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?”
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.”
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