplining him in some way. He seemed uncertain how to interact with me, unsure whether I was still upset with him or not. So my husband and I started making a point of telling him that it was “finished” once any discipline had been dealt with. We would then continue as normal, ensuring our manner with Jack was back to usual, not angry or upset in any way. This was to show him that the incident was over and no hard feelings remained. Looking back, I can see that this was a precursor to teaching him about forgiveness.
Last week, the long school holidays were getting the better of us both. It felt to me that Jake wasn’t listening to much of what I said (unless the word “chocolate” featured) and I was tired of being patient & consistent. I ended up shouting in exasperation. Later, as we both sat at the table having morning tea, we exchanged apologies for our behaviour. Jake kept repeating his apology despite my acceptance and I realised that I had never spoken explicitly about forgiveness with him. So, I reminded him of how I used to say “finished” after a telling-off so that he knew it was over. “When we forgive someone, we decide that it is finished, we decide not to keep feeling upset with the other person”, I told him.
That was enough for one morning but our chat made me realise that there is so much for a person to learn about forgiveness. Many adults struggle with it. And perhaps it’s because we don’t truly understand what forgiveness is – a gift to ourselves.
4 CHARACTERISTICS OF FORGIVENESS
Having given it some thought, I’ve come up with four characteristics of true forgiveness that we can aim to pass on to our children. They may not grasp it all at first as forgiveness can look different on the outside than it is on the inside. From the outside, it sometimes looks like politeness or forgetting but it’s neither of these things.
1. We forgive for our own benefit. Forgiveness is not saying “it’s Ok” but, rather, “I’m OK”. Ultimately, it is a choice not to let whatever happened hurt us anymore. I have seen people who are almost defined by the event they refuse to forgive – often bitter, vengeful and hard, their non-forgiveness is apparent even when they don’t realise it. Yet the people they won’t forgive have likely moved on and are unaware of the resentment harboured towards them. Those who won’t forgive don’t see that their forgiveness is for themselves and that they suffer most for their decision not to allow it.
2. Forgiving is not pretending it never happened. When we forgive, we are forgiving the person, not their actions. We let go of our resentment towards them. What happened may still upset us when we think of it but we no longer see ourselves as the victim of a personal attack. With time, we may even recognise the gift hidden in the experience – something we needed to learn about ourselves. I think this is what is meant by the phrase, “forgiven, not forgotten”.
“Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were”. – Cherie Carter-Scott
3. We can’t force someone (or ourselves) to forgive. A list of reasons to forgive is not going to make someone forgive because forgiveness does not happen through logic – it happens through love. Taking a moment to see the humanness of the person whose actions hurt us can help open us up to forgiving them. When we recognise that the other’s hurtful behaviour was caused by their issues & misconceptions, we realise that whatever happened wasn’t about us at all. It then becomes easier to forgive because we know we can relate – we have issues & misconceptions of our own that affect our behaviour. Seeing that we are all ultimately the same enables us to be compassionate instead of judgemental and willing to forgive.
4. Forgiveness doesn’t require an apology. Just as whatever happened to hurt us wasn’t really about us, forgiving isn’t really about the other person. Because it’s not about them, we can choose to let forgiveness in at any time without an exchange of words. When we do receive an apology, it is an invitation to forgive, a reminder that the power to do so is in our hands. We simply decide that we are open to forgiving and allow Love to do the rest.
HOW TO TEACH OUR CHILDREN ABOUT FORGIVENESS
Having defined “forgiveness”, the big question is how to teach our children about it. We want them to really understand what it is so they don’t just go through the motions of forgiveness because it is expected of them, to appear polite. There are a number of things we can do towards giving them a full picture of forgiveness –
Forgive our children. Once our children have offered us an apology for something or been through the consequences of their inappropriate actions, it is over – I repeat, OVER! Often I have seen a child put through the consequences & offer an apology and still have to endure 10 more minutes of lecturing or suffer the cold shoulder for the rest of the day. What’s happening in these situations? – their parents haven’t forgiven them.
Let our children see us forgiving others around us. There are many small acts of forgiveness in a day for our children to witness. We forgive their siblings when they shout at us. We forgive our partners for being home late. We forgive the shop assistant who over-charged us and had to put us through the lengthy paperwork required to refund us. When someone offers an apology to us, our children should see us accept it with a “thank you”. (Accepting an apology is not forgiving them on the spot, just appreciating their acknowledgement that they have hurt us). We can also talk to our children about the compassion we have for those who have wronged us. Eg. “The shop assistant made a mistake when he was adding up our purchases, we all make mistakes sometimes”. This shows our children that forgiveness comes from Love, and that judgement has no place alongside forgiveness.
Notice and talk about it when we see that our child has or hasn’t forgiven someone. We can talk with our children about how they feel to have let go or to be holding on to their resentment. This will make them more aware of how their choice to forgive or not impacts themselves.
Don’t expect our children to forgive straightaway. Often they will need time to allow the emotions of the situation to pass before they’re able to forgive. (This is true for adults too.) If they’re not yet ready to forgive a playmate, suggest they play apart for a while. If they are offered an apology, they can receive it with a “thank you” and forgive when they are ready. (You may also be interested to read my post Should I Make My Children Apologise?)
Suggest your child pray for help to forgive if they’re finding it hard. Logic changes the mind, Love changes the heart. While we choose to allow forgiveness in, it is a matter for the heart. Prayer opens us up to receive the love we may need for the task. This suggestion is probably suitable for school-aged children but we can say a prayer to help our younger children along.
IN SUMMARY: THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS
Forgiveness is, I think, one of the most important spiritual and life skills we need to learn. Yet, it is something easily overlooked by parents. It would be easy to teach our children to graciously accept an apology without addressing the inner process required to truly forgive.
Forgiveness is an act of self-love. When we refuse to forgive, we are really refusing ourselves freedom – the freedom to live with openness and joy. Like any skill, we get better at forgiving by practising it. When children forgive the child who called them a hurtful name, the parent who punished them unfairly, the teacher who overlooked them for an opportunity, they’ll more readily forgive the more painful experiences that are a part of life.
It is not weak to forgive. It makes us stronger. We can travel further if we’re not lugging our resentments around with us.
As time goes by, the distinctions between mind, body and spirit blur for me. I can see how interlinked these aspects of ourselves are, how one affects the other. Looking at current trends in psychology, such as mindfulness, growth mindset and positive psychology, as practices, they are very similar to those people might use for spiritual connection. Couldn’t we equate mindfulness with spiritual meditation, for example?
So I have found myself asking, is spirituality just good psychology?
FIRSTLY, SPIRITUALITY IS GOOD PSYCHOLOGY
We can turn to research on the brain to see the impact of psychological and spiritual practices on its development. Both mindfulness and spiritual meditation change the brain in similar ways. To give an example, they both increase the cortical thickness of the hippocampus, thereby reducing the incidence and severity of depression. This is just one small example but it illustrates my point.
Whether we approach our practices from a spiritual or purely psychological perspective, this science appears to reduce them to simply exercises we do to convince our brains to be happier. Our emotions are, essentially, our brain’s response to our thinking, after all. Is there more to them than that?
SPIRITUALITY MAKES IT MORE BENEFICIAL
In the midst of my wonderings, I watched a YouTube video. In it, an educational and spiritual researcher said that bringing a spiritual aspect to many of the psychological practices used today magnifies their benefit for people. Her comment was made in passing and I would have been interested to hear her elaborate but it got me thinking about why it might make a difference.
Here’s my conclusion – spirituality brings meaning to the practices. Thinking to myself, “I am going to watch my breath mindfully” feels different to “I am going to quiet my mind to sense my connection with Life”. One limits our experience to a specific task and the other opens us up to the limitless. One feels functional. The other feels meaningful.
Some who are skeptical of spirituality may argue that people are just creating meaning that doesn’t really exist when they bring spirituality to their practices. But, once a person has experienced their own spirituality, its truth is undeniable. I have experienced greater peace, faith, oneness and intuition when my intentions are spiritual rather than just to perform mental exercises for stress relief. It brings an extra dimension to my practice and provides the real reason for doing it.
BRINGING SPIRITUAL PRACTICES TO OUR CHILDREN
We are doing a great service to our children if we teach them mental practices from a psychological point-of-view. If we do it from a spiritual point of view, we are offering them even more.
I would argue that, even when going in without spiritual intention, there is the possibility of experiencing something spiritual because our spirituality is a part of us whether we acknowledge it or not.
Let’s look at some current psychological practices, how a spiritual intention can be enhance them and some simple ways we could share them with our children.
Mindfulness & Spiritual Mindfulness
The term “mindfulness” is used both as a psychological and a spiritual term. For the purposes of this post, I am using “mindfulness” as a purely psychological practice and “spiritual mindfulness” to speak of it as a spiritual practice. Mindfulness is bringing our attention fully to the present moment and noticing & accepting what is, including our own thoughts & feelings. This is exactly what spiritual mindfulness is too. But to do it as a spiritual practice is to do it knowing that our thoughts, feelings and experiences are not who we are. When we are mindful with this intention, we may sense our oneness with Life. We may even hear something that Life has to say to us now that we have turned down the volume of our mind’s chatter. After a mindfulness meditation, we may feel relaxed and calm. After a spiritual mediation, we may also feel connected and able to separate ourselves (our identity, our worth, our happiness…) from our thoughts, feelings and experiences.
What a liberation to realize that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that. – Eckhart Tolle
Practising Spiritual Mindfulness with Our Children: Both psychological and spiritual mindfulness can be practiced as a formal meditation or as we go through our day. A very simple introduction for our children is to have them lie down with their hand/s on their heart or tummy. As their chest/tummy rises and falls with their breath, they can imagine ocean waves going up and down. This is mindfulness. Once they are settled into this, ask them to watch themselves doing this. They could do this by imagining that they are looking down on themselves from above, like a seagull flying over the ocean. This adds the spiritual component of awareness – being aware of themselves as separate from their body and thoughts.
Growth Mindset & Faith
Essentially, a growth mindset is based on the belief that our abilities and attributes can be developed through hard work (rather than the belief that they are fixed and we can’t do much about them). A growth mindset is one that, among other things, is resilient in the face of failure because it understands that there is learning to be found in failure – learning that can be used to inform the next creative move. A growth mindset can be applied to many situations, many environments and to life in general. The way I see it, faith enables us to develop a growth mindset further than we might otherwise. When we have faith, we trust that we are supported by the Universe. Therefore, we are more willing to take a risk when it feels like the right thing to do but not necessarily the most logical thing to do. I see my own mindset shifting from a more fixed mindset to a growth mindset as I develop more faith.
Practising Faith with Our Children: One way to help our children develop a growth mindset is in the way we talk about risk and ‘failures’. If we teach that risk is to be avoided, that failure is embarrassing or deems our efforts wasted and to give up when it doesn’t first work out, we teach them to fear their logically unsafe ideas – those that are more creative or intuitive, for example. We want to hear ourselves instead telling our children, “try it out”, “that didn’t work but now you have narrowed down the options” or “wow, I never would’ve thought of that!” We can’t make our children have faith but we can remind them that God always wants the best for them and is supporting them all the way. We may recognise moments when our children are feeling inspired and encourage them to follow those ideas, even saying, “I can see you’re inspired, you have an idea your heart really wants to follow”.
Positive Psychology & Inherent Worth
Positive psychology came about as a response to the problem-focused approach of traditional psychology. Its main idea is that psychology should be concerned just as much with building people’s strengths and thriving as it is with healing their problems. The numerous studies on happiness we hear about have sprung from the positive psychology movement. From my spiritual perspective, building a person’s strengths and maximising their thriving begins with their belief in their own worth. (My very first blog post was entitled A Child’s Worth.) If we understand that we are each inherently worthy, a deliberate expression of God, we don’t question our deserving of a fulfilling, happy life. We understand that we are intended to be fulfilled and happy. We start to feel obliged, even, to develop our God-given strengths and to live fully as the unique person that we are. It can’t be more positive than that!
Practising Worth with Our Children: As parents, it is our job to continuously reflect our children’s worth back to them. They need to see it in the way that we interact with them – our unconditional love, our appreciation of their strengths, our acceptance of their “weaknesses”, our efforts to really see them and to tailor our parenting to them. I think that honouring their joy is an aspect of this – joy is an essential element of thriving. Currently, Jake is into climbing. So we have built a simple treehouse at home, we look out for climbable trees when we’re out-and-about and we regularly go to playgrounds. By prioritising opportunities for him to climb, I am letting Jake know that I see and value who he is and that he is worthy of joy. (Not to be confused with tending to every whim.)
IN SUMMARY: SPIRITUALITY IS MORE THAN PSYCHOLOGY
From the outside, many of the practices of psychology and spirituality look the same. It is the intention behind them that makes them different. And it is the intention that can make them even more meaningful and powerful in our lives. Spirituality is good psychology but it is a whole lot more as well.
With Christmas around the corner, perhaps you are bracing yourself for your children’s “holiday behaviour”. We know they will be excited and more tired than usual. They’ll likely test the boundaries to see if there’s any “holiday flex” in them too. Or it may be that, heading into the new year, you’re wanting to change the dynamic between yourself and your child so that it is more respectful and peaceful. This time of year can be particularly joyful and particularly testing for parents so it seems a good time to offer a few thoughts on discipline from a spiritual point-of-view. I try to appeal to the love in my children to encourage the best from them first but, there are times when discipline is needed.
DISCIPLINE: LOVE & FEAR
From teachers of A Course in Miracles, I have learned that, in life, we are constantly choosing between Love and fear. In a spiritually-led life, we aim to choose Love every time, though, of course, we don’t always manage to do so. We can bring our intention to Love to those moments when we need to discipline our children. To highlight the features of a love-based approach, let’s compare the two –
Fear-based Discipline: With a fear-based approach, we use discipline to control our children so that they behave in a way that we judge as acceptable. We don’t see our child in this approach, blinded by our own egoic fear – fear of being judged for our children’s behaviour, fear of losing control of our children, fear that our children won’t respect us… We go on to create fear in our children in an attempt to avoid the things we’re fearful of,making threats and dishing out punishments of various kinds. The punishments may be practical, such as removing screen time, or they may be emotional, such as humiliating our child or expressing our disapproval of them. Ultimately, we undermine their self worth when we discipline from fear. Sometimes their behaviour improves quickly, it may appear to “work”, but at the cost of our child’s belief in their own inherent value. We set our children up for a long-term struggle with fear and unworthiness.
Love-based Discipline: With a love-based approach, we use discipline is to teach our children. And what we are teaching them is to stay aligned with their own true nature. When disciplining from Love, we remember that our children are our spiritual equals, each a representation of God, just as we are. We know that they are essentially “good” and it is only their behaviour that needs correcting, not themselves. When disciplining them, we have unconditional Love for them in the form of non-judgement and respect, even when we feel differently about their behaviour. The discipline techniques we use when we are coming from Love can sometimes be slower to see effect but leave our child’s self-worth intact and empower them to be the marvellous person that they are.
PRINCIPLES OF LOVE-BASED PARENTING
S0, here are a few ideas to guide us in disciplining our children with Love.
Be Respectful We need to be asking ourselves when disciplining whether we are being respectful of our child or not. We can measure how respectful we are towards our children by the respect they have for us (this can be sobering at times). Our respect for our child can be shown in many different ways when disciplining them. For example, when possible, we should give our child a (one) reminder of the expectation and the consequences if they continue their inappropriate behaviour before we follow through. Suddenly springing a “punishment” on them when they’ve gotten carried away and forgotten to manage themselves is disrespectful and doesn’t give them the opportunity to self-correct (which is preferable for everyone). Another way that we unwittingly disrespect our children is to send them to their bedrooms as a punishment. I think we need to respect their bedrooms as their sanctuaries (see my post Home Sweet Home – A Place for Our Souls), a place they can retreat to when needed. Let’s not make it their jail.
Be Consistent By managing behaviour using a familiar set of expectations & consequences and applying them consistently, our children know exactly where the boundaries are and what will happen if they don’t stay within them. They can then deliberately choose for themselves how to behave (and sometimes they may decide the consequences for stepping outside of the boundaries are worth the excursion!). Consistency allows us to carry out any necessary consequences in an objective way – we can calmly follow our family’s process and detach our emotions from the situation to an extent.
Always Make Emotional Support Available To Love our children unconditionally is to do so regardless of their behaviour. When they are struggling with the emotions of a situation, we cannot withdraw our support without giving them the message that they are unworthy of our love in that moment. Sometimes, I offer a cuddle in the middle of a disciplining situation because I can see my son needs reassurance and help to manage his big emotions. A child’s emotions need to be allowed to settle before they are in a position to learn anything from the situation (see my post Helping Children to Manage Difficult Emotions).
Allow Life to be the Teacher Many situations are “self-disciplining”. By this, I mean that the natural consequences of a child’s actions are enough to teach them what they have to learn. In these situations, we need to step back a little and give our child the space to experience life’s lessons. I’ll explain this further in the section below.
I can think of three types of self-disciplining situation where the lesson naturally unfolds and we just need to allow it to.
A natural emotional response There have been times when Jake has done something he shouldn’t have and I have immediately seen the regret on his face. The point doesn’t need driving home any further. He has learned.
A natural consequence A simple example of this is when our child treats a playmate unkindly and the other child refuses to play with them anymore. Fair enough!
A natural opportunity to put things right For example, Thomas, like many two-year-olds, sometimes spits his food out if he doesn’t like it. I don’t mind (too much) if he spits in back onto his plate but sometimes he spits it on the floor. When he does, I simply get him to pick up the food and put it on his plate and remind him briefly of our rule. No fuss needed.
In any of these types of situation, there is no need to use an arbitrary punishment to make our point. ( What does his television-watching have to do with spitting food, for example?) There’s also no need to add heat to these situations with a telling-off or lecture. If we do need to explain things a little further to help our children grasp their lesson, we can do so in a calm, informative way. Fear-based parenting can see our egos wanting to have a bit of an authoritative rant at this stage, but it’s unnecessary and only serves to undermine our child and, in turn, our relationship with them.
IN SUMMARY: MANAGING OURSELVES
When disciplining our children, we are really managing ourselves! We are putting aside our fear and allowing Love to be the teacher. This can be hard to do when our buttons have been pushed and we are feeling tired & frazzled. If you see yourself in my description of fear-based discipline, as I do regularly, please forgive yourself. So much of our fear is unconscious and most of us are doing the very best that we can.
What we are wanting is for our children to come through the disciplinary experience a little wiser and with their self-worth intact. I’m sure I will come back to the topic of discipline many times, it’s complex and often highly emotional. I hope I’ve provided a good starting point today. Look out for my first post of 2017, “My Best Discipline Technique”.
It was a sleepless night. Much of New Zealand had been woken by a significant earthquake and every shiver and jolt of an aftershock had us wondering if there was something even larger to come.
My son, Jake (5 years old), had slept through the main earthquake but my husband and I had woken him in order to get him to a safer place in the doorway. So he was awake for some of the aftershocks that followed and was anxious that the ground beneath him was no longer stable. He asked me to sleep in his bed with him for the rest of the night. Of course.
As we lay there in the dark, the questioning began. “Mum, will there be more earthquakes?” “Will they be big?” “What if there’s a volcano?” (a budding volcanologist, he had read in one of his library books that earthquakes can create volcanoes). His worst-case-scenario thinking was in full swing.
I desperately wanted to assure Jake that there was nothing to worry about. I wanted him to feel safe and to sleep peacefully. But I knew that the earth could prove me wrong at any time if I made promises I shouldn’t. And I knew that children shouldn’t be protected from the truth – they should know the world as it is and be supported in handling life as it really is. When answering Jake’s questions, I erred on the more favourable side of the answers, “there probably won’t be another big one.” But I also conceded – “I don’t know for sure”.
There’s so much about life we don’t know for sure. I had to admit to Jake that I can’t guarantee that our home and our lives won’t be disrupted, maybe devastated, by a future earthquake. In a way, I felt that I was contradicting all I have been trying to show him about having faith in life and the comfort that faith can bring. I didn’t want to take that away from him.
Later in the week, I got talking to other parents about how they had been supporting their children through the quake and it’s aftershocks. One mum spoke of showing her daughter that their family was prepared and ready to handle an earthquake. They had got out their Civil Defence kit and discussed their safety plans so she could see for herself that their family was prepared. I was reminded that having faith is not trusting that it’ll all be ok according to our own idea of what “ok” is (in this case, no more large earthquakes). Having faith is trusting that we will be able to handle whatever happens. Faith is also practical. We do our bit (prepare the Civil Defence kit, have plans in place etc) and let go of that which we can’t control.
The earthquake has provided opportunity for many spiritual lessons for myself and my family. I’ve not delved into all of them with my boys as I don’t want to spend too long focusing on the earthquakes. One thing we did do on the morning of the first earthquake was to offer a prayer of thanks for the safety of ourselves, loved ones and others. We also asked that those who were worse off than ourselves because of the quake be comforted and receive the help they needed. When I put Jake to bed that night, we each shared one thing we were grateful for (as we do) and he said he was grateful for our safety. Gratitude is available every time.
As parents, our days are scattered with “good job” and other similar phrases, such as “great work” and “well done”. Or, even worse, “good boy/girl” which suggests we see no separation between them and their behaviour. We litter these comments about, thinking we are being positive and encouraging of our children. But, often, we are actually using them to “train” our children to do what we want them to do. We are using positive reinforcement so they’ll continue to meet our expectations and, in the process, we are turning them into praise-junkies. Each time we throw out one of these phrases meaninglessly, we teach our children fear rather than Love. There are a couple of main ways that we use “good job” and I will use them to explain what I mean and suggest alternatives. “GOOD JOB”: WHEN OUR CHILD HAS CO-OPERATED
We all need co-operation from our children to make our day manageable – as in the example in my last post ( when I needed Jack to put his bag and coat in the boot of the car while I strapped Toby into his carseat so that we could get to school on time. There are a million instances in the day when a bit of co-operation makes all the difference. When our children do as we have asked, we say “good job” in the hope that the praise they get will encourage them to be helpful again next time. Perhaps we also say it with relief that we didn’t have to battle this one out! But how do our children hear it when we say “good job”?
As judgement. Positive judgement in this case, but judgement none the less. “Mum’s pleased with me. She approves of my behaviour”, their little brains think. They may also think, “Phew, she didn’t tell me off”. Their co-operation has come from fear of disapproval and fear of our reaction if they don’t co-operate. We have manipulated them into compliance and taught them nothing about teamwork, consideration of others and our faith in them.
So, what’s the alternative? I use “thank you”. With “thank you”, I am showing my boys that I believe in their willingness and ability to help. I am expressing appreciation instead of judgement. It shows them that their contribution is valued. I’ll often go as far as to explain to them how their behaviour is helpful. For example, “Thanks Jack. Putting your things into the car yourself helps us to get to school on time”. For my boys, “Thank you” changes the exercise in getting to school on time into teamwork instead of point-scoring for approval. I enlist their co-operation instead of demanding it of them. “GOOD JOB”: WHEN OUR CHILD HAS ACHIEVED SOMETHING
“Sweet words are like honey, a little may refresh, but too much gluts the stomach.” ― Anne Bradstreet.
I’m all for praising our children when it is due. But often we find we’re praising an achievement that we know didn’t really require much of them. Perhaps they finished a puzzle they’ve done many times and we know they can do easily. Hearing “good job” in these circumstances has 2 main sticking points.
Our children come to expect it and feel upset when they don’t hear it. They become addicted to our praise. They are doing the activity for our response more than for their own joy or satisfaction. Their fear is that we won’t offer our praise and approval.
Our children begin to think “she always says that, she doesn’t mean it”. When we over-praise, they don’t believe it when we really are sincere. Their fear is that they’re not really good enough to get genuine praise.
So, when my boys have done something that I want to acknowledge but don’t feel warrants “good job”, I use one, or a combination, of the following:
I make affirming comments that suggest I knew they could do it eg. “that’s it”, “yes” or “look at that”.
I ask a question eg. “What is this part of your block tower for?” or, simply, “tell me about it”.
I make a statement about their process eg. “You worked for a long time to get that finished” or “It looked like you really enjoyed making that”.
I am showing them that I am interested in what they have done but I am offering no judgement. I am simply sharing in their satisfaction.
So, when I do say “good job”, my children know I really mean it. I usually try to qualify my praise with a reason why it’s good. If it’s art work, I might say, “Those colours look great together”. If it’s a Lego creation of a spaceship, I might say, “You’ve thought about everything a spaceship needs”. Being specific both gives useful feedback and shows that my praise is genuine. HOW BETTER PHRASES NURTURE THEIR LITTLE SOULS
Reconsidering our use of phrases such as “good job” and finding meaningful alternatives is a small way to activate love rather than fear in our children. Choosing our words shows we believe in the love inside of them and that there is no need for them to prove their worth. These are, for me, essential principles in nurturing little souls which you can read more about in A Child’s Worth and The Real Purpose of Parenting.
IN SUMMARY: NEW HABITS
Given we tend to say words such as “Good job” so often, they are significant. Our language either empowers or undermines our children and choosing our words more thoughtfully can have a big impact. And the good news is that this is one of the easier adjustments to make to our parenting styles. Once I realised I wasn’t using “good job” consciously, I thought up a handful of alternatives that felt natural to me so that I was ready with new responses. It’s been a case of creating a new habit when responding to my boys. “Good job” still slips out at times when I’m distracted or busy but, most of the time, I only use it genuinely. As a parent, it is empowering to realise that a small change such as this can make a real, positive difference for my boys.
What else do I say out of habit to my children that I could rethink?! (Let’s listen to ourselves more carefully!)
When I began this blog, only a few months ago, it seemed like quite an overwhelming question – how can I show my children how to live a spiritually-led life? While it’s an important question, as I’ve written more posts, I’ve realised that the answers are possibly not as complex as I first thought.
My question came from growing up without any guidance on how to tune into my spirit. While I attended Sunday school at times, my particular experience was of memorising Bible verses and stories, not to gain meaning but to gain brownie points just for remembering them. I learned that God’s attention had to be earned, rather than the truth – that it was always on me. So, I have no childhood model to get me started in raising my boys’ spiritual awareness and this is what made it feel so confusing.
But, here are some of the reasons I’m beginning to think the job is not quite so overwhelming as I first thought –
SPIRITUALITY IS NOT SO MYSTERIOUS
For most of my life, God seemed elusive to me. I had no idea how to access Him. As a child, He never seemed to respond to my prayers. I’d heard my Sunday school teachers and older relatives talk about having a “relationship with God” and assumed it meant He would one day appear in my bedroom and literally talk to me, holding my hand in comfort as he spoke. I’d pray earnestly, often just asking to meet Him, but, after a while, I figured I wasn’t on His radar – either I was sinful beyond even His forgiveness (He knew all my thoughts!) or He had more important things to do. So I stopped expecting a big “spiritual experience” that might reassure me. While I never stopped believing in His existence, God seemed an unsolvable mystery and I figured all I could do was “be good” & manage life on my own as best as I could. But what I know now is that this is the spiritual experience. It’s all right here, right now.
Without any drastic measures, such as hours spent in meditation or long stretches of fasting, I have begun to notice God at work in my everyday life. While long meditations and fasts are legitimate spiritual practices, they don’t fit into my current lifestyle as a stay-at-home mum. God invites all of us to experience His power in our lives, it’s not only for those with plenty of “free” time. Having read, watched and listened to current-day spiritual thinkers (as I do the dishes and squeeze in some exercise), I’ve been introduced to new understandings of God and ways to connect (other than desperate prayer). Slowly, I’ve opened up to the possibility of knowing God again in some way.
We can tune into and experience the Divine in very simple ways – taking a moment of stillness, offering a short prayer of gratitude, just holding our children while they cry. We can let God into each moment of a seemingly ordinary day. Reviewing what I have written in my blog posts so far, I have suggested no unusual or time-consuming practices. Spirituality can be “everyday” and, even, “practical”.
There is still so much that I don’t understand about God and I don’t expect I’ll have all the answers in this lifetime. But spirituality doesn’t seem so mysterious anymore and I trust I’ll know what I need to know as long as I continue to live with openness. Is there anything we actually know everything about, anyway? I only have limited knowledge about how electricity works yet I’ll happily use it to bake a cake or charge my phone. And, importantly, not having all the answers doesn’t mean I have nothing to offer to my children’s spiritual journey. I can admit to them when I don’t know and we can look out for answers together.
TEACHING SPIRITUALITY IS LIKE TEACHING OTHER SKILLS
If there’s a particular aspect of spirituality that we’d like to share with our children, we can approach it the same way as we would other skills. Currently, I’m trying to teach Jake to use a knife and fork (he’s been using the fork-and-fingers technique). Until now, I have been a model – he has been able to watch how I use my knife and fork. When I began to think it might be time to teach him how to use them, I started discussing it with him, for example, by commentating on what I was doing to focus him on particulars such as using the fork to hold the food still for cutting. Then, I started supporting him in his first attempts to have a go. Actually, my husband was best at this part. He would hold the fork while Jake used the knife “like a bulldozer” to push the food onto it. Jake has been pretty persistent and is going well. When he has struggled, I’ve shared mini-stories about when I was a child learning to use cutlery, such as chasing peas around my plate, only to have them roll onto the floor.
Just as I modelled, discussed, shared and supported Jake in learning to use a knife and fork, I can use the same approaches in teaching spirituality. Essentially, it’s just being involved in each other’s everyday experiences so that I can provide examples and my boys get whatever degree of support they need in giving it a go. In the past, I’ve usually kept my spirituality to myself so I intend to be more forthcoming with sharing my own everyday practices and experiences with my boys.
We recently found out that a child at Jake’s school was sick. We didn’t know which child it was but, as we were driving home, I told Jake that, often when I hear news that somebody is going through something difficult, I say a prayer for them. I suggested he could join me in saying a prayer once we got home. Jake said, “Let’s say it now” and proceeded to offer a short, thoughtful prayer for the child. I don’t think he has ever said a prayer in his own words before. Just suggesting it and having spoken in briefly about prayer on a few occasions previously was enough for him to do it himself.
THE POWER OF PRESENCE
In considering many of my spiritual parenting questions, I often come to presence. When we are present with children, our interactions with them aren’t tainted with hurrying (I need to get dinner in the oven) or distraction (I’ll just see what that email was about) or ego (you shouldn’t do that) …. We interact soul to soul. Our presence with children, validates them and helps us to really tune into them. I remember times when I was teaching and struggling to really understand what was going on with a child. For a moment, I would pretend there weren’t 27 other children in the room, it was just them and me. By being fully present with them, I was then able to sense what they needed or what they were really trying to tell me. It was a vital tool to my teaching.
Presence also rids us of the need for parenting “strategies”, many of which are more manipulative than nurturing. Because, with presence, we leave our ego aside and respond to the wisdom that comes naturally to us in the moment. Jake currently needs to have eyedrops administered 3 times a day. When the time comes for the next round of eyedrops, he puts up enormous resistance. The anger boils up inside me each time because I resent the drama he creates and just want to “get on with it”. But, when, I take a breath to bring myself into the moment with Jake, I see that it’s fear making him unco-operative, not defiance. My anger doesn’t disappear entirely but I’m able to choose not to let it determine my behaviour and instead respond to him with love & patience.
Often, presence shows me that all that is required is for me to show compassion for my boys’ feelings and to offer a cuddle – not a rational explanation or to change the circumstances that are upsetting them in some way, as we may expect.
THE REAL PARENTING CHALLENGE: OUR OWN AWARENESS
The biggest challenge of parenting may not be in dealing directly with our children but in developing our own awareness. I am still figuring out what it really means to become self-aware but it seems to be the stripping away of thoughts and emotions that block us from our spirit, our divine selves. I can’t quite define spirit yet but I’m sure that it is the wisest place from which to live.
Becoming aware of our blocks is the work of reflection. As we reflect on our experiences (both those with our children & others) and our internal reactions to them, we can identify our thought patterns and their resulting emotions. We might do this through writing a journal, meditation or mulling things over while out on a walk, for example. It can be spiritual hard work. We may remember difficult experiences from the past that trigger our blocks. We may realise we’re not as “strong” or “authentic” as we thought we were. We may want to hang onto certain thoughts and emotions, because we feel justified in doing so, yet we know they don’t serve.
When we are aware of the thoughts and emotions we have that prevent us from living wisely, we can then consciously let them go and remove their power. (This is different from ‘forgetting’ them, it’s just removing our attachment to them while allowing them to be.) When interacting with our children, we can notice when a thought is blocking us from truly connecting with them and choose to respond to them with Love instead of the fear generated by the thought. This is our greatest gift to them.
IN SUMMARY: SIMPLE…BUT NOT EASY
Having reached the end of this post, I feel reasonably reassured that nurturing little souls doesn’t require an advanced degree. Spirituality isn’t so mysterious, it’s an everyday experience. We don’t have to have spirituality all figured out or do anything extreme/unusual to experience it in our daily lives. Our children will learn about it alongside us, just as they learn to brush their teeth by watching us and with a bit of discussion, sharing & support. There are not bagfuls of spiritual parenting strategies to learn and implement – we can sense what our children need from us by being truly present with them. Once we are aware of blocks we have that may interfere with the way we interact with our children, we can choose not to let them get in the way. Simple, eh?
But it’s not all easy. ”Relax, It’s Simple” is overstating things a bit. Presence takes mental discipline when we are living busy lives that require our brains to multitask. Our blocks are often cleverly disguised in our minds as “the truth” and can be hard to find, let alone make peace with. Nurturing the little souls in our lives takes commitment and hard work. Boot camp would be better preparation than a degree. But it’s great to know that, when we think ours is running out, the strength and wisdom of the Divine Parent is available to us in every parenting moment.
Once we have recognised our own blocks to consciousness and purposefully choose not to react from them, will they lose power on their own over time or is there more we need to do?