Who am I to my child? Where do I come from in all my interactions with a child? Generally our actions reflect where we reside in consciousness, which in turn hugely effects the relationship between us and the children we parent or teach.
So when we speak of Integral Parenting we are talking about the parent being, thinking, feeling, and acting integrally.
“The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does, but rather who the parent is to the child.” - Gordon Neufeld
What might this look like in practice? Here some general reflections, followed by some practical suggestions (derived from adapted excerpts of a publication titled “Introduction to Integral Parenting”).
Given that our doing flows from our being, any steps we as parents take toward becoming more mature, present, and able to inhabit and respond to multiple perspectives will benefit our child and our parenting efforts. In addition, it would be hard to find another endeavor that asks someone to grow up as much, as persistently, as convincingly as being a parent. So, putting the two together—the far-reaching benefits of self-development (not just for oneself but also for one’s child) andthe challenge and opportunity provided by the very act of parenting to grow and stretch—make parenting an ideal spiritual practice. When we consciously take on the task of parenting as our spiritual practice, we open ourselves up to one of the most meaningful and radically transformative experiences available to a human being. How so?
- As a parent we are faced with the great responsibility for a vulnerable, dependent other, which calls for utmost integrity in our intentions, communications, and actions.
- Responding to the pretty much full-time demands and needs that infants and young children bring with them requires that we stretch and tap into resources we did not know we had, such as extreme patience, flexibility, physical resilience, and discriminating wisdom.
- Given the absorbent nature of a young child’s mind and the deep emotional imprinting that happens at this early age, we are called to face ourselves and to become more conscious of our shadow for the sake of the child.
- Young children are developmentally still very self-centered. We can easilyget triggered by this in ways we may have thought we were immune to—thereby discovering our own shadow, as well as having to take on the challenging task of discerning how best to respond in any given moment so that they can gradually grow beyond this stage of development.
- By paying close attention and witnessing the miraculous growth of a young human being, we begin to understand that perfection is not a state to achieve, rather, life is a dynamic unfolding to ever higher, wider, and deeper realms of existence.
- We are humbled many times over—making many mistakes, having no choice but to carry on and do better, and being engaged in an endeavor that is generally neither egoically gratifying nor professionally enhancing.
- To facilitate and encourage our child’s well-being and integral development, we are asked to bring love, presence, and discernment to all situations.
- The incredible delight in witnessing a young child be and grow provides access to higher levels of commitment, stamina, and motivation than we usually think are possible.
- The central role that the parent plays means that we as parents need to go beyond technique, method, or belief, and become that which we wish to see our children model and be exposed to: an integral person and perspective.
- In caring so deeply for another, we discover a motivation beyond our self-centered relationship to life. Especially with infants and very young children, we are challenged to place our own personal desires and agendas aside in order to be present to what is beneficial to the child and the whole.
What might this mean in the very real and day-to-day experience of being a parent and relating to and caring for our child? Basically it means bringing increasing conciousness and awareness to ourselves as parents and all our interactions with our children. Here some practical suggestions and questions to reflect on, that stem from the understanding that we parent who we are. Bringing greater consciousness to ourselves as parents and to all our interactions with children:
- How do we speak to our child, also in challenging, charged moments? Do we address a newborn and let her know what is happening even if her cognitive understanding is still limited? What are we communicating beyond and underneath the words—what are the energetic qualities of our communications? Exasperation, impatience, blame? Or encouragement, care, understanding? Can we bring both love and firmness to bear in moments when our child needs clear direction, perhaps correction?
- How do we handle a newborn and young child’s body? By communicating and checking in with a child before we handle him in any way, allows him to feel considered, to feel like he has a say in the matter. Especially in the first year a lot of a young child’s orientation about who he is comes through the physical realm of touch, and all his other senses. What do we convey to a child about who he is when we scoop him up from behind as if he were an object, or pull a sweater over his head without communicating our intention beforehand? If we hope that our children will respect their own body and being, the first step is for us to respect our children’s bodies, and this also with with expressions of affection, such as hugs and kisses, or fun such, as tickling and throwing them up in the air.
- Do we listen? When a child feels heard and senses that the parent/teacher wants to understand, the energy often already shifts greatly and becomes much more conducive to mutual understanding. This means that we give our child a chance to express herself before jumping to any conclusions; we take the time to listen deeply. This does not mean we end up doing whatever our child may be insisting upon, rather than we hear as deeply as we possibly can, and then seek to find a solution that takes her viewpoint and needs into consideration as fully as possible. In one instance it mights simply mean taking five more minutes in a store until she is ready to go; in another it might mean holding a firm boundary and helping one’s child accept the given situation while also helping her find creative ways to integrate and work with such a boundary.
- Bringing greater consciousness to our communication with children (both when we speak and when we listen) challenges us to develop discernment capacities of the more subtle areas of communication that are present in the parent-child relationship (e.g. moods, emotional qualities, energetic variations, body language, and any other forms of communication that are not explicitly verbal or passed on through clear gestures).
- How do we speak about our child to others, especially when we do this in front of the child? Do we put him down in any way, embarrass him, expose him, or chide him indirectly? Can we hold awareness for the fact that everything he hears informs him about who he is, or at least influences him? Remembering that children hear and pick up way more than we usually think can help us bring care and attention to what messages we may be conveying to our child about who he is as we speak to others. This does not mean to be unrealistically positive, but simply to be aware and responsible in how we communicate with others about our child and ensure that it contributes to our child’s healthy development.
- Engaging in awareness-raising activities and exercises with our child is a fun and stimulating way of bringing more consciousness to the parent-child relationship and can also help one’s child become more alert to herself and reality as she is developmentally able to. This can happen at a physical level, commenting on how she is moving through space, helping her kinesthetic awareness come alive,and making use of all the senses and reflections and activities that bring these into use. Or at an emotional level, for example, by giving words to emotions that arise for a child and helping her move through these constructively. Or cognitively, making use of imagination, creativity, observation, and interpretation. And for a child’s spiritual development it can be very helpful to encourage self-awareness in an age-appropriate manner, for example, by working with her on the discernment of where she is coming from in all her actions–is she, for example, grounded or spinning away from her center?
- Consistently taking the time to truly respond to questions that are asked by children encourages their inquisitiveness and nurtures their curiosity, one of the basic tools for growth and evolution. It is also a simple way to get to know them better (what are they interested in knowing about?), and to support their journey as life-long learners.
- Discipline must be delivered in a way that is aligned with a child’s cognitive and emotional capacities, and that comes from a grounded, non-reactive stance in the parent, otherwise it can do more harm than good. Reasoning, for example, does not work with a one-year old, and can lead to frustration on the parent’s side and confusion on the child’s. Once a young child can comprehend cause and effect (natural and logical consequences), then reasoning can be used factually, clearly and consistently. When we are emotionally charged our discernment capacities generally decrease, we are more likely to project something extra onto the situation rather than simply deal in a loving and firm manner with what is actually going on.
- Interacting with a child requires self-control on behalf of the adult, or in other words utmost integrity, and this not just at the gross levels of existence, but also at the more subtle levels. How often do we play tricks on a child’s mind? When do we let ourselves go in ways we never would with another adult? There are boundaries to be respected and aware of. The child is not an outlet for any kind of therapy; entertaining a child is not an activity to gratify a parent’s own ego.
- Being factual rather than reactive or emotionally dramatic serves a child’s learning and growth more fully than blame or exhuberant praise. Children want to know about the world and how it works. They want to understand. Thus, children need accurate information, feedback, and encouragement that is age-appropriately delivered. A child cannot learn and defend himself at the same time*, and too much praise can stifle a child’s inner motivation and drive. We can point out why things went wrong, got spilled or broken without making children feel like they get disconnected from their caregivers when they make a mistake or misunderstand a direction. We can acknowledge and celebrate a child’s effort without making them dependent on our effusive exclamations of praise, which can, as Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University uncovered (Lillard, 2005; Wheal, Frederick’s Child Magazine Dec. ’06), lead them to inaccurately believe practice may be uneccessary in order to achieve excellence.
*According to Mendizza (2003) and evidenced by the research of the Institute of HeartMath, defending one’s self splits attention and energy. In order to explore and learn about the living world, a child must feel secure, safe, accepted, and loved by that world. As the parent is the child’s first environment, or world, the acceptance and love provided by the parents encourages the child’s learning and development.
- What does it mean to fully respect a child’s mind? Children seek to orient themselves in this world. What are we feeding into their brains and hearts? Understanding a child’s developmental stages and their personality types helps us know when and how to explain things. What kind of worldviews and understandings are we introducing them to? By bringing more consciousness to the words and concepts we use in their presence, by acting as the gatekeeper in relation to what they are exposed to during their formative early years (before they themselves can discern much yet are extremely absorbent), we can help them orient themselves at a pace and in a manner that they can assimilate and that encourages their healthy development. We live in an age of information and stimulation overload. It is our job as parents to decide and discern wisely what our children need to be introduced to and when and how.
- We need to give very careful consideration to our use of physical strength over a child: When is it truly necessary? When could other means of persuasion be used? When should the parent/teacher let go? By distinguishing between punitive force and protective force, we can ensure that in the rare occasions when we do engage physical strength over a child it is used for the protection and health of the child and others, and never as a method of punishment.
- Shadow work by parents: In order to be present to ourselves, to pay attention to any knee-jerk reactions arising within ourselves that may not support the well-being of the child, as well as tending to an integral care for our own person so that we are able to nourish and accompany another one requires that we commit to the ongoing task of getting to know ourselves better, perceiving which aspects of ourselves are not yet integrated, and then working toward ever-greater integration.
- By welcoming and engaging parenting as part of our practice, we can bring creative thought to questions such as: How can I bring meditation and prayer right into the space between and amongst my child and myself? How can I be receptive to the sacred in the midst of daily life, and like an alchemist, with utmost attention and care, become a part of the transformative possibilities inherent in any life situation?Meditation and relationship. . . changing diapers and prayer. . . respect and cheerfulness amidst chaos and lack of sleep… compassionate, calm firmness in the face of our child needing guidance, direction, or reassurance.
- Modeling the qualities we wish to see develop in our child (eg. considering others, being empathetic, generous, confident, empowered, kind etc.) is one of the most effective ways of teaching. Young children absorb information like a sponge and imitate; this is how they learn. By treating our child the way we would like him to treat us and others, we are providing guidance in the most direct and immediate manner of all. This requires heightened self-awareness and a deep commitment to growing ourselves. In addition, we can consider all other forms of modeling that may imprint negatively or positively on our child’s behavior, on his being and becoming—for example, the behavior of peers (and adults), or stories provided in books—and make conscious choices as to what we expose our children to.
- What kind of relationship is going on between the parents or primary caregivers? What energetic field is an infant and young child immersed in? Is it a relaxed, loving one, or are there tensions present between the caregivers, perhaps even harsh words or gestures? By working through conflicts that may arise between parents and caregivers when the child is not present, we can minimize their exposure to energy and modeling that is not conducive to their well being and growth. If parents can work through conflict in a grounded, constructive way, however, a child could learn from being exposed to the process. Discernment is required, also as to the age and developmental stage of the child and what is appropriate.
- Creating and facilitating learning experiences where the center of growth and motive lies within the child. One natural form of self-directed learning in a young child is creative play.
- When a child is absorbed in creative activity, we sit back and do not disturb or interrupt her. Times when a child is self-regulated and self-directed are precious and important for her development! According to Neufeld (2004) the play that children need for healthy development is what he calls emergent play (rather than social play). Emergent play (or creative solitude), combined with a sense of security, allows the child to venture forth into a world of imagination or creativity. Montessori emphasizes the importance of not interrupting a concentrated child. She saw such moments as “the moment of self-development.” (Lillard, 2005, p.265)
- Being attentive to which boundaries/limits are necessary for the physical safety and healthy psychological orientation of the child; and allowing ample space for children to explore and discover freely. This involves providing a balance between support and challenge to our children.
- As we accompany our child with the question: “Who are you and how can I help you to become that?” we support the unfolding of the child’s inherent potential, whatever that may be, rather than a specific projected or desired-for outcome by us as parents.
- While parenting within certain levels of development could indeed be a form of narcissism (as many in the psychodynamic tradition would hold true), integral parenting lifts the context within which raising a child takes place to include the Inward Arc of the human journey. This means that an integral parent will pursue his or her own journey toward disidentifying with the ego, and seek to be present to, to guide and accompany a child toward becoming a person in his or her own right, not as an extension of the parent’s ego or to fulfill a parents unfulfilled dreams or as a place for the parent to act out their unintegrated aspects. The psychodynamic tradition generally goes as far as the Outward Arc (Wilber, Atman Project, pp 3-6) and is still largely focusing on all that arises and needs to be dealt with during those stages of life.
- Regardless of whether we as parents decide to introduce our children to a particular religion or not, we can find ways in which a young child can engage in activities and express feelings that have a spiritual quality to them, e.g. gratitude or care, thereby nurturing their spiritual development, and this in ways that are meaningful and fun for the child. A 2-year old, for example, may enjoy holding hands before every meal and simply saying “thank you” for the many things that had brought joy and goodness throughout the day. Another example is the simple gesture of lighting a candle for someone in need of blessings or as a gesture of thanks. Parent and child can name who each candle is for or what each candle is expressing thanks for. Simple rituals and symbolism work well for young children whose consciousness resides in the magical realm.
- As the child begins to take an increasing interest in listening to stories, one can tell stories of inspiring figures that embody qualities of the soul and the spirit.
- We can bring awareness to how each aspect of the physical space a child is surrounded by may effect him. For example, what is the quality of the natural light and of the designed light? What are the views to and from the outside world? What are the materials that compose the furniture and other tools, toys, instruments or devices? What is the arrangement of objects in the room, including the seating and work surfaces? What is on the walls? Is student work visible or displayed? Is there art? Are there thoughts or messages being communicated by displayed materials? How can one move through the space? How is time being measured in the room (what do the clocks look like ? are there “bells?”). What is time’s relationship to how the community gathers and departs? Is the space warm? Is it beautiful? (Thanks to educator John Gruber for articulating these questions relating to phyiscal space!)
These are just some of the many ways in which we can bring more consciousness to our work and play as parents. As mentioned elsewhere on this site, it is so important to balance our aspirations to become the best parents we can be, with kindness toward who we are at present. It is a matter of both/and rather than one or the other approach. Each step forward we take is just that, a step forward, however small or inconspicuous it might seem. So in view of the list above, each time we manage to bring more consciousness to what we do and who we are to our children, we are benefiting them and ourselves, and in fact the entire universe. And any time we fail, the best we can do is learn from our mistakes, “get up,” and keep going with renewed commitment to grow.
Neufeld, Gordon & Mate, Gabor (2004). Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Matter. Toronto: Random House.
Lillard, Angeline Stoll (2005). Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.
Mendizza, Michael (2003). Magical Parent Magical Child: The Art of Joyful Parenting. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.
Wilber, Ken (1980). The Atman Project. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.