Top Six Parenting Tips

For nearly 20 years, I have worked as a trainer and consultant in schools, and with parents and teachers across the country, and the globe. I have found myself in a broad range of settings, from the inner city, to Native American reservations to the Mississippi Delta, and the upscale suburbs of Silicon Valley. In my coaching work, I work with young people and their parents, also from all walks of life. And I am mother myself of two girls. So like everyone else on the planet, I am involved in my own intensive learning laboratory called Life.

If I distill everything I have learned, and share now with parents, what follows are the “Top Six” parenting ideas or tips that make the most difference toward promoting positive, healthy parenting.

Please note: these tips run from Six to One, like the David Letterman Top 10. We end up with probably the most important tip, so read on through to the end!

Tip No. 6 Relax! Everything is Out of Control.

 Although we try to, and to some extent do have some control over our lives and our families, the hard truth is that we don’t have total control at all—and usually we have much less than we think.

Anything can happen. It is much easier to trust Life and our children when we realize that children have access to an inner wisdom about life they can tap into completely on their own.

This is the same intuitive sense of what’s right for us, and what’s wrong for us that we ourselves possess (and which we may or may not tap on a regular basis). Parents can work themselves into a frenzy trying to educate their children to be the “best people” they can be. But we forget that the source of their “best-ness” is actually inside of them, and very organic to them. It’s OK, and even beneficial to let go of the controls from time to time. Kids need to find the source of their own wisdom and joy for themselves. And it’s easier to let go when we know there is a source of, a support for life that lies beyond all of our own personal efforts.

Tip No. 5 Question Yourself, Question your Thoughts

One of the main causes of physical child abuse, verbal abuse of children and undue negative pressure on kids comes from negative thoughts we are thinking … about what our children are doing … and what their behavior means about us.

“My child is being disrespectful;” “My child will end up homeless if she continues on this path!”; “My child will lose all muscle mass, and become a jellified video game addict with no social skills.” These thoughts about an imaginary and probably untrue future generate fear, and in a fearful state, our actions can be overly severe—often creating the kind of issues we thought we were trying to solve.

Thoughts that revolve around ourselves have to do with how we look as parents. What our children are doing (or not doing) means something about us.

“Oh, I must be a terrible parent! Little Danny is having a tantrum at my mother-in-law’s!” Certainly, children mirror the parenting they are exposed to, and there’s no harm in reflecting on our mistakes. If a child seems to really be heading down a thorny path, we may need to take action.

But most of our bad parenting comes from what I simply call “bad thinking” in the moment. And ironically, these self-conscious and insecure thoughts about parenting perfection are precisely what get in the way of healthy and enjoyable family life.

"Most of our bad parenting comes from what I simply call 'bad thinking' in the moment."

Thought also shows up in the form of deeper beliefs, and subconscious patterns from our own childhoods. My husband and I clash around “risky” activities because as a child, I had almost no limitations placed on my activities, while his mother was a nervous wreck when he rode his bicycle down the street. Who is right on these matters? For me, adventuresome-ness is a value, and for him, caution. When we can back off from our personal thinking a little, we see the answer lies somewhere in the middle ground. Or, that our approach might be different for each child, for each situation.

When we recognize distressing thoughts as simply Thought, in the moment, although it may still grip us, we begin to loosen its hold by seeing we are reacting to thoughts, and not reality. Intense anger, sadness and anxiety can all be triggered just by our own thoughts—pulled from the past and projected into the future, and not by anything truly happening in the moment.

As we notice this whole process operating in us at deeper and deeper levels, insecure thoughts begin to lose their grip, and we are more present to respond to each moment in a fresh and insightful way, with new thinking.

Tip No. 4 Pay Attention to Your State of Mind

When we pay less attention to particular thoughts (following thoughts, believing thoughts) we are freed up to notice our overall state of mind, or mood. When frightening thoughts get on our eyeballs, our mood and feeling state drops. From this darker, heavy place, everything our children (spouses, co-workers, relatives) do looks like the end of the world. I talk to clients about “low mood glasses”: when our lenses are colored, they color everything we look at.

Suddenly, the whole world looks as if it is failing us, or we are failing the world. In a bad mood, or negative state of mind, as evidenced by our feelings, we can assume our thinking has become crap. This may not be the time to discipline your child, argue with your spouse, or wax your bikini line. This is a good time to step back, and try to be gentle with our selves, and our families.

"When frightening thoughts get on our eyeballs, our mood and feeling state drops."

For me, that often looks like telling my children I am in a bad mood. What I mean by that is: Don’t take me seriously right now. Sometimes it’s taking a walk with the dog, an overnight trip away from home if possible, or just lying on the floor in the midst of my emotions—simply allowing them to be present, without adding judgment to the mix. We are all human beings here.

When the mood passes, clarity will come, along with solutions, if we actually need any. Very often, the issues we thought were life-threatening and intractable are actually phases or storms in our children’s lives that pass on their own—sometimes more quickly when we make less of them.

In the meantime, before clarity comes, it’s OK to be upset, confused, worried and bummed out. Just know what’s happening.

Tip. No. 3 Forgive Yourself

A lot of parenting involves guilt. We lash out, over-react and, at the same time, see from somewhere deep inside, that our children (and others) are basically innocent and often don’t deserve what we’re dishing out. All of life can start to seem like a huge mistake—or at least a long, miserable series of mistakes, dark worry beads on a fraying thread.

In accepting our humanity fully, we see that no one escapes making mistakes. We all do the best we can, given how we are thinking in each moment. We assume that guilt or self-recrimination might help us do better, but if we pay attention, we may notice that guilt (guilty thoughts) actually creates more insecurity in us, more extreme emotion, and thus more extreme behaviors.

" ... we are the only ones who can truly make ourselves feel guilty ... And can we notice what this guilt does to us?"

It’s an odd little psychological boomerang. My husband asks me to help him with his paperwork. I can’t do it, as I have too much on my plate, but I feel guilty, as though I should help. (“A good wife would help.”) This little whirlwind of thought and emotion causes me to snap at him. “Why don’t you do it yourself? What am I, your personal assistant?” I want to punish him for “making” me feel guilty.

Can we notice this dynamic and see that we are the only ones who can truly make ourselves feel guilty? And then can we notice what this guilt does to us? I am not speaking of momentary shame, or humility—the moment when we realize we might be wrong about something—but rather thoughts of “I am bad, I am a bad person, I am a bad parent” that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Forgiveness is easy when we see the futility of guilt, its total non-logic. Forgiveness is really just dropping thoughts of guilt, and opening up to something new.

Tip No. 2 Enjoy Your Children, Love Your Children, Spoil Them with Affection

My older daughter is dramatic, smart, emotional and very funny. I have my moments of exasperation with her, when I read how she is as “obnoxious” or “loud.” And sometimes she can be these. But when I have the intention to enjoy her, I see that she is creative, a leader, an entertainer and great to be around. Her sense of my enjoyment of her is the fertilizer in the garden of parenting. Enjoyment is a form of love and this is crucial for children to feel. If enjoyment is the fertilizer of parenting, then love, love displayed, is the soil, air, water and sun.

I read an article about Mimi Silbert, founder of the non-profit Delancey Street, who has spent a lifetime housing, training and employing people who come from addiction and the mean streets of San Francisco. Mimi was asked about her childhood, and she said something interesting. She said she was “spoiled” with love, treated like a princess, totally cherished.

Now, Mimi is considered almost a saint in San Francisco. She is totally full of love and caring for everyone who comes through her center—no matter what their background or past. When I read this about her, I just thought, “Uh huh.” When we feel loved, when we feel we have everything we need (which is usually just about love) we don’t feel we need for anything, and when we don’t need anything, we have love to give.

"When we feel loved, when we feel we have everything we need ... we have love to give."

Parents worry about spoiling their children, and certainly too much permissiveness or letting our children walk all over us is not healthy. I once heard an eight- or nine-year-old child on the ski slopes of California tell his mother seriously and loudly that she was a “bad decision maker” and a “bad mother.” The mother said nothing at all. It took everything I had not to say something to the kid, but I could see how he had come to feel he could say such things without consequence.

Spoiling with love is not about not having boundaries. It is about not having boundaries around love, including love of our selves, and respect for our selves. We can trust love. It is the essence of good parenting, and of all relationships, and it asks us to question everything that gets in its way.

Tip No. 1 Love Yourself, Love Life ... and If You Don’t Know How, Find Out

Being able to love our children and our families more freely, more joyfully, is directly correlated to our own capacity to love ourselves and to love life—or, to love ourselves as simply a part of life. If we aren’t good at this, if we don’t know how to do this, then for the love of our children, it behooves us to learn how.

What has been most essential for me in parenting, in marriage, and in life, has been finding and following a true path toward love, toward “purpose” beyond the usual ego goals and ambitions of this world.

"Find ... a true path toward love, toward 'purpose' beyond the usual ego goals and ambitions of this world."

I have been lucky to have learned from some of the best teachers in the Three Principles world (the psychology I work with), and to have discovered and learned from many others in other spiritual and psychological traditions. For most of my life, I have discovered increasing levels of mental and spiritual freedom—and Love!

One can not believe in God, and still believe in one’s innate wisdom, still believe in love and caring, still believe in life. When our true intent is to be happy, to be loving, to be mentally free, then the right teaching or teacher will show up to help us do so. Whatever we need will show up.

So, find love within. Find that you are love—beneath all thoughts to the contrary—and as a river flows its due course to the sea, your parenting will follow this love along its courses of surprise, fulfillment and mystery, a blessing for your children, and for you.


Ami Chen Mills-Naim is author of The Spark Inside and State of Mind in the Classroom: Thought, Consciousness and the Essential Curriculum for Healthy Learning. She co-founded the non-profit Center for Sustainable Change, and directed the National Community Resiliency Project, funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She has been a global speaker and trainer in Thought-based resiliency and mental wellness work for 20 years, and is a coach, consultant, and mentor based in Santa Cruz, CA.

Her next open class in Santa Cruz, "Stress, Well-Being and Spirituality" is March 26, 1:30-3:30 pm at Santa Cruz Yoga, (402 Ingalls) a by-donation fundraiser for the Center for Sustainable Change.


Of Roots and Seeds ...

Dear Friends,

The second half of the class held in Israel (see last blog, "Holy Spirit in the Holy Land") is coming soon ... For today, other issues have arisen that seem, to me, so essential in human interaction, human growth, and the potential--so far quite squandered--within humanity for peace and "right relations."

I received an email at from a very brave, very open woman living in a country (not the United States), where she is learning social work of a rather activist nature, and studying indigenous people and their ways. At the same time, she has discovered the 3 Principles. How do these two worlds meet?

Along with this letter, I have been reading Toni Packer--her beautiful book, The Work of This Moment--and have been struck by how profoundly and deeply Toni questions the many attachments (in Thought) we have to "belonging to a group," to family, religious, spiritual, political, and even cultural or racial (gender!) identification.

How these often seemingly very benign, and even "righteous" affiliations still promote a sense of "self" and "other," and division between the two. Sydney Banks, and all other formless-pointing mystics, spoke often of oneness ... and the problem of ego, which Syd called the "image of self importance," and which I have been calling the "idea of a self."

Can we, do we, consider ourselves somewhat "important" because we belong to a "good" group: be it Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Eastern, Zen, ecological, culturally sensitive, spiritual or even the "3 Principles" as a group or movement, as a way of identifying?

Do we feel superior because we have "found" the 3 Principles, because we teach the 3 Principles? Or because we belong to any other group, historically oppressed, or historically oppressors? Highly evolved? Progressive? Vegetarian? Democrats? Republicans?

Without dismissing our right to choose how to live our lives, or how to vote, do our affiliations "deaden" our listening to others, create assumptions, in Thought, that may not be true. Do our allegiances close off our ability to see freshly, to learn something new about another or about ourselves?

In conversations with Bill Cumming, of What One Person Can Do & the Boothby Institute, who will be my radio show guest next week, June 8, many thought-provoking questions have arisen for both of us.

"The last thing we need is another movement," Bill said to me--and I took this inside myself, just as I have been planting seeds and tubers in the warming soil in our garden. What will emerge?

At the same time, I notice the varied dynamics in my own little family, the tendency, when feeling stressed, hurt or wounded, to blame and to resort to anger and/or irritation. And then the resulting "guilt." Not always, of course ... But what is this impulse? From where does it arise? ... When I invite the question, I find myself in more gentleness, not wanting to "attack back," nor to attack myself, but to allow space for reflection and wondering.

Hurt, Anger, Blame, Guilt. Identity, Attachment. Here are ripe topics for inquiry, for our natural and "alive" curiosity--Consciousness seeking Itself, always. And of course, the gift of the Principles is to help us to clearly see both root cause, and root solution.

Here is the letter I received from the woman in the midst of social work studies, greatly condensed and edited, along with my own questions, seeds, offered for your and my own reflection: 
I’ve come across the three principles at the beginning of 2012, and discovered for myself a whole new dimension of inner wealth. Shortly after, I started my studies and have been wondering ever since how to bring in line my newly found wisdom with asserted ideas of what social workers should be in this world.
We’re being taught to be angry about social injustice and to feel responsible for the suffering of others when we happen to be the privileged ones. But yet I’m very passionate about my studies. I’ve got great teachers and the feeling that everything I’m learning is meaningful.
What creates a question mark in my inner dialogue (and mine wants to be exceptionally vigilant) is that what I’m learning at University and what I understand about the 3P’s seems to be positioned at opposite ends of a spectrum. I’ve been quite upset about this, but just recently I found a way to approach this “issue” with simple curiosity and turn it into a response-ability (your words). This little post of yours [Ami's note: about "responsibility," on my Facebook wall] has really helped me shift paradigms in terms of how I want to address my feeling of guilt for being a _______, for having stuff that others don’t, for being blessed with two beautiful children while my friend is struggling to conceive ... you name it.
Dear Catrin,
I do not know if you sought a response to the above. It seems you are working a lot of this out on your own, and that’s wonderful. However, since you wrote, what occurred to me are the following questions:
What is guilt? It seems to me that guilt carries with it a sense of feeling bad about oneself ... of carrying blame for a situation, of attacking oneself through Thought.
What is the role of guilt in helping to activate us toward social change, or compassion?
Can guilt, in the end, be destructive?
Can it thwart our objectives in “helping others”? For example, if we are helping others in order to make ourselves feel less guilty, or to assuage guilt, then who are we really acting for? Are we helping others as a way of trying to heal ourselves? Is this really the correct order of things?
Without guilt, is there a way to see clearly the horrors of history (as indeed they are), or perhaps even the horrors of our own individual pasts, with renewed vision, and then to act from inspiration, from insight, and joyful selflessness? To share something we ourselves have found, beyond guilt?
(Can we also understand our tremendous privilege and share what we have with joy, understanding that a limit to abundance comes only from the human thought system?)
I know that when I myself feel guilty, I tend to act out in angry ways—feeling angry with myself, and then turning this anger outward. From a 3 Principles perspective, I create a negative thought about myself, which then creates a negative feeling--and from this distorted, negative space, I then act.
Perhaps shame (feeling abashed) has a temporary role to play as we see our past mistakes, and ways in which we may have hurt others. But then, can compassion and love actually co-exist in the same space as guilt? I don’t think so. These are two very different sets of thoughts, the first being impersonal, Universal, and the second being quite personal indeed.
Many of the world’s horrors actually stem from feelings of guilt, turned outward. If this is true, then how can we get to root causes if we continue to carry with us the seeds of violence and repression toward ourselves and others?
I am not suggesting that there is not a place in the world for feelings of guilt and shame, or even for anger and outrage. But I see that hurting each other is a human capacity and habit that spans all cultures and races, and I believe that we must go much, much deeper than guilt to find lasting solutions to such chronic suffering.
[Note: the letter goes on to talk about the indigenous population this woman is studying, and the beauty of their spiritual belief system, with some blame directed toward the government, which is now trying to help in its own, she believes, distorted, paternal way.]
Does the _______ spirituality continue to sustain them? It is quite beautiful, as you describe it, and also, sometimes our spiritual systems and symbols have lost their life, their living meaning. And sometimes we become "attached" the the form of our spirituality, and it becomes another way to hold ourselves up as superior in some way.
The Principles do seem to awaken meaning for people, within their own religions or systems. In the end, however, we transcend all words and all systems, as well as cultural identities. Who and what we truly are is beyond all of that.
Also, I’d like to know, since I’ve just listened to your conversation with Gangaji about enlightenment as a verb (loved it), if you could share the understanding of mental health being a verb? The _______ use a term which means "constant pursuit of well-being."
Unfolding, I’d say. Unfolding mental health, like the Buddhist lotus. We each have an endless reservoir or well of mental health and well-being, and our “unfolding” is finding deeper and deeper experiences of that, less of the self and self-interest, self-concern (the narrow, constricted experience of the small self.)
Beyond the concerns of the self, be they of guilt or identity or self importance, one finds a freedom to move as water moves--over, under, between, around ... not anticipating what may actually come, trusting in its own immense capacity for fluidity.

Perhaps the central question for you now is this: "wondering how to bring in line my newly found wisdom with asserted ideas of what social workers should be in this world." 

I support your open wondering, a wonder-full space--without projecting, analyzing or planning, without fear (or within fear!) ... I trust in your own fluid wisdom to lead you exactly where you need to go.

I send my love and support on your journey.