Parenting is a labor of love. It's a path of service and surrender and, like the practice of a Buddha or a bodhisattva, it demands patience and understanding and tremendous sacrifice. It is also a way to reconnect with the mystery of life and to reconnect with ourselves.
Young children have that sense of mystery. When she turned seven, my daughter Caroline had reached that age when the sense of mystery was getting fainter. That Christmas she announced to us, "I don't believe in Santa Claus anymore. My friends told me. Besides which, I don't see how he could fit down our chimney. He's too big." She was beginning to trade in the mystery of things for concrete explanations. She had mostly been living in a mythological, timeless world, where reindeer fly and Santa Claus appears. Now she was beginning to take out the tape and measure the width of the chimney.
But long after a child proclaims herself "too old" to believe in Santa Claus, there will be new mysteries. Anyone who has teenage kids is reminded that no one understands the mystery of sex. Teenagers don't ask you directly about it, but you can feel it in the air. As teenagers grapple with hormones and embarrassment and love and sex, we do too. "What did you do in school today?" a father asks his teenage son. "Oh, we had lectures on sex," is the reply. "What did they tell you?" "Well, first a priest told us why we shouldn't. Then a doctor told us how we shouldn't. Finally the principal gave us a talk on where we shouldn't."
Children give us the opportunity to awaken, to look at ourselves, our lives, and the mystery around us with renewed awareness.
Suppose we look at child rearing in the spirit of the Buddha's discourses on mindfulness. We are instructed to pay attention to breathing in and out; to be aware when standing up, bending, stretching, or moving forward or backward; to be aware when the mind is contracted, fearful, or agitated; and to be aware, as we learn to let go, when the mind is balanced and filled with equanimity and understanding and peace.
To further develop our awareness, the Buddha recommends sitting in meditation, practicing by sitting up all night and contemplating the sickness of the body or aging, developing a loving empathy for the suffering of all beings, and bringing wisdom and compassion to them.
Suppose that the Buddha gave instructions in using parenting as practice. It would be a similar teaching. Be as mindful of our children's bodies as we are of our own. Be aware as they walk and eat and go to the bathroom. Then, instead of sitting up all night in meditation, sit up all night when our children are sick. Know when they're afraid and when it's time to hold them or comfort them with lovingkindness and compassion. Learn awareness and patience and surrender. Be aware of our own reactions and grasping. Learn to let go over and over and over again as our children change. Give generously to the garden of the next generation, for this giving and awareness are the path of awakening.
Along with the practice of mindfulness, here are four other principles of conscious parenting: attentive listening, respect, integrity, and lovingkindness.
The principle of attentive listening means listening to the Tao of the seasons, to our human intuition and out instincts, to our children. Here's a story about listening. A five-year-old boy was watching the news with his father when the war in Kosovo was underway. The boy kept asking his father questions: How big is the war? How did it start? What is war? The father tried to explain why countries went to war, why some people thought wars were necessary and other people thought wars were wrong. But the boy kept asking the same questions night after night. Finally the father heard what his son was really asking, and he sat the little boy down and said, "You don't have to worry. We are safe here. Our house is not going to be bombed. We will be safe, and we will do whatever we can to help keep other families safe." Then the little boy became peaceful, because that was the reassurance his heart had been asking for.
This is the principle of listening. Do we hear what our children are trying to tell us? It's like listening to the Tao. How long should we nurse our babies? How late should we allow our teenagers to stay out on dates? To answer those questions, we have to listen and pay attention to the rhythms of life. Just as we learn to be aware of breathing in and breathing out, we can learn to sense how deeply children want to grow. Just as we learn in meditation to let go and trust, we can learn to develop a trust in our children so they can trust themselves.