The Path of Happy, Healthy Parenting
by Sachico Ohanks
The role of parent comes with its share of joys and challenges, at times leading us into terrain we are not prepared for. The spot we want to arrive at is not found on any map, though we continually steer towards it in our hearts.
In The Path of Parenting, Zen teacher Laura Burges and family therapist Erica Reischer lead a workshop just for parents, in which they draw from the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness and the modern science of family therapy. I had the opportunity to talk with Laura on the phone about their upcoming retreat:
SFZC: Do you find that parents really open up and share their experiences while on retreat?
Laura: On these retreats there is always a lot of laughter and sharing of anecdotes about our kids and about what is challenging and gratifying about being a parent. So, we get a chance to share and bond with other parents. People can feel re-inspired about parenting as a spiritual path.
Parenting challenges us to really look at assumed attitudes that we might have inherited from our family, and to raise ourselves to the level of consciousness where we decide what we want to continue in terms of our parenting. We can look at what we were given as children ourselves and what we might want to revolutionize about our parenting, given our Buddhist practice.
SFZC: As a parent, and as an individual, it’s so hard to see when I am repeating a pattern.
Laura: Yes, it is. We have all had that moment when we hear our mother’s or our father’s voice coming out of us, and catch ourselves saying something that we never intended to say to our own kids. I think this is where mindfulness is so important. It gives us a moment to pause and decide how we want to relate to our children, and what kind of messages we want to give to them.
And then, another part of mindful parenting is to establish warm and loving boundaries, because often our kids are really hungry for boundaries. They want to know what the limits are; it gives them a sense of protection and support. Sometimes as parents we are not aware of this need, and we fall into trying to be our kids’ best friend when really they are asking us for boundaries in their lives.
SFZC: How do we parents get past the obstacles of our own making, like this one?
Laura: Well, for example, some parents feel that advocating for their kids means fighting their battles for them, no matter what those are. And very often what we really need to do is teach our kids how to advocate for themselves and encourage them to be resilient. Sometimes when our children tell us the problems they are having at school or with their friends, they really want us to listen. They want us to listen with an open heart.
We can empower them by encouraging them to come up with ways in which they might solve their problems themselves. So, brainstorming with them might be much more helpful then just telling them what to do, or inserting ourselves into the situation and speaking for our kids. That’s just one example of a challenge that comes to mind. Of course we want to protect our kids no matter what, but often encouraging their own resilience and problem solving skills is much more helpful to them in the long run than always going to bat for them in a more active way.
SFZC: While you were raising your daughter how did you manage to integrate Buddhist practice with parenting?
Laura: It was a helpful practice to sit zazen with a circle of parents, and to talk about how practice can help sustain us in the midst of our demanding lives. When my daughter was eleven years old, we had the good fortune to practice at Plum Village, in southern France, with Thich Nhat Hanh. One familiar phrase he teaches to help focus awareness is, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” He invited us to create our own helpful phrases. I came up with, “Breathing in, I wonder what we’re going to have for dinner. Breathing out, I realize I forgot to make dental appointments.”
SFZC: What activities will you and Erica offer on this retreat?
Laura: Erica and I take turns speaking – I from a Buddhist mindfulness point of view, and Erica from a more practical family therapy point of view. We will give a brief meditation instruction to everyone, do sitting meditation and walking meditation in the garden, and have a wonderful organic Green Gulch lunch. We will introduce some simple mindfulness activities that can be done in your family and show you how you can weave these activities into your family life.
The parenting techniques that Erica is going to cover have been very thoroughly researched as being effective. Those parenting techniques – setting boundaries and schedules and family meetings — paired with our own mindfulness and sitting meditation practice, combine to make healthier and happier parents.
The Path of Parenting retreat is a day for parents to leave their children at home and re-energize along the path. For more information, visit the Path of Parenting page. See also The Dharma of Motherhood: Exploring Paths to Practice as We Raise Children, with Laura Burges and Patsy Creedy.