Presented at HKIS Parent Coffee, January 23rd, 2019
Dear HKIS parents,
It was wonderful to see so many of you at the parent coffee at HKIS, just before Chinese New Year. I would like to share some of my lecture notes with you all which I have posted on my website/blog. I do hope you find this useful, as we muddle our way through these challenging but fun years of raising young ones in a fast-paced world!
By Sangeeta Bansal Ph.D
Anxiety has become the predominant health concern and mental burden for the current generation of students. It comes in many shapes and forms. It starts with a general sense of malaise, restlessness, some sadness - and then can magnify into attention disorders, inability to perform on tests, obsessive compulsive disorders, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, addictions to harmful substances or the internet, and conflicts in inter-personal relationships. Whatever its particular form, it always results in a downward spiral of health and happiness. As parents, it seems we can only stand and watch in horror as children hurtle down this vortex of mental and emotional despair. How can we help them? A good place to start is to be mindful of our own stress level and the resulting parenting style, and check if that is contributing to the anxiety levels in the household. Stress unfortunately, is highly contagious – so if we have it, we are surely passing it around much like the dreaded influenza virus.
Mindfulness by contrast, is the art of staying fully present – paying attention without judgment, and with complete acceptance of what is unfolding moment by moment. Can we say that about our parenting style? Do we lapse into the future filled with fear where our child is jobless and penniless; or do we lapse into the past as we recall all the dreadful experiences we may have encountered while growing up, and project these on to our offspring? Do we zone out when our children speak about a moment in their lives, is our attention hijacked by our thoughts, worries and pre-occupations? Do we convey our deep disappointment when they bring home the dreaded C? Do we enforce discipline with love, and do we practice love without expectations? While most of us would consider ourselves to be good parents, it is time to question if we are mindful and conscious parents. Good parents bring love and the best of intentions, but in addition, conscious parents bring gentle acceptance, broader perspective, patience, kindness, compassion, and a rising consciousness of our place in the universe.
Here are a few things we can be more mindful of, and perhaps question some of our existing belief systems.
1. Stress Does Not Improve Performance
While we are all familiar with the last minute cramming before an important test, the caffeine induced all-nighters and the sweaty palms as we sit down to take that test - does this kind of tension on the nervous system actually help or hurt the learning process and the performance? The relationship between stress and performance has been much studied in social sciences and psychology. A healthy amount of stimulation does get the juices flowing and improves performance. But beyond a certain tipping point, this relationship inverses itself. The body and mind go into distress mode, freezing rather than focusing. This is the zone of panic and despair, where one's memory cannot even access the material that was studied the night before, as depicted by the red zone in the graph below. The child will be unable to grasp new material, will procrastinate on studying out of fear, and will not be able to retrieve the answer from his memory at the critical moment. At the sweet spot on the top of the curve (the green zone) is the place where our stress level is just right, where it ignites our curiosity and engagement with the work, and we fall into a natural state of flow.
As conscious parents we can ensure that we insist on the physiological fundamentals of nutrition, exercise, sleep and play time. This will act as a safety valve to the inevitable stress that life brings, and help them create good foundational habits that will support their long term health. The home should be a haven where the child feels comforted and can rejuvenate from the external pressures.
2. What We Say To Our Children Affects Them Deeply.
If we say things like “You’re so lazy”, or “You’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life if you don't buckle up”, or “Why can't you be more like your sister”, or "you're not living up to your potential", this (not surprisingly) damages our children's self-image and they get trapped in self-limiting beliefs for most of their adult lives. Harsh words and comparisons can be like lashes on their gentle psyches. Our well meaning but critical voices are absorbed and internalized by them so that they hear these voices even when we are no longer around. As adults we may recognize this as the voice of the ‘inner critic’ that lives in our heads and replays the same tune over and over again, “you are not good enough.” It holds us back and shrinks our world to small, safe place where we hope no one will find us. And guess where we first heard this voice – that’s right – from our parents! Subsequently, unkind words from friends and other adults can also get permanently ensconced in the mind as a belief system. "I'm not attractive enough, not smart enough, not tall enough, not thin enough, not popular enough etc". The young malleable minds get caught in a vicious cycle of trying to people-please, and rebel when it gets too much.
What’s interesting is that even words like “You’re so gifted”, or “You’ve got amazing talent”, or “You have your father’s mathematical genius”, could affect them in a way that they are permanently encumbered with this weighty label of inborn capability casually thrust on them. Putting them on a pedestal of success that rests on innate talent rather than their own effort makes it hard for them to tolerate failure and be resilient in the face of life challenges. It creates what Carol Dweck (1) calls a fixed mindset, which is a roadblock in learning and personal growth. It is far more effective in the long run for the child to be grounded in the predictability of his own effort rather than vagaries of inborn talent. So, “I love that you put your mind to something that you enjoy doing and the results show that”, or “I know you really tried, let’s see what you can learn from this painful experience.” By applauding we effort we help create a growth mindset, which results in much better learning outcomes.
One could be equally mindful of the words one uses whether we perceive our children as shining bright or struggling. This type of mindful communication with our children can only happen when we are not in a place of fear and anxiety ourselves. A conscious parent takes the time to work with his own anxiety, to understand the nature of the mind, to catch ourselves in the act of ruminating or catastrophising, and not allowing ourselves to be triggered into reactive behavior.
3. Revisiting our Ideas of Success and Happiness
We live in a culture which is enthralled with success that is fairly narrow in its interpretation. It really just boils down to material wealth and fame. Success was not meant to be about that – it is only when we do something well, and feel wonderful doing it that we can consider ourselves successful. The social and cultural conditioning have programmed us to think that we can be happy if we have more: more gadgets, bigger homes and cars, or designer clothes. We buy more than what they need, we try to make ourselves happy with material things. We are often restless with what the philosopher Alain de Botton calls “status anxiety” (2). We perceive our peers having more than us, and it puts us in a state of mental unrest, which pours out at the family dinner table. Status anxiety makes us envious of others' achievements, and we see their success as a direct evidence of our own failure. As one philosopher even said, "Every time I see my peers succeed, a little part of me dies inside." This status anxiety we feel is inevitably passed on to our kids. We begin to fantasize about that Harvard University sticker at the back of the car, and the impact it would have on our friends and colleagues. This is how our personal agenda get mixed up with the children's own dreams.
Instead of being besieged by negative emotions of anxiety, envy and jealousy, we could practice the more positive emotions of joy and celebration. In mindfulness teachings, one is encouraged to develop the qualities of equanimity, and joy in the achievements of others - knowing that all things are cyclical in nature and one never really knows what life experience is necessary for our own personal growth. This is not to imply we should be resigned in attitude, throw our hands up in the air and declare "Que sera sera". It is a subtle balance between striving but yet not being attached to the fruits of our striving.
A good parent will be engaged and involved with the child and guide her into a life that seems to provide comfort, safety and familiarity. A good parent will not judge their children's achievements by comparing them to a certain standard they have in mind. A conscious parent will go a step further, to raise a child strong enough to know her own mind, to expect challenges and to withstand failure. A conscious parent understands that happiness is about living a life of meaning and purpose, of pursuing a passion, and of finding flow in work. A conscious parent will steer her child to explore what makes them come alive, and how they can use their gifts to improve the lives of others.
4. How Do I Motivate My Child?
"You have so much potential, if only you were motivated you could do amazing things", I remember repeating that to my sophomore son several times. How could I motivate him to stop playing video games and focus on physics and math? It was sheer agony to watch him stay up into late hours to play online video games, and then be tired for school the next day. A common misconception around motivation is that if we adopt a tough tone, scold, punish or paint images of a bleak future, our children will be shamed into better performance. Perhaps this is how we ourselves were brought up, so perhaps we carry the ‘burden of legacy’ with this outdated belief system. Several studies have shown what we must instinctively know already - that kindness and compassion is more powerful as a motivational system than criticism. While a tough tone may be useful in the short run, it overwhelms the system in the long run, and the mind rebels, freezes or shuts down under the barrage of criticism. As parents, we can practice compassion not only for our children but also for ourselves. As the esteemed psychologist and mother of an autistic child Kristen Neff (3) points out – compassion is more what we need - to enable us to live with what IS, and to make the best of a given situation. So in the case of my son I could have said something like, "I can see how you really enjoy these online games. But there is a real danger of getting addicted to these and not being able to focus on priorities. Addiction is a very debilitating mental state to be in, and I wouldn't want you to suffer from that. Let's try to break the habit together." (For more on healthy habits, see my blog)
A good parent may motivate the child by extrinsic rewards (such as a new technological gadget) but the conscious parent will try to ignite intrinsic motivation, which can only happen when the autonomic nervous system is not in panic mode. A short meditation of self compassion would be a great way to deal with a disappointing day at school.
5. Our Mental Chatter Robs Us Of Moments Of Joy
Mental chatter is the background noise that is constantly playing in our heads, with most of its messages being like tabloid headlines, warning us of imminent danger ahead. When the mental chatter (which is everyone’s default mode of being) is loud in our heads, then we forget to be present for our kids. We forget to be accepting and non-judgmental, and provide the comfort they yearn for when they are hurting. We forget to show gratitude for the many blessings we have, to talk about the funny moments of the day, to talk about how we may have embarrassed ourselves or to have a good belly laugh. We forget to give a compliment, or a hug, or a smile. Our strained faces and constant worry for academic performance or social acceptance drive our children into the relatively quiet comfort of their screens. The voice of doom and gloom in our heads puts our own system on high alert, activating all the stress hormones and keeping us stewing in them. This anxiety results in a dangerous narrowing of vision so we do not pick up on alternate ways in which we could support our children’s growth. We miss moments of connection, opportunities to share a laugh and appreciate the beauty around us. (4)
6. Do Our Children Owe Us Something?
Filial piety is a concept that has been around forever, and not just in Asian cultures. The poet Emily Dickinson who lived in the mid-nineteenth century in Amherst, Massachusetts, stayed with her parents until they died of old age. By this time she was well into her forties, and hence unlikely to find a husband and have a family of her own. Often children are expected to live their lives in a way that satisfies some dream or aspiration that the parents have – joining the family business, or living in proximity, following a certain profession, or marrying someone the parents see as eligible. The chosen profession or marriage partner usually brings an enhancement in social status or family wealth. The stories of personal sacrifices made by parents are often regurgitated at family gatherings in order to induce some degree of guilt and inspire the children to return this selfless behavior. While there is nothing wrong with family standing by one another in times of joy and sorrow, it the guilt induced behavior thrust on young ones that has more of a self-serving tone to it than one might expect from a parent who has done their own inner work.
It may be a somewhat sensitive topic of discussion – for we have deeply held beliefs around this. The conscious parent, according to psychologist Tsabary (5), understands that children may come through us, but they are on their own journey. They are unique souls who have come to live out their own mission. We can choose to be the ‘stewards of their spirit’, rather than channeling some of our own unmet needs and unintegrated shadows through them, thereby robbing them of authenticity, their essence and their joy. We fear we may lose control over them, so we try to create a protective fort around them. But as all wisdom traditions guide us, fear and control come from limiting beliefs - true freedom from suffering comes from accepting that there are forces in the universe that guide, protect and nurture us. Unconditional love is about setting someone free, and allowing them to unfold in awareness in their own time, whatever may be the consequence for us as parents.
7. Give Them Love And Plenty Of Chores: Help Them To Think Beyond Themselves.
One of the sure signs of rising consciousness is a corresponding decline in me-centredness, which is a belief that the world revolves around our own personal needs and wants. It is replaced by a feeling of connection to something larger than the self - a bigger cause that encompasses all of humanity. Many of our young adults feel this when they engage in community service of some kind and are touched by the suffering of others. Their worldview changes from always seeing their glass half empty to realizing how blessed they really are. This is a giant developmental leap in anyone's life, and all of the world's spiritual traditions point towards practices that can lower the clutches of the self-centered ego, and enhance identification with the larger sense of self.
As good and loving parents we can unwittingly send the message to our kids that they are the center of the universe, increasing this burden of the ego. We cater to their every whim and fancy, and remove any possible discomfort from their lives. Julie Lythcott-Haims, Dean of Freshman at Stanford University, voices concern that by micromanaging our children, helicoptering them, and steering them at every turn in life, we actually rob them of self-efficacy (the belief that they have the power to make changes to their own lives), a fundamental tenet of a child’s personality. The solution according to her is to make sure every child has a strong foundation that is built on love - and chores expected of them. The chores help them to see that life is not all about them and their achievements, they are expected to contribute to a larger whole. They are part of a machinery that runs a household. At the same time, daily chores teach the valuable lesson that life often presents tasks that are unpleasant but still need to be done.
To summarize, there are so many ways to incorporate mindfulness into parenting. These are practices we train in, skills we learn and build that improve our capacities to parent. Mindful communication, giving gratitude, breathing techniques, practicing lovingkindness and compassion, disciplining with chores, finding moments of joy and connection, and being positive in our approach. The fact is that we are growing in wisdom ourselves while we raise the kids – building the plane as we fly it. We can accept that we will never be perfect (parenting is hard work!), but we can give ourselves a healthy dose of self-compassion knowing all parents go through the same angst. Finally, we realize that that love, not fear, is the place where we start our journey into mindful parenting.
Final Note to Parents
I hope you enjoyed the talk. I certainly enjoyed meeting you all and the Q & A session that followed. If there are any questions, you may post them here or email me directly at DearSangeetaB@gmail.com
I look forward to hearing from you.
1. Carol Dweck,2006. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.Random House, New York
2. Alain de Botton, 2014. Status Anxiety. Vintage International, Vintage Books, New York
3. Kristen Neff, 2012. Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.Harper Collins.
4. Barbara Frederickson, 2013. Love 2.0: How our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything we Feel, Think, Do, and Become.Hudson Street Press.
5. Shefali Tsabary, 2017. The Awakened Family: How to Raise Empowered, Resilient, and Conscious Children. Penguin Books.