As a parent, I notice myself continually making both small and more major choices about how to negotiate the opportunities and challenges that come up daily when looking after children. For example, today my daughter and I were mindfully watching the garden from the kitchen window when we noticed a cat chasing and then tormenting a mouse. When I’m making choices about how to respond to parenting situations, I try to consider my values as a parent to inform my choices. So with this example I considered that as a family we value education and particularly science. My daughter has been very interested in learning about the circle of life recently, and we have talked about how in our garden we need to look after the plants to feed the insects, which we in turn need for pollination as otherwise there would be no food for us humans. So I considered the narrative of allowing nature to take its course as in line with that value. However, we also value social justice and I’m perhaps a bit fused with the idea of always siding with and helping the underdog (the mouse). So, we gave my daughter the choice of what to do and she chose to save the mouse (since learning about where meat comes from she has also expressed interest in vegetarianism). So, my husband went out into the garden and pointedly stared at the cat which had the effect of distracting the cat enough for the mouse to run away (the hope is we caught it early enough for it to have a fighting chance).
My reflection from this example is that there are tons of opportunities to make parenting choices every day, but if we parent on autopilot it’s too easy to miss the opportunity to choose. I find doing some form of mindful activity with my children every day increases the amount of time I spend tuned in and aware of my choices. Connected to that, when we are aware of our own choices it is helpful to consider our own values as people in our own right, and also our parenting values (which might or might not be the same). Our values can help us decide between different courses of action. Often there will be more than one valid option, and the context is important. For example, if the mouse had already been dead when we noticed what was happening then the options and their pros and cons would be different. Different people might make different but equally valid choices in the same context, and the same person might make different decisions about similar scenarios on different occasions. Having some psychological flexibility with using values to inform choices is useful, and I find it helps to be aware of “old stories” I might be fused with, even if for the most part I still buy into them – like saving the underdog. In this example we did save the mouse underdog, but if I clung rigidly to that it might get in the way in other situations – for example, if one of my children turns out to be the fastest runner at sports day in the future, am I going to insist they stop before the finish line to let a naturally slower child win? Probably not, both my children are competitive and the fall out would not be pretty. So, its helpful to have some idea of what your values and parenting priorities are, and to be aware of when you have opportunities to act on them during day to day parenting – I find the more I do this in ordinary every day ways, the more clarity I have about the bigger decisions – things like, what childcare setting do I want to use when I go back to work from maternity leave? My daughter is a February birthday, do I defer her school start or not? I’m aware other parents face big decisions too, and these are a big responsibility which can feel stressful but ACT offers us great tools to empower us to make our own choices.
ACT based tips for making mindful parenting choices
- Do something mindful every day, either by yourself or with your children. It doesn’t really matter what – today we made Tiramisu mindfully, and enjoyed dancing around on the dewy grass mindfully in the fog. As long as you keep bringing your focus back to the activity if and when your mind or theirs wanders (which will happen), and be open to noticing what you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste as well as noticing how your body feels and any feelings and thoughts that pop up while you’re at it.
2. If you do mindful activities with your children, encourage them to share with you what they notice about their experience too, and particularly any feelings and thoughts. It’s amazing how much even young children can share about their experiences if they think you’re interested and taking them seriously, and if you listen to the small stuff now you’ll have a better shot at hearing about the big stuff when they’re older. The more you know about what’s going on with them, the more empowered you’ll be to make the right parenting choices. And if you’re on the fence and it’s appropriate in the context, you could ask your child what they’d like to happen – my daughter is only 3 but always has her own opinion, which is often surprisingly articulate and logical (well, for a 3 year old!).
3. You might already have a clear idea of your parenting values and priorities. Sometimes though we can all benefit from reviewing them for clarity. My Values page has several clarification exercises you can use if you feel you want to, or here’s a quick link to a free app you can download to help you – https://valuescardsort.flycricket.io/?fbclid=IwAR0e7wXmhlIUq-B3Jy7nAV_kV8bOjKtyX4ugM5ORxw8tCilSSCdwMIi7_7w The clearer you feel about your values, the easier it will be when you’re in the moment when you need to choose.
4. Try to notice which thoughts or beliefs you might be holding onto too tightly, as if you’re not aware these can keep tripping you up and trapping you into unhelpful patterns. Because in life our context keeps changing, it helps if we can remain flexible with how we act on our thoughts and beliefs so we can make the best choices for us. If you notice an unhelpful “old story” about who you are or what sort of parent you are and need to get some space from it, have a browse of my Defusion page for some ideas. For example, you might want to draw the “old story” as a cartoon strip, picture an unhelpful thought floating away on a cloud or repeat any unhelpful word over and over again until it becomes meaningless.