Creating Cohesion Between Spiritual Practice and Parenting

Shortly after my first child turned three years old, I found myself feeling that there was a disconnect between my sadhana and my family life. Having two children under four is a consuming endeavor, and presents a unique set of challenges with regards to finding time to engage in daily spiritual practice with steadiness and persistence while also attending to the daily, if not moment to moment, needs of the family unit. Because I was feeling a lack of harmony in the various aspects of my life, I approached my Gurudeva and inquired about how best to navigate these two seemingly incongruent aspects of my life.  After only a brief pause he most generously offered some insightful advice, which included, amongst several other things, telling me that I should approach parenting as if God had told me to.

As is always the case when I am fortunate enough to spend time with my spiritual teacher, I felt uplifted and clear about how to proceed, even if I didn’t know how God wanted me to parent exactly. I had unconsciously thought being a parent was an obstacle to my sadhana. I realized that in fact, parenting was an opportunity to extend my spiritual practice to my everyday activities because it gives me a chance to practice being loving, patient and generous. Ultimately, I started to understand, even if just briefly, that sadhana and parenting have a symbiotic relationship because the more of my heart I can give to my family the more I can give to my practice, which in turn allows me to be increasingly loving and kind to my children and wife.

While I was fortunate enough to have some great advice and association of a loving Sadhu along with the moments of clarity that followed, the hard work of integrating this advice into my life fully had hardly begun. In the weeks and months that followed I began to notice that my ideals for spiritual life and family life were falling short of where I would like them to be in practice, with perhaps the biggest challenge being how to accommodate an intelligent, willful three year old and the full range of his age-appropriate, boundary-testing behaviors.

I continued my reading of spiritual texts and read many parenting books in search of a way to create cohesion between these two aspects of my life. To communicate more effectively with my three year old, I tried several different techniques outlined in books written by well-regarded child behaviorists from a variety of schools of thought. Inevitably, the monster meltdown would happen, my buttons would get pushed, I would perhaps get hit in the face by my kid, lose my patience more than I would like, and eventually I would put my three year old in a timeout knowing full well that it was largely an ineffective tool.  My rational overtly was that this would let him know his behavior was unacceptable and, considering his dislike of time-outs, I felt that this would surely encourage him to alter his conduct.  More subtly, however, I was displaying my power, letting him know I was in charge and that he needed to respect me. This, however, did not work on a number of levels.  Essentially, my child grew to resent time-outs and became so angry at me for giving him one that he did not even recognize that his behavior was inappropriate, if not hurtful at times.

Finding myself at a loss of how to work with this issue I talked to a counselor with significant experience with children and families, and she suggested that I change tactics from time-outs to what she called time-ins.  She explained that time-outs alienate a child and don’t get at the root of why the meltdown is occurring. Moreover, she discussed how large, emotional outbursts are age-appropriate because children need to work through frustration, anger and other emotions without sufficient language skills. This counselor explained that some child psychologists postulate that time-outs produce feelings of shame and guilt, which is really the last thing I wanted to be doing and, at least in my mind, was not an outcome that was in accordance with my spiritual ideals.

Conversely, time-ins as I have come to understand them, provide the opportunity to reassure the child, teach about emotions, and give permission for both parent and child to have their feelings in a supported and loving environment.  Essentially, the process involves sitting with the child after or during a meltdown and letting them know overtly they are loved through both words and actions.  After some deep breathing and once the height of flare up has abated, there is an opportunity to discuss what happened and how it made both parties feel. Once the situation is calmer, there is an opening to teach a better alternative of how to behave in the future. The thinking is, a calm child who has the opportunity to go through their feelings in a supportive atmosphere after or during an emotional outburst is more likely to be able to hear alternative ways of behaving in the future.  This is by no means easy. In fact I have found it to be exhausting.  That being said, the results have produced sweet, loving moments where my child and I have the opportunity to be with each other and our emotions.

Moreover, instead of asserting my dominance through the use of a time-out, I fostered a situation where love could potentially be the guiding, if not ruling, principle.  I do not mean to suggest that this is some sort of foolproof method of parenting, though it has provided desirable results.  There have been fewer meltdowns and I have been more capable of teaching my child about emotions and how to navigate them.  Ultimately, I am not sure this is exactly what my teacher had in mind when he gave me his advice, though there is some level of intuitive understanding that I imagine will continue to unfold.  That intuition, however, tells me that avoiding the potential harm associated with time-outs, teaching about emotions, and providing love during the most challenging of child-rearing moments is perhaps the base from which I can hope to continue to evolve as a spiritual practitioner with young children.