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.