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


Last year, I settled on two New Year's resolutions. The first: to cancel my gym membership. The second: not to make any more resolutions.

As I've said before, wisdom is a moving target, and so my resolution to not have resolutions has un-resolved itself this year.

Here are my resolutions--or rather, call them "loose ideas," or vague intentions--for 2013. And, whatever you do, don't hold me to them. While it's great to have big dreams, it's also surprisingly fulfilling to set very low expectations that one might actually meet.

Number One: I want to be in a Flash Mob. If anyone is organizing such a delightful thing in the South Bay area, please do contact me. This one resolution trumps all the others, (except Six) below, and will count as having fulfilled the entire list (except Six), if it does, indeed happen.

Number Two: I want to take a ceramics class. There. Seems easy enough.

Number Three: I want to re-learn a few chords on my guitar. See comment above. (So far, so good!)

Number Four: I want to continue to go to yoga classes in a highly inconsistent way. (Again, done!)

Number Five: I want to start taking a Zumba class, with the frequency of my attendance being fairly intense in the new year and then petering out to nearly never after a couple or few months. If some unforseen miracle happens, I may still be doing Zumba at the close of 2013, but highly doubtful, don't you think?

Number Six: O.K. I really mean this one. I want to continue to discover who and what I truly am, and to express that (or allow That to express me) fully and freely in the new year, and in all the years that I am lucky enough to be gifted with, to come. Let no resolutions toward any other goals for the body, the identity, or in the "outer world" impede this one, this sacred one, the only one that cannot mislead.

How about you, my beautiful Friend?

Have you found the One True Prayer

the Divine Resolve

That will inevitably, mysteriously, wondrously Release

the Self

in which all resolution dissolves?

Actually, I Don't Really Know What I'm Doing

My family and I are fresh off the boat from our post-Christmas, mid-New Year's trip to Taiwan with "Babu," their Chinese grandmother (and my Mom). It's nearing noon and the children are still passed out, slung out on couches and chairs in the living room, after several failed attempts to rouse them and get them right-side up (or upside down) with the time. Looks like we'll definitely miss the first day of post-vacation school. Oh well.

A wonderful, whirlwind trip--which I'll share more of in later posts--but a recent theme of mine, "I don't really know what I'm doing" was prevalent for me at key moments on the journey. And it's quite true, friends. Actually, I don't really know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing as a wife, as a daughter, as a parent. As anything, really.

Which is not to say that I am not enjoying being a wife, mother, daughter. Not to say that it's not often terrific, lovely, completing, transcendent and fun. It's just that it's quite clear to me, at moments, that I am lost and it all feels particularly hard--if not impossible; it seems I'm making an unsolvable mess of everything, and worst of all, ruining my children somehow.

Take for example the first moments of walking into our fab suite at a terribly luxe hotel (we had saved money via staying at some grungy but quite passable one and two star spots early on) at Sun Moon Lake, somewhat akin to our Lake Tahoe here in California. My eldest daughter immediately became terribly excited, overwrought almost, and immediately began to claim territory, including the only private room in the suite (with a door that closed) and a private bathroom just for her and her sister.

Well, this would not work. We had my mother and husband to think about. So Ali and her little sis were relegated to the master suite (open to the central living area) with a king bed and glass sliding doors to a massive bath, views of the lake, a central, stand alone tub encased in granite, and a double concrete sink. But this was not enough. No suitcases, she declared, would go in her room and no one was to come in, nor use the gorgeous bath, which was, by all rights, hers and her sisters alone. We grownups had the other bathroom; so that should be fair.

"And finally, selfishly, honestly, I really wanted to take a bath in that wild tub."

I was having a hard time with all of this, as you might imagine. In her words and actions, I suddenly saw Ali as a tyrannical Diva in her mid-twenties, entitled, spoiled, alienating all her friends as she claimed all the choicest options in life for herself. She would end up alone! All alone! And finally, selfishly, honestly, I really wanted to take a bath in that wild tub. My husband, on the other hand, had his head on straight.

"She's just excited," he said. "Let her calm down and we'll work this all out."

Well that went in like a the faintest glance of dew on a Gortex jacket. I should have just plopped my bags on the highly polished wood floor and laid down for a few brief moments, or rather many, many more moments to enjoy the view and let Ali get used to these new digs and the reality of our situation. But in my worry and agitation, I wound up on Alia's bed trying to talk some sense into her, when she told me that no one was allowed in her room, including me.

"Listening, hearing, understanding were not in place for either of us at that moment."

"Alright then, I'm leaving," I fumed. And I abruptly stood up and retreated to my lesser room. I said this in a tone (hurt, vengeful) that should be reserved just for adults--who can usually handle such tones. Ali came tearfully, apologetic, after me (what child can bear to feel they've lost their mother's love, even if only for a second?) and I proceeded to explain to her that this hotel was quite expensive, that we can't always have everything we want, that there are others to consider, etc. etc. But listening, hearing, understanding were not in place for either of us in the moment, and my darling, beloved, over-excited little girl wound up sitting by herself on the exquisitely tiled shower stall floor with the frosted glass door shut, crying.

It was one of those overly psychological moments that you never imagine having with your seven-year-old.

It's even painful to recount this story, this embarrassing episode of poor motherhood. And worst of all is that after her father turned the television on for the two girls to watch in their bed, I caught Ali sucking her thumb, something she has not done since the age of three.


So, to summarize, Ali continued to be somewhat obnoxious and wary the next day and I ... the best I could do was to fling my mental, emotional and spiritual hands up in the air.

"My God," I wailed silently to the lake, the distant mountains--all as if out of a painting in a fantastical Asian story book--"I don't know what I'm doing!"

The best I could do for the next couple days was to try to enjoy this fancy resort (which I did!), to stay somewhat quiet and to try to remember what was pure and good about my child. It was a struggle. Sometimes, I have to pretend, as a mom. I remember a good friend of mine once saying to me, in an embarrassed, ashamed voice,

"Sometimes I just don't like my child."

I loved that he said it. So I said it too.

"I think sometimes we all don't like our children," I replied. And yet, we do love them, somehow. How freeing to admit this--the hopelessness, the helplessness--of parenthood, sometimes.

I spent a lot of time in the very impressive Lalu library and read books with Ali when she crawled in next to me on the divan, seeking acceptance and attention. I did not really want to. I was annoyed, frightened, feeling awkward as a mom, wanting to somehow escape the role entirely. But I did read with her. We went biking. That was fun. I hugged and kissed her, hoping not too much, actually.

Intention, prayer, giving up all ideas that one knows anything at all about how to love this child, how to raise this child, taking my focus off the problem, actually--this is all that has ever worked for me. Trusting, as I wrote in the dedication to The Spark Inside, that wisdom always finds a way.

On the last night of our trip, we traveled by cab to Longshan temple in bustling Taipai. The exterior waterfall was lovely and inside, hundreds of entities stood in somewhat dusty, encased silence to be worshipped and prayed to. Incense smoke threatened to choke us all, and platters of food and fruits weighed down offering tables. Central to all was the golden statue of Quan Yin, female incarnation of the Buddha for some, goddess of mercy and compassion. I am not one for idols, and many of the prayers and activities here are of a superstitious nature--throwing smooth wooden, banana-shaped sticks for decision making purposes, asking for "things" and circumstances people think they want, or need.

"I needed someone else to step in and be the parent, the constant giver, for a moment, for a day, or more."

Ali said an interesting thing, after she asked what everyone there was doing.

"They are praying to these different Gods," I said.

"Well that's weird, because we all are God!" she replied.

"Yes," I said laughing. But I had fallen into another mood--impatient, feeling the need for space, distance, alone-ness. I needed someone else to step in and be the parent, the constant giver, for a moment, for a day ... or more!

I told my husband, "I'm going off by myself for a minute," and I did. I went to the statue of Quan Yin. And although I did not prostrate myself, I set my palms together in prayer position, closed my eyes, and I prayed.

"I don't know what I'm doing," I said again. "Please help."

Later, Ali asked me what I had done.

"I was praying," I said.

"You were?"

"Yes," I said. "Since God is everywhere, is everything, sometimes it's nice to have a little focus, something to pray to, knowing actually you are praying to God, God inside you and God everywhere."

"What did you pray for?"

"I prayed for wisdom, a clear mind, a better way of seeing things," I said.

"Did God answer you?" she asked.

"No. God did not answer me right away. But I do always get an answer, sometimes later. I get an answer when my mind is quiet. Do you know what I mean?"

She did not answer, but I could tell she was contemplating it all.

By the next day, something had shifted. Nothing dramatic. More like the feeling of having a toasty quilt pulled over you when you don't realize just how cold you have become. My husband woke up with a terrible muscle spasm in his neck, and was in no shape for parenting or anything, really. It was almost too much for him to have to carry luggage.

In a space of renewed quietude, love for my children came flowing out of me like the natural Formosa warm springs we had been soaking in; and I was able to mother, nurture, and keep my daughters fed and entertained through a three-hour flight into Tokyo, and a four-hour layover that was painfully extended by a two-hour delay at the Narita airport. Somehow, we enjoyed the whole thing. Alia had completely stopped sucking on the sleeves of her jacket and strands of her hair (which is normal for her when she is anxious or bored). She played with her sister quietly, imaginatively, for hours.

She's a loving girl, a sensitive and highly emotional girl. She cares deeply about her family and is extremely loyal to all of us. She has loads of energy and excitement and terribly grand ideas. She is seven, after all.

Later on, I don't remember when, nor whether on this side or the other side of the Pacific, of today or yesterday, she said to me:

"You're the best Mom ever!"


And I replied:

"You know, I think that I am sometimes good, and sometimes not so good, but the important thing is that I love you very, very much."


This blog is for all you very real parents and caregivers out there. Human beings just like me.

With Love from your

Mystical (and human!) Mama