If you want to change the world, become an activist. If your goal is inner peace, become a monk. If you wish to know yourself, become a parent. Raising children uncovers aspects of a parent’s nature that otherwise might remain latent. A cooing baby is likely to reveal unfathomable depths of love while a defiant teenager has the potential to expose equal measures of anger. From proud to humbling moments, parenting is a sure way to acquire knowledge about oneself. When such knowledge is approached with the intention of personal growth, it has the potential to purify, awaken, and perfect a parent’s character as reliably as any self-development program.
To optimally enhance personal and spiritual development via parenting, it is helpful to use each experience as fuel for growth. The following suggestions, applicable across a wide range of ages and stages, are designed to facilitate self-inquiry and improvement through the parenting process. Feel free to personalize, adapt, or edit as appropriate for your personal vision. Once you have established individualized intentions, review them at the start of each day, listing any relevant applications.
Live in the Present Moment
Young children are exemplars of present moment awareness. They are not concerned with what happened last year nor what will occur in the future. They could care less about news, social media, inflation, or politics. Their primary awareness is centered on getting the most out of each moment. Perhaps the great teacher Jesus was referring to a child’s present moment consciousness when he said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The joy, peace, and happiness which constitute collective goals of humanity can only be accessed via the present moment.
You can integrate more present moment awareness into your life by remaining fully engaged in conversations, thinking about what you are doing while you are doing it, and refraining from predictions about how your child’s current temperament may play out in future scenarios. Stay grounded in what is happening now. Experience each moment without ruminating on challenge points nor clinging to triumphs.
Cultivate Compassion for Your Child and Yourself
Compassion is the feeling that arises when you are confronted with, and seek to eradicate, another’s suffering. Researchers suggest that compassion lights up areas of the brain which are responsible for empathy as well as pleasure. Parenting engenders a natural sense of compassion. As the child suffers, so does the parent. Having experienced compassion through parenting, you are in an optimal position to consciously expand that care to wider circles of community. By taking actions to relieve suffering, you develop personal compassion and teach your children to do the same.
The more challenging step for most parents is applying compassion to themselves. Parents are works in progress and sometimes will make mistakes, speak harshly, miss a performance, or act selfishly. Offer compassion to yourself, be gentle, and remember that nobody is perfect. Learn from your missteps and then let them go.
Parenting offers ample opportunities to release dependence upon objects, experiences, beliefs, outcomes, and people for happiness. This state, known as non-attachment, is created by letting go of expectations and receiving life in the way that it presents itself every moment. As children grow, the Universe nudges parents to let go of former expressions of their children and fully embrace present manifestations. If a parent clings to the past, development is hindered for both parent and child. When a sweet baby turns into a screaming toddler, a bright elementary school child becomes a reluctant middle schooler, a motivated high schooler goes off to college, or an adult child moves out of state, parents have the opportunity to let go.
In addition to releasing attachment to a child’s evolving expressions, parents are presented with a myriad of opportunities to let go on other levels: physical items get lost or broken, personal dreams for a child’s future go unrealized, expectations of the parenting journey are unmet. To step fully into the gift of personal development, a parent must approach experiences with openness and surrender.
Parents give time, energy, service, love, money, experiences, guidance, and wisdom to their children. Wise parents expect nothing in return. While this may sound logical on the surface, consider some common parental expectations:
My child should…
Get good grades in school.
Keep their room clean.
Never try drugs or alcohol.
Follow a certain career course, such as college.
Adhere to a set of beliefs or a religious ideology.
Manage time and money in specific ways.
Respect the elders in the family.
Most parents have conscious and unconscious expectations of their children. This does not imply that while they are young, children should not be encouraged to create and adhere to personal values nor that they should be held unaccountable for negligent behavior. Instead, as children grow into a personal sense of self, parental expectations should systematically take a back seat to the child’s emerging values and visions.
The release of expectations is difficult when parents perceive the role of parenting as an extension of their own identity. Parents often find their personal sense of self merging into that of their children. The problem with this, of course, is that a parent is not more accomplished when their children succeed nor more adept when their children excel. The path of self-discovery urges parents to develop an identity outside of their children. This makes the release of expectations much easier and ironically, frees children to find an individualized path wherein they are statistically more likely to thrive.
In the final analysis, parenting is less about raising enlightened human beings and more about becoming one yourself. The personal growth available through parenting is an ideal platform for learning and transforming into the person you want to be. Ironically, emphasizing personal growth may actually be the best way to influence your children’s growth and shape their unfoldment.