When psychologist and mindfulness researcher Shauna Shapiro started noticing some behavioral problems with her 3-year-old son, she realized that being an effective parent required more than just a loving attachment.

Shauna Shapiro speaks at the Greater Good conference on "Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion," March 8, 2013.

But, while Shapiro wanted to learn ways to set limits and teach appropriate behavior to her child, she found that many discipline approaches lack an emphasis on compassion, attunement, and relationship—the things she valued most.

In consulting about her son with pediatrician and parenting coach Chris White, Shapiro discovered that many of White’s parenting techniques were fundamentally related to the principles of mindfulness—the nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and immediate environment.

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Together they decided to write a book, Mindful Discipline—published this month—which outlines a new way of disciplining children, one that combines firm boundaries with loving connection. I spoke with Shauna about her book and the idea of mindful discipline.

Jill Suttie: What is mindful discipline, and how does it differ from traditional concepts of discipline?

Shauna Shapiro: The word “discipline” has a negative connotation in our culture and in our society. Many parents think discipline is overly harsh and antiquated. But when you look at the root of the word, discipline is really about teaching and learning.

As a parent, you want to teach your child skills that are going to help them to cultivate greater happiness and health in their lives. So the idea in our book was to reclaim the word discipline. Mindful discipline involves disciplining in a conscious, loving way that can deeply support your child’s growth and development. It’s about being attuned to the present moment so that you know what the most skillful action is in any given moment and what is most needed in any given moment.

Discipline will really not be impactful unless a parent is first and foremost present and connected with themselves and with their child. Parenting is not a flip chart, where you first do A, then B, then C. It’s really a dynamic process, and mindfulness is the best tool that I’ve come across in terms of seeing what’s most needed in any given moment and responding to life.

New Harbinger, 2014, 199 pages

JS: What are the important elements of mindful discipline?

SS: We begin with unconditional love because first and foremost children need to know that they are loved, and that this love will not be taken away. This unconditional love gives our children space to be themselves, and they retain a basic trust in the world and a sense of their inherent value as human beings. Feeling a degree of autonomy, they remain curious, engaged, and develop an increasing sense of responsibility over their lives.

However, children also need mentorship and healthy boundaries. Mentorship provides the modeling and direct building of skills that you as a parent have to offer your children. Often parents think that in order to preserve their loving connection, they cannot set strong limits and boundaries. This is not accurate. Offering our children strong clear boundaries creates a sense of safety, and a clear recognition of who is the parent and who is the child. We call this a “loving hierarchy.”

Lastly and perhaps most surprisingly, our “mis-takes” can end up nour­ishing our children. We write “mis-takes” instead of “mistakes” to signify that these are “missed takes”—moments or occasions when we missed the mark and need to correct course. In this way, mis-takes can be seen as potentially beneficial and nourishing, rather than simply bad or wrong.

JS: Mistakes are beneficial? How so?

SS: The most harmful thing that plagues us as parents is that we think we’re doing it all wrong, that we’re not OK, and that we’re not good enough. But making mistakes is part of parenting; we can learn from them and they can enhance vulnerability, authenticity, and connection with our children.

We write about mistakes in a way that allows parents to realize a parenting mistake is not their fault, yet they are responsible to try to make it right. Causes and conditions may have led a parent to that moment; but once they see they’ve made a mistake, parents can take responsibility and make it right. In that way, they can model to their child that it’s OK to mess up; they don’t have to be perfect.

Being human is not a big self-improvement project. When we start acknowledging mistakes, instead of shaming ourselves or our children, it creates a spaciousness and a sense of ease and relief, knowing it’s OK to be imperfect.

JS: Many parents aim for compliance in their children, yet you warn against that. Why?

SS: Compliance is great in the short term. I love it when my son just does exactly what I ask him to do! But compliance at the cost of the relationship has no value.

I think the intention with our book was to say you can have both: you can have compliance and you can keep the loving connection. Sometimes parents don’t step into their role with enough authority and control, and then overexert it when in distress mode. We’re inviting parents to create a loving hierarchy, where you claim your role as a parent and it’s clear who’s making the decisions.

At times, however, it is helpful to create environments where the child leads. For example, when I go hiking with my son, I might invite him to be the “leader.” He gets to decide what path we’ll take, and I’ll follow him; he decides when we take our breaks, where we stop for lunch. But ultimately we both know who decides what time we are leaving for school, and whether or not he brushes his teeth. There’s clarity in a hierarchy and it creates a sense of safety for the child.

JS:  Isn’t it hard to find the right balance between allowing kids autonomy and giving them appropriate boundaries?

SS: That’s where mindfulness comes in. The word mindfulness means to see clearly, and so what we’re trying to do is to see with discernment. What is most needed in this moment? Is it space, autonomy, or a boundary? Or maybe it’s some of each: you can run around the park, but here’s a line you can’t cross—a non-negotiable line. Children can hear it in your voice when you’re clear and you’re not angry, but you’re also not going to move from your line.

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. © Dan Archer

JS: Mindful discipline seems like it might be easier to do in theory than in practice. How do you handle those difficult moments, like when you’re stressed and trying to get out the door?

SS: Sometimes, we don’t handle difficulty very well. And that’s where self-forgiveness comes in. As Ram Das says, “You fall off the path 1000 times, the trick is to get back on 1001.” As we learn from our mistakes, we can begin to create an environment that supports ourselves and our child.

For example, maybe I realize that it’s during the morning routine where drama happens in the family. Once I realize that rushing and running late always leads to a breakdown, I can choose to get up a little earlier, or pack lunch the night before. Then, there can be spaciousness around my toddler not feeling like getting dressed right now. I have time to connect, listen, and then gently guide him to getting dressed.

From my experience, it’s when you’re off-balance that a child pushing harder can throw you completely. If you’re more centered, then you can respond clearly in that moment. Of course, there may be certain boundaries where there is no negotiation—i.e., you must wear rain-boots if it’s raining outside! But what color socks you wear, that’s negotiable. Being mindful can help you stay clear about what’s negotiable and what isn’t.

JS: What do you recommend when you’re about to lose it, besides forethought?

SS: Planning ahead is definitely the best recipe. But when you’re in those moments, I recommend first pausing and taking a breath before you do anything else. Connect with yourself and remember your intention: My intention is to maintain unconditional love and connection with my child, even as I set boundaries.

The problem is when we start negotiating around non-negotiable things—For example saying to our 4-year old, “Sweetie, please put on your socks, Mommy has to go to work.” Your child’s prefrontal cortex isn’t formed yet. He’s not going to feel bad for you and realize he needs to put on his socks or you will be late for work. Trying to coax or rationalize him into it is not appropriate. What is needed is a clear voice with no options: “We’re putting your socks on now.”

There are different techniques for different developmental stages that we outline in the book; but the most important thing is to stay connected to your intention and to remain calm and clear. If we want to encourage impulse control and adaptability in our children, we have to have these ourselves.

JS: Do you see your book turning into some kind of course for parents?

SS: I do. In fact, we created a very brief online course that people are starting to register for. It’s a synthesis of our book, with each chapter getting about 5-10 minutes of video treatment. I also plan to keep teaching experiential workshops for parents when I can.

But the book is just a start; it’s not the Holy Grail. For me, it’s really the opening of a conversation, a continued exploration of how to best parent, how to best serve our children, and how to be most authentically and joyfully alive as a parent. I really offer it from a place of humility, and not as an expert. At some level, parents already know all of what we are teaching. This book, Mindful Discipline, is simply a reminder, guiding parents back to their own wise and loving hearts.

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