Mindfulness and Compassion for Parents

An antidote for snowplow parenting

Posted Mar 16, 2019

As I follow the stories about the college admissions scandal, I think of the wise words of the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung, “the greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived lives of the parents.” Of course, we want our children to succeed, and we don’t want them to suffer. But our needs and unfulfilled desires are often entwined in our hopes and dreams for them. This can distort not only our vision but also our behavior.

When one of my children didn’t get into the college he wanted I was initially upset as well. One of my mentors, a clinician with 50 years of experience, said something that stayed with me. “You know Susan,” he said kindly, “sometimes it is good for a 17-year-old not to have his dreams come true.” I have to admit I was irritated, thinking that it was easy for him to say. But as I watched my son acquire resilience and the ability to deal with rejection and disappointment, I understood what he was trying to teach me.

Like most parents, I wanted the road of his life to be clear of obstacles. We’ve all read about  “helicopter parents” who monitor and direct the child’s every activity. Now they have been pushed aside by “snowplow parents,” who clear all impediments to success, making sure in the process that their children don’t encounter failure or disappointment. At times, as in the case of “Operation Varsity Blues,” it is taken to criminal extremes. As psychologists and parenting experts have pointed out, the scandal has exposed the dark underbelly of this form of intensive parenting and how disabling it can be for our children. In my clinical practice, I often see students who don’t have the coping skills to adapt to college—their parents have managed so much for them they have trouble functioning on their own.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford and author of the excellent “How to Raise an Adult,” sees clearly what snowplow parents don’t understand. “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

One theory is that snowplowing has gone so far because many teenagers, and their parents, are experiencing record rates of anxiety. One historian of American culture has noted, “in no other country has there been so pervasive a cultural anxiety about the rearing of children.”

We have decades of solid research that show that mindfulness and compassion can lower stress, decrease depression and anxiety, develop resilience, and make us kinder and more generous to others. But can it help with parenting? I believe that it can make a difference.

Most parenting books focus on how to “fix” our kids—how to make them obey, sleep, clean their rooms, eat their vegetables, get off their screens, get into a good college and be a success. But recent research challenges the notion that financial success brings happiness.

What if we pause for a moment and bring some curiosity to, as Jung put it, our unlived lives? Looking at our unmet needs, and the ways we want our children to fulfill them may take some pressure off everyone.  Try this reflection and see what comes up for you.

Reflection: Bringing Attention to Unmet Needs

·         Take a moment, let yourself settle, find an anchor in your breath, the sounds around you, the sensations in your body.

·         Bring some kindness to yourself right now.

·         What fantasy do you have about your child? Did you dream that he would be a major league baseball star?

·         A prima ballerina?

·         An Olympic gold medalist?

·         A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist?

·         A wildly successful entrepreneur?

·         A tech genius?

·         A movie star?

·         A brilliant film director?

·         An amazing scientist who finds a cure for cancer?

·         Don’t hold back. We all have dreams of what our little ones could become. Don’t chastise yourself.

·         Rarely do our kids fulfill our fantasies.

·         Take a moment, jot down your dreams for your child. You don’t have to show this to anyone.

·         Gently, kindly, take off the rose-colored glasses.

·         Let the stardust fall from your eyes.

·         See all the good in your child. See his or her gifts.

·         Try to see your child clearly, without the burden of the dreams and fantasies you carry.

·         See if you can let your child be himself (or herself) without adding your unlived dreams.

·         This isn’t easy. See your fantasies and try to let them go.

·         Let yourself sit for a moment for two.

·         Be kind to yourself as you let go and return to your day.

Try this practice and see what comes up for you. You might find that it helps you relax a little and stress less. It is not clear how much of a child’s success in life is determined by parenting. Rather than focusing purely on achievement, see if you can help your child develop the life skills of kindness, generosity, and resilience. Let them take risks, face challenges, make mistakes.

Another wise mentor told me that the job of a parent was to help children learn to function without us. Again, not something any parent wants to hear. But it is true. And you don’t get there by hovering, clearing the road of all snow or ice, or wanting your children to fulfill your dreams.