Cultivating Self-Awareness in Parents
A new book argues that parents need to focus more on themselves and less on their children.
Cultivating Self-Awareness in Parents
By Diana Divecha / greatergood.berkeley.edu

I felt for the preschooler in the park whose mother issued a steady stream of instructions: “Go down the slide, put your shoes on, be careful, stay out of the dirt.”

When he eyed me and my dog with curiosity, I responded. “Would you like to throw the ball for my dog? She’d love it!” I said.

He picked up the ball and gave it a few squeezes, but his mother had more instructions: “Don’t squeeze the ball, throw it. Throw it over there. Throw it hard.” There wasn’t much breathing room for the child to explore the ball, his throwing ability, the dog, or just a friendly interpersonal exchange. However well-intentioned, this “playtime” seemed more about the parent.

In her fourth book, The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting, Shefali Tsabary argues that parenting should be focused more on developing parents’ maturity—and less on children themselves.

Children come into the world naturally “awake,” or aware of who they truly are, claims Tsabary. The problems that show up in children—anxiety, behavior problems, resistance—are not of their doing, but are really manifestations of problems with parents who are not sufficiently enlightened, awake, or conscious, according to Tsabary. She may have a point: If the mother of that preschooler continues to be so controlling, I can well imagine a future for them of conflict and resistance.  

Despite the word “revolution” in the title, the message of Awakened Family is not new—but it does bear repeating.

For at least a hundred years, clinicians, scholars, and even poets have called for a shift in the focus of parenting away from the children and onto the parents. The Swiss psychologist Alice Miller wrote extensively about the ways that parents who were physically or psychologically harmed as children unconsciously pass on their wounds. Scholars validated the intergenerational transmission of trauma, linking child abuse to later adult violence. Family therapists found that many of children’s behavior problems go away when parents alone receive counseling. And last month, at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science, developmental scientist Alison Gopnik urged parents to nurture but not shape their children, and to back down from the pervasive supervision, control, and directiveness of today’s intense parenting.

Tsabary is not even talking about abuse or trauma. She has a more refined lens focusing particularly on parents’ desires to control their children, especially in the service of achievement, which can stoke parents’ egos but doesn’t necessarily support children’s emotional and mental needs. When children bend in response to their parents’ egos, Tsabary says, they become anxious and depressed. The key to conscious parenting is to become aware of the ego—the false construction of the self, who we believe and think we are, much of which is rooted in fear. Though Awakened Family contains some serious flaws, Tsabary’s message is one that many parents need to hear.

Loving parents, harmful beliefs

The first half of Awakened Family unpacks the most common harmful beliefs that cloud parents’ ability to see their children clearly: that parents assume themselves to be perfect, that parenting is not about the adult but about the child, that control is a kind of caring, or that preparing for the future is more important than the present moment. Parents project their own needs, dreams, and expectations onto children, yet they are also afraid of being rejected by their children. All of these parental beliefs and fears contaminate children’s ability to keep their spirits intact, to grow their authentic voices. Parenting, Tsabary says, is about managing parents’ dynamics—the children are okay.

Tsabary’s guidance is based on her clinical and personal experience and influenced by yoga philosophy and mindfulness traditions. When parents are “aware,” she says, their family naturally thrives. “Empowered with self-awareness, boundless in self-belief, liberated in self-expression, each feels free to explore, discover, and manifest their authentic being. This is the mandate of the awakened family.”

Tsabary holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Columbia University but her advice is not based on research or developmental science. While that doesn’t preclude it from being good advice, there are some direct conflicts that may contribute to inaccurate ideas about how children develop.

For example, Tsabary says that babies are born in a state of perfection and “awakeness,” when cognitive research shows that babies have predispositions and biases—for better or worse—and the way the predispositions manifest depends a lot on the care they encounter. And in her enthusiasm, Tsabary implies that parenting involves only a focus on growing one’s own maturity, to the exclusion of taking into account children’s developmental processes, unique temperamental differences, or the “co-constructive” nature of development that is the product of the unique interaction among multiple layers of influences, from economy and culture to genes. And she out-Rousseaus Rousseau in her romantic vision of children: In an awakened family, “[children] will naturally develop a self-discipline.” This is, in a word, unlikely.

Tsabary’s language assumes a familiarity with Eastern-leaning philosophies: Phrases like “grounded in your own center,” “awakening in the present moment,” “deepest self,” and “usher our children into their own self-realization” are used liberally but not defined.

Unfortunately, she also contradicts herself: When explaining how parents can resolve their fears, projections, and ego-based control, she first advises that “We don’t have to go way back into our childhood to excavate the roots of our fear,” but instead can watch it in the present moment—surely a relief to many parents. Yet only a few pages later, Tsabary cautions that “The only way we can ultimately free our children from our dependency is if we have freed ourselves from our parents.” In a chapter titled “How the Culture Sets Up Parents to Fail,” there is no actual mention of cultural dynamics. And she does not answer questions a novice parent might raise, in reaction to her philosophy, such as, “What is the line between supporting a child’s authentic self and coddling them? What about teaching children actual skills?”

Transformative tools

Despite these editorial flaws, the message of the book is vitally important and may contribute to advancing the human rights of children. Tsabary makes some bold and much-needed points:

  • Traditional parenting, she says, has sanctioned the “unbridled use of parental power.” Punishments, time-outs, threats, shaming, and silencing aren’t effective but are hallmarks of “lazy and rote parenting.” “I am dead set against children being ostracized to naughty corners, stools, or steps,” Tsabary writes.
  • Just because a parent gets triggered, it doesn’t mean that a child is wrong, and it doesn’t confer the legitimacy of an adult to “fix” a child.
  • Most parenting books teach how to manipulate children out of feeling what they’re feeling; to stop a behavior rather than to teach how to negotiate feelings in constructive ways.

Tsabary encourages parents to move away from disciplinary techniques to creating healthy boundaries—something that requires an examination of the adult’s psychology. Children thrive within a predictable structure, she says, but often parents’ own relationship to limits is “wishy-washy.” It is our ability to set good limits, structure, and expectations for our children that fosters their sense of discipline.

One important tool in this transformation is mindfulness: At risk of over-promising, she says, when we are alert to the present moment, the ego and all its attachments, ideas and agendas fall away. “We witness, engage, act, let go.”

<a  data-cke-saved-href=“http://amzn.to/1sJ87nk” href=“http://amzn.to/1sJ87nk”>Viking, 2016, 368 pages</a>The second transformative tool is taking five minutes of silence, or inserting a pause between being triggered and formulating a response. This is consistent with advice coming from emotional intelligence (the “meta-moment”) as well as neuroscience, which shows that when we’re triggered, it takes time for the thinking part of our brain to kick back in. Taking five minutes of silence, Tsabary says, allows “space for the wisest action to enter our awareness.”

In the early part of the twentieth century, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.” Tsabary’s message may not be new, but her ability to amplify it is. She is a loquacious, telegenic force that is saturating new media and is a favorite of Oprah.

The real revolution, though, may lie in transforming such words into action. How can we make the change that Tsabary and others are talking about for all adults, not just parents but also educators, who have children’s waking attention for at least as much time as parents do? Now that will take an army.


Diana Divecha, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist on the advisory board of the Greater Good Science Center. She is a research affiliate of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and she writes about children and families at developmentalscience.com

3.8 ·
1
What's Next
Trending Today
This Polish Ad Will Give You The Feels, For Reals
3 min · 14,088 views today · This is an ad for Allegro, a Polish company similar to eBay, and it's heartwarmingly lovely.
6 Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal
Mark Manson · 12,882 views today · There’s no class in high school on how to not be a shitty boyfriend or girlfriend. Sure, they teach us the biology of sex, the legality of marriage, and maybe read a few...
Time-Lapse Satellite Images Give a Startling Snapshot of Past 30 Years on Earth
2 min · 12,276 views today · Working with satellite images from NASA and the US Geological Survey, Google has created a searchable snapshot of the past 3 decades on Earth, creating startling time-lapses of...
Dr. Maya Angelou: Love Liberates
5 min · 5,455 views today · Words to live by from Dr. Maya Angelou. Love each other.
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 5,126 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 2,075 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
The Problem with Hating Our Enemies
Charles Eisenstein · 1,953 views today · He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee. —Nietzsche
15 Easy Things You Can Do to Help When You Feel Like Shit
Maritsa Patrinos · 1,181 views today · You don’t have to tackle it all at once.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,103 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The Lid Is off, The Truth Is Coming Out
Charles Eisenstein · 1,056 views today · It is getting harder to keep a secret these days. The collective shadow of our society, once safely relegated to the dark basement of the unmentionable, is now exposed to...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,022 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 964 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
Sleaford Mods on Brexit Britain
4 min · 894 views today · In early 2014 the Guardian hailed duo Sleaford Mods as ‘the most uncompromising British protest music made in years’. Here, we go backstage at a Sleaford Mods gig in their...
How to Expose Trump's Dastardly Bait-And-Switch
Robert Borosage · 818 views today · Trump is not an economic populist, he’s just playing one on TV.
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 538 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 461 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Why You Should Stop Apologizing for Doing All That You Can
Kelly Hayes · 436 views today · I’ve noticed lately that a lot of allies and accomplices I talk to about NoDAPL and other struggles will name what they are trying to contribute to the cause, and then promptly...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 388 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Black on Black Crime Isn't a Myth
Donyae Coles · 350 views today · Let’s talk about Black on Black crime. Maybe you’ve heard about it on the news, specifically likely in regards to Black people murdered by other Black people. Perhaps you’ve...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 319 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Cultivating Self-Awareness in Parents