The Essential, Invisible Factor in Parenting

By Ami Chen Mills-Naim … I have recently returned from a cold and snowy visit to a Native American Indian Reservation in Minnesota, host to one of the worst school shootings (at the time, in 2005) in U.S. history. The problems that continue to plague this small, rural and impoverished (but also very beautiful and resilient) community include a rash of suicides of youth—even of children as young as 10.

At the same time, in Silicon Valley, where our family used to live, children from even wealthy households in one city have also been committing suicide on the train tracks and elsewhere, marking an unfortunate new start to an old epidemic that started there about six years ago.

Our children are crying out to us from all backgrounds and every kind of community. They are telling us that somehow our priorities are not straight. Our vision is not clear. There may be high pressure for achievement; or a lack of feelings of self worth for children (and for parents); as well as no guidance about, or sense of where true well-being comes from.

But in even the worst of circumstances, hope glimmers on the horizon. There is an invisible factor in parenting and educating youth that makes a world of difference for kids—indeed, for us all.


The Invisible Parenting Factor

I have observed in my work for nearly 20 years with parents, and in communities across the country (and now the globe), that while no parent can control the thoughts and feelings of their children—one of the most influential protective factors for our children is something invisible, but truly felt: our own states of mind.

State of mind dictates whether we are responding to our children with faith in their (and our own) core of humanity, wisdom and well-being—or whether we may be inadvertently increasing their feelings of urgency and alarm about life or themselves, because we ourselves are living in states of upset, judgment, stress, anxiety and worry.

We are all human beings, trying to do the best we can, given the thoughts we have about life, and what we believe is important. Parents are not to blame. However parents, educators and others who work with, and raise children, can begin to look within.

We can pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that may be invisible but habitual in our households and classrooms. If we see that these habits are counter-productive to well-being, we can also see through them to a better way.

State of mind is governed by the quality of our thinking from moment to moment. When we look to the source of state of mind, and to the source of our own thinking, we gain leverage over our own mental climates. We also tap into our own inner wisdom, a spiritual guidance system that helps us become more calm, positive and effective in our lives. Indeed, beneath all our negative, worried or stressful thoughts, there is a core of stillness, peace, love and well-being that has never left us.

I, for one, am not content (in fact, quite discontent!) to label problems of suicide and stress as "mental illness" problems and leave it at that. Too often, once a diagnosis is given, there is also a kind of resignation into a life of juggling medication and "managing symptoms" that overlooks and can even mask the profound potential and power of the unleashed human spirit, of innate well-being, of our spiritual capacities.

In my two books—for youth and educators—and for more than 17 years, I have shared simple principles, the "Three Principles" (governing state of mind) that have proven profoundly effective for easing stress and distressed thinking in parents, youth and people, actually, from all walks of life. Results include: decreased depression, decreased anxiety, decreased physical "discipline" and abuse from parents, increased academic achievement and increased feelings of well-being, hope and positivity.

Others who have built their work on these same principles include Positive Discipline Author Jane Nelson, and the late, bestselling self-help author Richard Carlson (of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff fame). Actually, the list of books about these principles is now growing by the minute.

Avery's Story

A teenager named Avery, resident of the Native American community mentioned above, and where I just conducted a large-scale training for school district staff, learned of these principles nearly a year ago. He had already lived through many murders in his community, suicides and the school shooting. A friend of his died in his arms of gunshot wounds. He had suffered through cancer. Like many would in his circumstances, he became depressed and alcoholic.

And then he heard some simple facts, some bits of truth about state of mind, innate well-being and the role of Thought.

Now, he says: “I realized I always had that wisdom. I was just not aware of it. [When I was told,] it was instant with me. It clicked like, ‘Wow!’

“Over the last nine months or so, having the knowledge of this has helped me through another couple murders of this past year. It was hard, but I've handled it better than I could have imagined.

“It might sound funny, but I'm truly and honestly still happy in my heart. For those I have lost, I pray: ‘I cannot miss you anymore, because I tend to cry. So let me smile, and remember you with a healthy mind, a drug-and-alcohol-free mind.

“I have come a long way from ‘depressed drunk’ to a ‘helper of this community.’ I have a job offer with the school to share what I can with students who feel ‘hopeless,’ to let them know I was there, and help them see this wisdom we all have!”

Ami is author of The Spark Inside (for youth) and State of Mind in the Classroom: Thought, Consciousness and the Essential Curriculum for Healthy Learning. She is a global speaker, trainer and coach, who co-founded the non-profit Center for Sustainable Change. She directed the National Community Resiliency Project, funded by W.K. Kellogg. She leads a monthly drop-in class, coaches individuals and families and offers national programs from her base in Santa Cruz, CA. Visit her website at

On School Violence and What We Can Do

The side gate to my childrens' elementary school yard is now locked. This feels unfortunate to me, because this remote entry to the school's sports field is lovely. It shares terrain with a university campus, and the walk to the school gate includes a country road that rises up from an elegant, old entry at the main street, marked by carved white posts from some other era. Majestic trees and wild meadow rise beyond. It's a rural, poetic corner of our city and we are lucky to have it here, by our school. I'll miss this walk, past the old gate, up the road and into school.

This locking happened because some apparently confused individual (adult/male/vagrant) was coming onto campus and stealing childrens' backpacks. One can just barely imagine why. What was this man after, sandwiches? ... Gummy bears? Goldfish crackers? Bits of twigs and leaves, barrettes, journals, baseballs, gloves, notes to BFF's? ... Fifty cents, or two dollars?

Perhaps these spacious, colorful containers seemed to promise so much, with their bright decorations and primary colors, thrown about haphazardly outside of classrooms, bulging out from walls on hooks, carelessly left unzipped by trusting, oblivious children.

The school shooting/massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, of course, sealed the deal on the gate in December. And although nearly all other boundaries of school property--north, east, much of the south--remain wide open to the wind, families, vagrants, domesticated and wild animals, birds and all else, a gate that can be locked, now is.

"The sad truth," he said, "is that someone who really wants to hurt people probably will."

At our most recent PTA meeting, the school principal stated that ideas for further school security were being mulled over--including: possibly enclosing the entire school in fencing. As a concerned mother, I found myself interested.

But our principal also noted that in Newtown, the only entry point to the school was a set of locked double doors (the shooter blasted through these) and the rest of the campus was also secured, locked.

"The sad truth," he said, "is that someone who really wants to hurt people probably will."

We have many Israeli friends, and some are in shock that the entire school is not patrolled by armed guards. Of course, we are not in Israel, and while all ideas for and about our childrens' safety must be considered, it also sadly true that in a heavily armed and defended world, there really is no such thing as true and permanent security--for anyone.

Is there any other way that we can be vigilant? What can be done by ordinary, concerned people, parents and educators in this moment and every moment?

Actually, there is an "invisible" factor that plays into our own protection and that of others.

After the hard, insane, horrific reality that was Newtown, and is nearly all violence in our society, what I will say here may sound like clouds or cotton candy.

But I venture that this invisible factor, this common denominator for all human beings, and their safety and well-being, trumps all others.

It is our own thoughts, our own states of mind. Setting aside, for the moment, the major role that Thought plays in building a case within the mind of a perpetrator of violence (misguided, painful, distorted thoughts); we can, as ordinary people, pay immediate attention to our own states of mind.

When we are consumed by personal thoughts, worried thoughts from the past, or anxious projections into the future, when we are not present, it is nearly impossible to be attuned to our surroundings.

Alert, without unwarranted fear, conscious of where our bodies are in time and space (as well as other bodies), attentive to the energies of those around us--these all comprise an attuned, responsive state of mind that can alert us to real threats in our environment, or to the "off feelings" of an individual.

I worked with men and women, boys and girls, who had committed horrible crimes, some they had been charged with, and some that had not yet been discovered. One boy was accused of killing his own father.

I worked for several years for a county system teaching principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought. I went regularly, willingly, happily, into environments some may consider dangerous. These included the county jail, juvenile hall (minimum and maximum security units), correctional ranches for adolescents, and schools for adjudicated youth.

I worked with men and women, boys and girls, who had committed horrible and violent crimes, some they had been charged with, and some that had not yet been discovered. One boy was accused of killing his own father. One boy put an innocent bus driver in the hospital. One boy set fire to animals.

In the midst of these populations, two things helped me stay safe: One was a deep respect for the core resilience and health of each individual, no matter the charge, a basic respect that was felt from me and therefore returned to me. Two, simply staying in a state of presence, clearing thought, not projecting fear (not creating fearful thoughts), and also not being afraid to acknowledge when an inmate (or even correctional officer!) was acting in an inappropriate way, or putting out a strange energy.

Inmates felt safe and confided in me, even when the secrets they shared were twisted or offensive, or when they shared deeper fears that might be embarrassing.

Attention to my own thoughts and state of mind did two things. Inmates felt safe and confided in me, even when the secrets they shared were twisted or offensive, or when they were sharing deeper fears that might be embarassing. I was able to observe situations that "needed to handled" and handle them, without fearing consequences to myself. I reported a correctional officer or "counselor" at juvenile hall who was acting inappropriately in my class. I reported an adult male who was dating an underage teenager at a school where I worked. Once (outside of work) I saw a man acting strangely, lingering outside my childrens' gymnastics class, and I reported this to staff at the parks and recreation department.

I am not holding myself up as some kind of saint or hero. I have many colleagues who have taken similar responsibility, and acted more bravely than me. Many of you, dear readers, have probably stepped up to the plate many times. And I make mistakes. I still can get caught up in thinking and cloud my own mind. I am not perfect, but I gain clarity day by day, month by month and year by year.

My point here is that each one of us has the potential to discriminate between thoughts (or states of mind) that are helpful to ourselves and others, that can be protective and guide us, and thoughts that simply clutter the mind and render us ineffective and "absent." Even thoughts that might cause us to harm others.

With mental clarity, we emanate a neutrality and compassion that those around us feel and respond to. Perhaps a bullied child can confide in us. Perhaps even a bullying child can.

With mental clarity (a quiet mind) it is more obvious when something needs to be addressed, and we can move past fears and doubts about speaking up. With mental clarity, we emanate a neutrality and compassion that those around us feel and respond to. Perhaps a bullied child can confide in us. Perhaps even a bullying child can. Certainly more so when we are not caught up in our own mental storms, judgments, moods and urgency to move into the next moment.

Finally, we must open our collective mind to greater hope and possiblity for people who suffer from mental illness--hope that goes beyond destigmatization. With the relatively recent introduction of the power of Thought into Western "mental health," the field of possibilities has opened. In my work, I personally know, have followed, and communicated with so many people who suffered tremendously with even severe diagnoses, and have found peace of mind, gentleness and freedom for themselves.

... the value of mental clarity and peace of mind, and the possibility for a deeper and deeper sense of presence has, in the 20th century, become a vibrant, profound and far reaching dialogue.

My own non-profit specializes in teaching the role of thought and state of mind to families, schools and communities. We teach the fundamental innocence, mental health and neutrality that exists within all of us, and that we can reach out to and help "grow" in others.

Globally, however, the role of Thought, the value of mental clarity and peace of mind, and the possibility for an ever deepening sense of presence has, in the 21st Century, become a vibrant, profound and far reaching dialogue that I have heard coming from all corners. I believe this dialogue, and what it reveals, will go a long way further toward protecting ourselves and our children; toward loving ourselves and each other; and therefore toward ending school violence, and every kind of violence, than locking the gates.