What Does It Mean to Parent Mindfully?
By Deborah Groening, MFT, Founder, Well Baby Center
The subject of attachment relationships, which is a developmental theory, and Dr. Sear’s model of parenting he named “attachment parenting,” are two completely different constructs. Attachment parenting encourages “baby-wearing,” co-sleeping, and breast-feeding on demand for as long as the child desires. Attachment theory, on the other hand, is research conducted by developmental psychologists, which defines the different attachment styles – secure, anxious/ambivalent, dismissive/preoccupied, and disorganized.
Attachment parenting has no research basis — it is just a way of parenting that appears to create a secure attachment in the child – but it can go too far. Attachment theory states that it is just as important for a parent to be able to tolerate their child’s struggles as it is to providing a comforting connection. Struggle is a valuable and necessary condition to encourage resiliency and flexibility in your child. It is crucial for your child to be able to see that things can sometimes go awry, but no worries, they will be set right again. Without this experience, the capacity for self-regulation, through rupture and repair, will be hampered. In the attachment world, there is a saying: “whenever you can, follow your child’s lead, but when necessary, be bigger, wiser, and stronger.” Using your own mind, you determine when one response is required over another approach. It is a dynamic and flexible thinking and feeling or reflective function that determines your mindful response. There is no one hard and fast rule.
To parent mindfully requires an inner awareness and self-compassion. We must try to give our children the idea that they are loved both when they are needy and clingy and also when they push us away in their striving for autonomy and independence. The desire for safety and security and the desire to be independent are two equal aspects of a child’s development and both are necessary to develop a secure attachment to their parent. The parent must encourage and scaffold, but should not help their child to the degree that the child does not experience the exhilaration of first struggling to achieve a new skill and then achieving success.
Our children are different from us, with their own unique needs and wants, personalities and temperaments. Our own childhoods, and especially whether we have made meaning out of our disappointments and struggles are profoundly related to how we parent. In doing our own inner work we make space in our minds to be curious about who our children are, and what they need from us. We can help them feel “felt”, “validated” and strong by not solving their problems for them but rather by bearing their struggle with them. This is the true definition of mindful parenting.
Our hardest job in the world is being able to digest, think about, and bear witness to their sometimes-intense rages, without collapsing under the sheer weight of them. Parenting mindfully, then, regardless of whether you have a Caesarian or home birth, whether you breast or bottle feed, co-sleep, sleep train, carry, hold, or walk beside your child, is the key factor.
The awareness of your own intentions and the accurate reading of your child’s underlying needs and intentions (the skillfulness of parental reflective function) is the goal. By using reflective parenting in daily life with your child and partner, and by practicing loving kindness with yourself, your child, and your partner as you respect their dignity to try and fail, try and fail, and then finally, succeed, is, in my view, the key to family bliss.
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit blog.wellbabycenter.org.
Deborah Groening is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Psy.D. Candidate and Certified Infant-Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Executive Director of Well Baby Center.