Courtesy of Sabrina Joy Stevens

What Every Parent Needs To Know About Mindful Parenting

About once a week, typically when my toddler and I are already running behind schedule, our cat will run into our garage and park herself underneath the car, making it impossible to pull out. On cue, my son will start yelling and trying to run after her, I'll scoop him up while he struggles, and I'll breathe and acknowledge in my calmest voice, that this is really frustrating right now. One of the things people won't tell you about mindful parenting is that it doesn't magically erase all the frustrations from parenting, or make you immune to them. It just helps you respond to it better. Usually.

Embracing mindful parenting doesn’t mean I'm not also a goofy, weird, occasionally frustrated mom. It doesn't mean I don’t cuss, or don’t enjoy a glass (or two) of wine at night, or wake up two hours before my son does so I can do yoga at sunrise. I have all the respect in the world for folks like that, but it's just not me. Mindful parenting isn’t about being a picture-perfect, manta-chanting stereotype; it’s about paying attention to my reactions and staying in the moment with my child, so that I can be my most thoughtful, compassionate self. It's about letting go of unrealistic expectations so that I can deal with what actually is, instead of stressing myself out by judging myself and my family for not meeting some arbitrary standard of who we "should" be. It helps me distinguish between what we do and who we are, so I don't get mired in shame and flip out as a result.

Being mindful about my parenting also helps me recognize that the ups and downs of any given day aren’t necessarily about me. I don’t need to take it personally, or worry that anyone who sees what’s happening is judging my parenting abilities as a result. Does that mean I’m immune to every jab? Nope. It just means I don't let other people's ideas and agendas — or my own impatience — drive my parenting. It means I strive to be in control of my own reactions so that I can focus on what my kids need in any given moment. Other things you might not hear about mindful parenting, but might find it useful to know, includes:

It’s About Staying Calm And Present, Not Being Superior

Though there are some folks who've dissed the idea of mindful parenting as just another way for moms and dads to fall short, "succeeding" at mindful parenting is not about earning a prize that makes you better than other parents. It's actually about welcoming and accepting your own and your family's imperfections, and staying calm when (not if) your plans for the day (or some much longer length of time) completely go to hell.

The present moment is the only one we have. Mindful parenting is about making the most of that moment, so we can stay connected to our kids despite our struggles. It has nothing to do with feeling better than other parents, or feeling badly about ourselves if we don't achieve perfect equanimity each and every time.

It Doesn’t Require You To Chant Or Anything

Yes, many mindful parents benefit from a daily mindfulness practice, but that can take many forms. But no, mindful parenting doesn't require that you say a prescribed chant, or anything like that, before engaging with your kids during a tough moment. You can still be your normal, non-guru self and be a mindful parent.

You Won’t Necessarily Spend Your Day Narrating Everything...

You don't necessarily have to verbalize your awareness of every wisp of wind you feel over your skin, or every dish you hear clattering as it hits the ground, or every shriek your toddler shrieks, or every scratch you feel as you buckle his reluctant, thrashing self into his car seat (not that this just happened to me today, or anything). You can be present and aware of what's going on, without curating it all in calm-yoga voice.

...But You Might Find Yourself Narrating Sometimes

But it does help sometimes, particularly in really tense parenting moments, to do what Janet Lansbury calls "sportscasting." Instead of diving in to help our kids when they struggle, or judging and reacting to them when we're having a conflict, literally just saying what's going on — "You really wanted the toy, but your friend took it and now you're disappointed" — gives us and our kids a chance to respond calmly and problem-solve, instead of leaping to judgment and punishment.

You’ll Take A Lot Of Deep Breaths

Before the "Parenting Police" descend: mindful parents don't pause to meditate while their toddler runs into the middle of the street. However, mindful parents recognize the most challenging parenting moments aren't matters of life and death, so we can usually afford to take a deep breath so we can respond thoughtfully, instead of automatically lashing out when times get tough.

It Helps If You Unpack Some Of Your Own Emotional Triggers

We've all got baggage from our own pasts, whether as kids or just as people, and certain things that just completely rub us the wrong way. Self-reflection and learning more about what sets us off makes it way easier to identify our "stop and breathe" moments so we can respond to our kids with compassion, instead of running on autopilot and getting baited into unnecessary conflict.

You’ll Need To Develop A Thick Skin When Parenting Mindfully In Public...

If you pause to breathe before responding so you can be compassionate and empathetic while your child has a tantrum in public, there are folks out there who will think you're "coddling" or "spoiling" your kid. It takes a lot of inner strength to ignore them, stay present, and parent according to your own values and what you feel is best for your child, rather than performing a different style of parenting for the benefit of your temporary audience. Don't worry about if they think you're good enough. Know that you are.

...Which Is Way Easier Said Than Done

It's surprisingly hard to do that, though. Even as someone who has thought of herself as a person who doesn't care what others think, it turns out that I really don't want other people to think I'm not responding seriously enough when my kid does something wrong. But cracking down on him for not knowing how to behave in public (as most infants and toddlers don't, yet) doesn't make me a superior parent, so I work really hard not to do it, no matter how hard passing strangers roll their eyes and no matter how much I may want to prove to them that I really am responding appropriately.

You’ll See Your Kids’ Behavior In A New Light

Slowing down to breathe and just experience what's happening with my kids, especially my toddler, has helped me to start to see the needs behind their behavior, rather than snapping and judging them for the behavior they're displaying in a given moment. That has saved me time and again, and has helped me remember to accept them for who they are, not who I feel they "should" be.

You’ll See Your Own Behavior In A New Light

Taking time to breathe doesn't just help me see and think through my kids' (again, particularly my toddler's) behavior; it helps me consider and think through my own. It helps me see that sometimes, his most challenging behavior is the result of me pursuing my own agenda for the day and trying to rush him along, instead of slowing down long enough to figure out a win-win solution that would help us both get our needs met. Mindfulness doesn't just help me accept him; it helps me accept me for who I am, not what I feel I should be doing.