Know They Are Perfect As They Are
The little boy was throwing blocks across the room (narrowly missing his playmates), screamed while others tried to hear the teacher read a story, and pitched a snack-time tantrum because he wanted to sit in an already-occupied chair. I watched a few other parents at my daughter’s co-op preschool indicate their disapproval. But the teacher, a woman with a big heart and a deep soul, gently admonished us grown-ups not to judge. “They are a work in progress,” she soothed. “It’s all fine. Actually, it’s perfect.”
A work in progress. Aren’t we all? And yet to see that work as part of a perfect picture is one of the most challenging—and critical—spiritual practices parents face. A colicky baby screaming into the night is perfect? A toddler ripping a hole through your expensive leather couch? A grade-schooler called to the principal’s office for hitting her teacher? A teen who sneaks out to be with friends?
A wise sage once said that Source (or God, Nature or whatever you call it) has a spot on a map just for you, and it’s exactly where you are. The same, of course, is true for your child. That’s why we shouldn’t judge that child as bad or lacking because of his place on that map. Alas, judging is something most of us do most the time.
Breaking out of the mindset of judgment is challenging; it’s such an integral part of American culture. The minute we leave a movie everyone asks, “What did you think?” When a new work appears in a museum, a crowd quickly gathers to assess its appeal. When we exit a restaurant, we typically proclaim whether we liked the meal and maybe even the people we dined with. People even ask parents in the first weeks after birth whether a newborn should be judged as “good” (meaning, in their view, whether he is quiet and sleeps well, as if an uncomfortable, unhappy baby somehow is not).
I once made it my spiritual practice to go an entire day without passing a single judgment. My plan was to observe and experience, without needing to categorize events or people into pleasant or unpleasant, satisfactory or disappointing. I made it through good-morning hugs with my young kids without deeming whether the moment was over too soon, and I saw myself in the mirror—hair spiking in all directions—with ease. But when I read an email from an editor indicating that he was still unclear about an upcoming project, I dubbed the man “stupid.” Then I went further, berating myself for “failing” to complete my spiritual mission. I’d lasted a whopping 45 minutes.
It’s no surprise, then, that when our children fall short of our grand plans and lofty expectations we judge them, too. Doing so, however, robs kids of the ability to know their magnificence, and robs us of the opportunity to have a mindful, loving encounter. There is a fabulous story in the book Everyday Blessings by psychologist and mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, about a man who heard Kabat-Zinn speak about the acceptance that had consumed him when his son came home from college one Thanksgiving, even though the young man arrived so late the meal had been eaten and the family was in bed. The man wrote to Kabat-Zinn that hearing the story allowed him to finally approach his own grown son nonjudgmentally, to fill up with unconditional love rather than the disappointment he had experienced for so many years. “It is as if up to now I needed another kind of son to love, and now I don’t anymore,” the man observed. How wonderful that the man could finally see his son as perfect—no alterations required. How wonderful it would have been had the dad seen him that way for all the years before.
“Presume every person’s holiness,” spiritual author Neale Donald Walsch writes in Conversations With Good, Book 2. Presume our children’s holiness, he further decrees. “A tree is no less perfect because it is a seedling. A tiny infant is no less perfect than a grown-up. It is perfection itself.”
Seeing our child as holy takes only a flick in our perception. The facts stay the same, but an altered perception renders them anew. (As a little magnet on my refrigerator reminds me, “Attitude changes everything.”)
Here’s a great story of how much perception matters: Back when I was younger and single, I met a guy who told me he lived in an apartment with his mother. My mind labeled him an immature momma’s boy and I started scheming how I could end our date prematurely. Moments later he elaborated—his mother actually lived with him. His father had died a few months earlier and he had opened his home to his grief-stricken mom. Suddenly, I saw him in a completely different light. In seconds, he transformed from pitiful to perfect.
Years ago I attended a spiritual workshop where an attendee exclaimed to a group of women seated nearby, “I could love you all if I knew your stories.” An even more spiritually advanced practice, though, would be to love us all because she knows we do have stories, whether she hears them or not. Similar stories have led our child to the current, perfect place in her life. If I had said that the block-throwing boy at the preschool had just been diagnosed with leukemia—or that his father had—most of us would feel compassion instead of contempt. Why can’t we experience that compassion no matter what?
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, an educator and author of the book Raising Your Spirited Child, believes that parents most easily negatively judge their child when their temperaments are at odds. An extroverted father more easily belittles an introverted son. A tidy mother casts aspersions on her messier daughter. A low-key parent disapproves of her wildly energetic son. (Although I think sometimes we also have the most contempt for the traits in our child that we see, and hate, in ourselves.) Isn’t it better to work towards embracing the differences between us and proclaim all styles superb?
Accepting a child as perfect doesn’t mean ignoring your role as parent to guide him when he disconnects from his higher self, but this can be done softly. A perfectly wrapped gift might benefit when you tweak the bow. And a perfect child who doesn’t understand that it’s best not to leap off an unstable bookshelf may need a gentle explanation.
I’m reminded of a parable where a girl and her mother walk on the beach and find thousands of starfish washed ashore. The girl dashes about, trying to place some of them back into the water, but her mother declares that there are so many her actions won’t matter. The girl stares at the precious starfish in her hand and declares, “They will to this one.” Today, no matter what your own starfish does, accept the perfection of his washing up on the beach—and know that it is equally perfect for you to gently and lovingly nudge him back into the water.
Excerpts from Enlightened Parenting
A Mom Reflects on Living Spiritually With Kids
Make Silence Truly Golden
“Can’t I please have some quiet in this house!” my dad would occasionally shout when his three shrieking daughters got the best of him. Since he was usually mild mannered, my sisters and I would take pity. We’d close our bedroom door or race to the backyard to continue our hot, gossipy conversation, allowing poor dad to have the quiet he desired.
When I reflect on those times, what strikes me is the opportunity my sisters and I could have had to use dad’s admonitions to enjoy our own peaceful silence. It is an experience I did not want lost on my kids when they were younger, so we would at least occasionally use someone’s plea for quiet as a reminder that silence is more than golden—it is a luminous path to fulfillment and joy.
Silence is the language of our soul. While we can connect to our higher self in spoken tongues—most easily via singing, chanting, prayer, and loving speech—one of the fastest routes to inner peace is outer stillness. That’s because Source is always whispering to us, but we must quiet our minds to hear. Silence frees us from the need to talk about, and therefore categorize, what we are experiencing. “Being” quiet (note it’s not called “doing” quiet) allows us to meet the hum of the universe that is too often drowned out with the louder—and harsher—babbling in our head.
In some religions, such as Quakerism and Buddhism, silence is an integral part of worship services. Spiritual seekers from Mahatma Gandhi to Mother Theresa regularly practiced silence, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. As the esteemed late yogi Paramahansa Yogananda once wrote, “Through the portals of silence the healing sun of wisdom and peace will shine upon you.”
This is not to say that as a child I wanted to be seen and not heard. Some of my fondest memories involve yelling from my bedroom window to rouse my best friend who lived across the street; hearing my older sister shout my name from the basement to join her in our never-ending rounds of board games; and laughing wildly as my cousins, sisters, and I feebly attempted to square dance around our den.
Without loving guidance from a caring adult, though, children can live entirely in the world of noise. Silence may be seen as a torture to be endured during school or religious services, or when mom takes a business call at home. Teachers make things worse by using silence as punishment. Can’t you recall your teacher saying something like, “Everyone will sit here without talking for as long as it takes for the person who stole the item to come forward”? Not understanding the peace that can be found in silence, I remember sitting painfully during those times, fidgeting in my chair, fixating on the clock, and feverishly trying to keep my thoughts from bursting over my tongue.
Many adults still view silence as an enemy to be conquered with sound. If a room is quiet when we enter, we may reflexively turn on music or the TV, pick up the phone, or talk to ourselves to fill the void. When we’re with other people, more than a few moments without conversation can make us squirm. If we walk into a business that isn’t bustling, we wonder, “Why is it so quiet here?” and consider going elsewhere.
Your family can transform silence into the most freeing of experiences. Silence helps everyone settle into a peaceful state. It also deepens interpersonal connection: Family members observing silence together may pay close attention to one another’s needs, use touch as a form of communication, and have time to ruminate over issues rather than blurt out the initial, mindless response that strikes them. I remember when a swami acquaintance paused for several minutes before answering a question I had asked him. I was impressed with how he gave himself those moments to gather his insights before speaking.
If you’re already mumbling about how you’re never going to get your child to be quiet, know that resistance to silence is easily overcome once people experience its power. A yoga center I used to teach at regularly featured a day of silence, known in the Hindu tradition as mauna. Many people came into the center on that day as a skeptic but left admitting they had been moved.
Members of my spiritual parenting discussion group who agreed to give silence a go also praised it. As one mom said afterward, “Being silent with my kids reminded me of when they were babies and I would stare at them for hours without saying a word. I had forgotten how much love pours out of you when you’re quiet.”
Observing silence in the way I am suggesting is somewhat different from undertaking a sitting meditation (see “Try a Family Meditation”). In a formal meditation, you aim to still your mind by focusing on a single sound, image, or breath. Here, you quiet your tongue as you go through your regular routine. This heightens your other senses to the daily world, allowing you to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Get together with your family and agree on the best day and time to try this—preferably one that is free from commitments and interruptions. A good way to start is during a meal. Mindfully eaten food tastes delicious, as your tongue ruminates over each exquisite bite. That’s why ashrams and spiritual retreat centers often make meals a time of enforced silence.
You may want to start with an initial period of just 15 or 30 minutes to give everyone the opportunity to succeed. As your family comes to appreciate the practice, try building up to an hour or more, eventually reaching a half or even a full day. Longer sessions are tougher to hold together but are unbelievably enlightening. Everyone may come to love the practice so much that you’ll want to schedule it regularly. One family I know observes a weekly Saturday morning silence from wakeup until noon.
Other types of non-spoken communication—writing, signaling, sign language—should be discouraged during silent sessions. Eliminating such “prattle” may be impossible at first. A family in our discussion group found that giving everyone a small note pad to jot down “important” thoughts they were dying to share helped during the transition. However, the notes were not passed around until the silent time was over.
It’s best if everyone in your family buys in, but if someone balks, give her the freedom to opt out. She must agree, though, to respect others who are following the practice or to go to a friend’s house for the specified time—and not to attempt to coax her little brother or her dad to utter a sound.
The first time I observed a period of silence, I was shocked—not by the quiet, but by the noise. My mind rushed to fill the stillness with jabbering, which rebounded around my brain as loudly as if the words had been spoken. In conferring with others since, I’ve found this to be common. We are so used to sound that our brain goes into overdrive to keep the tranquility away. After a while, the noises lessen (although they never stop) and the beauty of the silence blossoms.
Luxuriate in it. Listen to the sounds around you, from your child’s sweet breathing to that always ticking clock you never noticed. Examine the auburn streaks in your daughter’s black hair, the green in your son’s finger-painting, your almond appliances—they’re not really the color of an almond, are they? Pay attention to how your face feels to your fingertips. Your world will seem more vibrant than before, because when you shut down the avenue where so much energy escapes, it’s rechanneled to the other senses.
Like so many spiritual practices, maintaining silence for even a limited time will feel odd at first, especially to your kids. I promise it gets easier. And the rewards—in terms of increased serenity and your family’s more intimate ways of being with one other—are well worth the work.