Many mental health problems start in childhood. Many are taught, and many are caught. As parents, we may be unable to change our past, but we can certainly look to provide a safe, positive and fulfilling life for our children.
I once read a story about parenting that touched me deeply. At the time I had no kids. In the story a boy and his three friends defaced a community centre and got caught. His three friends' fathers turned up one by one, all delivering blows to their sons in public, in order to teach them a lesson.
But this guy's father did not do that. He took his son home and then went out for the whole night. The incident was never mentioned again.
It transpired the father had gone out, bought some wood, and fixed-up the community centre. He had used his own time and his own money to make his son's mistake right. And he had asked nothing in return. To me this was appropriate action. To me this was love. Which of the four fathers had really educated their sons that day? I leave the answer to you.
Being a good parent?
I am now a parent. I have two lovely young girls aged three and six. And I desperately want to be a good father to them. But what does that mean?
When I think of this question, I imagine if a child could say: My father never hurt me. My father never laid a hand on me. My father never got angry with me. My father always supported me. My father stood by my side, even when I was wrong. My father loved me through good and bad. My father let me be me.
Parenting is not easy. There are times of love, times of sadness, times of pain, and times of pleasure. It is not easy to hold loosely - these innocent balls of creative energy we call our children - as they move through their lives. And maybe at times we struggle, we get frustrated, we even get angry.
I have noticed in my own life that when I am close to frustration and struggling to find a creative response, my wife will often step in and deal with the children with a love and calmness that seems unavailable to me at that moment. Yet, when I see her response, I know that it is right - and that it is me that has lost perspective. I see in these moments that the frustrated response is never a chosen response, and could always be replaced by a more appropriate one.
Mindfulness can help us here. We need to be able to stop. We need to be able to pause. We need to bring an element of reflection and self-consciousness to the way we are behaving in relation to our children - perhaps at all times, but especially when the 'blinkers' are on, and we are beginning to feel the sway of negative emotion. Here are fours questions we can use to introduce that element of introspection:
1. Is this response the best thing for my child right now?
2. Am I in control of this response - could I stop it right now if I wanted to?
3. What is a more creative way of dealing with this situation?
4. Why not choose that one (3.)?
Accessing four questions in the heat of the moment maybe difficult. So why not just choose one to start with? Maybe we could use Is this response the best thing for my child right now?.
At first it may feel like an internal fight. Even though we might ask ourself the question, and know this is not the best thing for our child right now, we are pitted against all our habitual tendencies to respond in our usual way. And there will no doubt be thoughts that justify our response.
Mindfulness introduces a gap, but it can take time to improve our behaviour. It is worth not giving up at our first attempt. It is always a process, and there is always farther we can go.
Such questions may help us behave in a more appropriate way. They may enhance our children's lives more than we will ever know. And they help bring the trust and love that the son who defaced the community centre (at the start of this post) had for his father. They help us to live out in action, the love we hold in our hearts to those special beings that look to us to know how to be in this world. Our children!!