How to Become a Mindful Parent

An interview with Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, authors of “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting”

As a working mother of a 15-month-old, I’m constantly seeking the balance between work, family and my “inner” life. Some days I feel like I can have it all. Other days that ideal flies out the window by 6 a.m.

Looking for answers, I caught up with Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, co-authors of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Most importantly, I discovered, it might just be that there is no perfect answer. Life is here to teach us as we go along, and parenting is just one very special course—with no textbook. We just have to show up for class each and every moment.

What does being a mindful parent really mean?

Jon: Mindful parenting is a lifelong practice. It means you become less attached to outcomes and more mindful of what’s unfolding in your life and your children’s lives. Mindful parenting is about moment-to-moment, openhearted and nonjudgmental attention. It’s about seeing our children as they are, not as we want them to be. We let everything that unfolds in life be the curriculum for our parenting—because it is—whether we like it or not.

Myla: We are so caught up in our thoughts that we’re being continually pulled away from the now—and we tend miss it. Practicing mindful parenting doesn’t mean we are never going to be judgmental, or we will never have fear and expectations—those are part of being human. The process is to really begin to see when that happens, and to ask ourselves “how does that feel?”

How does this “deeper” style of parenting impact children?

Jon: It affects both the emotional and relational development of the child. Studies of the brain have demonstrated that empathy is built into being human. When we attune to the experience of another, our nervous system is actually resonating with the same pattern of neural activity as the other person. If we don’t attend to our children in ways that are emotionally present, we are disrespecting the fundamental threads of connectivity between us. If parents are more emotionally present in a balanced, more mindful way, the evidence is that children grow up to be grounded and functional in dealing with their own emotionally charged situations.

Myla: We’re talking about being in a relationship. When you meet a child with more acceptance, it doesn’t mean you have to love everything they do. It’s about having a kind of deep faith that their core being is whole and that the behaviors you are reacting to are a response to some sort of imbalance in yourself. There’s no bad child. Children who are ignored or unseen simply have behaviors that reflect that.

How are children, as you put it, live-in Zen masters?

Jon: Well, for example, a Zen master is likely to continually push your buttons so you have plenty of occasions to practice maintaining clarity and emotional balance. Children, by their very nature, are going to call into question and perhaps disrupt everything you know, and that is a great opportunity for bringing mindful awareness to the situation. Say you’ve put a lot of energy into making dinner after a difficult day, and your baby starts screaming and is inconsolable just when you are about to sit down and enjoy it. That’s a perfect opportunity to bring mindfulness right into that moment and see how attached you may be to having a peaceful dinner. What are your options? You can flip out and be immature and not be in resonance with whatever your child is experiencing, or you can realize this it what it means sometimes to have baby or a toddler. Life itself is the curriculum. When you give up your attachment, you won’t relate to your child with resentment. Our live-in Zen masters teach us to accept things as they are, and then respond appropriately rather than react mindlessly—because things are already as they are.

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What are some simple ways parents can begin practicing mindful parenting?

Jon: The first step is to bring more awareness to your mind and body in key moments. Ask yourself, “Am I reacting here or am I responding?” Then, “What would be an imaginative, out-of-the-box response?” When you are not reacting, you can respond more mindfully, creating a more spacious, nuanced, truer, unique outcome. You have to use what’s arising in the present moment. Also, begin to question the truth of your constant self-statements. Self-awareness brings out another dimension of our experience. Mindful parenting is not about being a yogi or practicing Buddhism; it’s about being human and realizing that we have more options than we may think in any moment, no matter what is happening. Just bringing awareness to your breathing and sustaining it over time can be very powerful. Remember, whether you are reacting mindlessly or responding mindfully, your child is drinking it all in.

Myla: You might tune into a sense of an inner landscape as you’re going through the day. Start to pay attention to your thinking. Observe that your self-talk is constant. Start to bring awareness to your thoughts and the tension in your body. Remember, feelings come along with thoughts. Ask yourself, “Am I actually really worried about this, or am I just starting to obsess out of habit?” When you create more freedom and space around the source of those feelings, especially when they are very strong, you have more effective choices. You can also use the breath. For me, taking a slow, deep, intentional breath can bring me back. Sometimes it helps to put a hand on yourself, and say “here I am” to bring calmness to the situation.

Given our busy, increasingly complicated lives, is it really possible to practice mindfulness each day?

Jon: The more complicated our lives are, the more important it is to live in the present moment—otherwise we’ll miss much of our lives. As a parent, you can’t withdraw to a cave to meditate. It’s all about now. When you tune into the breath and sensations in the body, you are stepping outside of time. Moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness cultivated by paying attention—we are all capable of this. Mindfulness actually saves us a tremendous amount of time because we don’t go down so many dead ends with our thoughts. It doesn’t take any more time to be more mindful. It’s not a philosophy, it’s a practice. You don’t have to get less busy or fix anything. Simply reclaim your moments by showing up for them. The more “speedy” your life is, the more oxygen this practice gives you.

Why do you think the work of parenting (versus “real” jobs) is undervalued in our society?

Myla: I’m not sure it’s as undervalued as it used to be. However, our society is focused on making money. If you look at education, for example, it’s geared toward the economy and the workplace. Parenting is not as clear-cut as learning a skill. There are no benchmarks. We have benchmarks in our society for success, but being a parent doesn’t take that form. Lately, is does seem like people are deciding to live more simply—to have less, work less and have more family time. People are starting to want more balance. There is something stirring.

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