When I was expecting my first child, I had a mini existential crisis about the kind of parent I was going to be. How was I supposed to mould my kid into a self-assured human when, at 36, I still felt lacking in many ways? I’ve always tried to embrace my “inner fullness” and spirituality, but after 18 years of yoga, a short stint studying Kabbalah (before Madonna made Jewish mysticism look cool), three therapists and a few failed attempts at daily meditation, I was just muddling through my soul-searching journey. So, after my daughter was born, I was cautiously optimistic when I realized she was a very spirited and confident little person from the get-go. As a newborn, she was loud and shrieky—even our midwives were startled by the power of her pterodactyl-like cry. She always knew what she wanted and how to get it. All I had to do as her mother was love her and take care of her. Easy, right?
Nope. For me, nothing about parenting was chill-in-an-earth-motherly-kind-of-way—and anyone who says it comes naturally or instinctively isn’t doing the rest of us any favours.
Raising tiny, demanding people is a monumental amount of work, and trying to be calm when you’re running on three hours’ sleep and your baby will only nap on your body, or when your toddler has a meltdown because you “accidentally” flushed her poop down the toilet, can feel hopelessly overwhelming—no matter how adorable they are. Fast-forward a few years and as cool and in control as I had tried to be with my now four- and three-year-old daughters, I’d fallen into many of the bad habits I used to judge other parents for: I was a total pushover. I bribed my kids to do things with Smarties and Paw Patrol. I yelled at them and I let them yell at me. But worst of all, and one of the hardest things to admit, is that I had struggled to find some of the joy in parenting, even though I had looked forward to being a mom for years. Of course there was an unfathomable bond and there were many magical moments I wish I could bottle up forever. But the relentless grind, and all the fear and anxiety that comes with raising children and trying to control their behaviour, had become too much to bear at times. I desperately wanted a change.
When my twin sister told me about an approach called “conscious parenting” that the teachers at her toddler’s Montessori school recommended, I was intrigued. Essentially, it’s a parent-centric parenting philosophy. Based on the idea that the problem isn’t the kids, but our own “unconsciousness” as parents. The focus is always on the parents, rather than the child’s behaviour. In order to “fix” our children, we should first fix ourselves.
The most popular voice of this school of thought is Shefali Tsabary, known as “Dr. Shefali,” a New York-based clinical psychologist, author and international speaker born in Mumbai, who looks like a Bollywood movie star and oozes inspiration. Oprah is quoted on the cover of Tsabary’s The Awakened Family as saying “[Dr. Shefali is] so evolved that her ideas are really a paradigm shift that can change the world,” and the Dalai Lama wrote the preface to Tsabary’s first book, The Conscious Parent, which became a New York Times bestseller. Even Pink is a fan.
If Tsabary’s Buddha-like wisdom could potentially transform the world (because there’s no way Oprah would exaggerate, right?), then maybe it could slightly shift the dynamics between me and my girls.
What is conscious parenting?
Conscious parenting concepts are rooted in ancient Eastern beliefs, as well as Western psychology. According to Tsabary, to be “conscious” or mindful is to be aware—so we can identify the difference between reacting to our children from our egos and from the calmer, centred state of who we truly are. It’s all about the ability to be in the moment in any situation that arises. And when it comes to living in the present, she says, our children are gurus who can awaken us to be real, giving us the gift of self-awareness, self-expression and deep self-belief.
While Tsabary offers lots of examples and case studies, she doesn’t give any quick fixes or step-by-step strategies—which may be off-putting for parents looking for some fast, tangible solutions. She sees consciousness as a lifelong journey, a moment-by-moment practice to connect with yourself and your children from a place of love, authenticity and acceptance rather than fear, ego and control.
Free your children from the need for your approval
“Children don’t need us to lead them to an awakened state because they are already awake,” Tsabary writes. “As parents, it’s vital for us to understand that as long as our children are in touch with their deepest self, with its boundless resources, they will motivate themselves beyond anything we could ever imagine.”
How can parents put this lesson into action? Besides abandoning the idea that your kid needs to do certain things (including having “good” behaviour and high grades, and even meeting expectations around eating and sleeping), you can regularly let them know how accepted and appreciated they are simply for being themselves. In fact, Tsabary says the most important objective of being a parent is creating space for our children to be in touch with their own spirit.
I’ve started to let go of struggles around what the kids wear and eat every day—having mismatched, wild-haired little girls is a small price to pay for empowering them with self-expression and autonomy, and letting them explore the pleasures of food. For example, in the past, I would have nagged, begged, used ultimatums and even spoon-fed them veggies while they were looking the other way or in mid-chew. Now I offer a few healthy choices and then let them be. It’s less stressful for all of us. In fact, the other day, my kindergartner ate cooked carrots for the first time since she was a baby—she served herself after observing the rest of us enjoying them.
“If you take nothing else away from this book, this is the most fundamental lesson on becoming an awakened family: Placing expectations on your child instead of allowing the child’s own natural inclinations to emerge spontaneously may well result in an emotional Grand Canyon between you and your child,” Tsabary writes in The Awakened Family. When they do start showing serious interest in certain activities or hobbies, she cautions parents to let them sit with those desires for some time before jumping into them. By doing so, we give ourselves a chance to tune into our children’s true, deep desires instead of those that are coming from their own egos, like what they think they want in the moment or what they think others want for them. By waiting, we also allow them to commit to their passions and work toward a goal, which is far more valuable than “blindly indulging” them.
Know your triggers
Does parenting even matter?A big piece of the “conscious parenting” philosophy is understanding that all misbehaviour (your kid’s) and dysfunction (yours) stem from unmet emotional needs in childhood. It sounds a lot like Psychoanalysis 101—hurt people hurt people, right?—but it can be humbling to realize how you may be manipulating or lashing out at your kids to compensate for your own issues. According to Tsabary, the mother of all wounds is a feeling of unworthiness and self-doubt, and this can manifest in many ways: for example, as a fear of being unloved (you try to overplease your children and find it hard to create boundaries), a fear of conflict (again, you can’t say no to your kids and you let them walk all over you) or even a fear of saying yes (you find it hard to give your child your undivided attention or to see their demands as natural and not an imposition).
My sister and I grew up in a strict French-Moroccan immigrant household, where appearance and obedience were important. While we felt cherished by our parents and were given lots of affection, my sister and I still remember earning our mother’s approval by letting her dress us up as her poupées, or dolls, and, at times, being afraid of our father. While he was loving, creative and spontaneous in his joie de vivre, his frustration with making us behave sometimes led to screaming and spanking sessions.
Instead of blaming or resenting our own parents, who were also just doing their best while carrying around their own pain or emotional baggage, Tsabary says you can use this insight to reflect on how your children provoke you, which will ideally make it easier to recognize and deal with issues as they arise in the moment.
Boundaries instead of discipline
The conscious approach to behaviour issues focuses on the three C’s: creating clear, consistent and compassionate boundaries so discipline is unnecessary. She says children pick up on our inconsistency, especially when it’s based in fear. When we’re inconsistent with communicating our “non-negotiable” boundaries, such as bathing, getting enough sleep, tidying up and limiting screen time, it may be because we ourselves lack that discipline or we’re unconsciously afraid that if we don’t give our kids what they want, they will reject us. Just like connecting to our children makes them feel safe, healthy boundaries make them feel secure. She goes further to say that punishment, time outs and arbitrary threats are not only ineffective in the long run but are also signs of “lazy and rote parenting.” Ouch! Arguably, a lot of parents, including myself, try to use consequences like time outs with reason and empathy. I mean, I read an entire book on how to do it effectively—so how is that lazy? But Tsabary is right in saying that some of those tricks are losing their initial charm. She believes in positive reinforcement and offering only natural and logical consequences.
“We don’t give a consequence,” Tsabary writes. “They arise directly out of an answer to the question, ‘What is the need being expressed by my child’s behaviour?’” If your kid is goofing off instead of getting ready for bed, maybe you need to be playful by brushing your teeth with them. If your child won’t respect the iPad rules, maybe you need to come up with a screen time “agreement” where their input is taken into consideration.
As part of this journey, I’ve tried to hold firm on limits. When I respect myself more by sticking to my guns, the girls follow suit. For example, if I tell my toddler she’s had her last bite of chocolate for the day, there is no amount of whining that will change my mind—but we negotiate when she’s allowed to have some again (for dessert the next day). Her unmet demands used to trigger meltdowns, but now that she is being given more consistent limits, she’s become a tad more rational. Instead of hating my life when she insists I read just one more book or sing one last song before bed, I pick two of each and I don’t budge, and I find myself enjoying the routine again because there’s an end in sight.
While some of the advice in the conscious parenting philosophy feels way too starry-eyed and unrealistic (“when we enter the dynamic to support them in their own efforts to grow, we receive little if any resistance”), Tsabary does offer concrete examples of what this approach looks like in action—for example, when your toddler inevitably throws a tantrum (stay calm and simply observe their emotions until the volatility passes) or your school-age kid won’t clean their room (either let it go or reflect on your own messy habits before having a heart-to-heart about the values of cleanliness) or your teen is not respecting a screen-time limit (step in front of your child, lower their screen and look directly in their eyes as you make a request).
Does this mean parents should never get upset? No, says Tsabary. They should just learn to respond in healthier ways, by expressing themselves honestly and authentically versus letting their emotions drive knee-jerk and charged reactions. “When we understand our role in co-creating each situation, we no longer blame the other,” she writes. To work on our own calmness and patience, she recommends parents meditate for 15 to 20 minutes a day to observe our thoughts and “access [our] still centre.” As easy as Tsabary makes it sound, I’ve never been able to commit to daily meditation. But if it could elevate my parenting game, I would be willing to try it again.
Is conscious parenting really that revolutionary?
Even though Tsabary’s conscious approach to parenting has been hailed as evolved and revolutionary, there is a fairly long tradition of books encouraging parents to make more mindful and deliberate parenting choices.
Sarah Rosensweet, a parenting coach who practises a similar method, called “peaceful parenting,” argues that the broader trend toward more intentional styles of raising kids over the past couple of decades has been groundbreaking on a cultural level. “The whole conscious parenting movement is coming from a place of recognizing that for our kids to be emotionally resilient and have high EQ [emotional quotient] and be successful in that way, we need to help them with their emotions from an early age.”
In her practice, she says, parents find looking at their own issues, triggers and reactions helpful not only in moving through the day and the schedule with their kids—like motivating them to brush their teeth or go to school—but in feeling happier and closer with them by providing more compassion and patience. “This is the great thing about peaceful parenting or conscious parenting principles. They’re not just parenting principles—they’re relationship principles.”
But as with any parenting or relationship advice, it has to work for you and where you’re at, says parenting expert Ann Douglas, whose latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, is a guide to boosting the enjoyment of parenting without the guilt.
“I think the challenge with these kinds of books, as somebody who reads and writes them, is finding a way to write a book that doesn’t cause parents to feel really overwhelmed with feelings of guilt or to feel frustrated that the standard being set for ‘good parenting’ is something that just isn’t attainable to them because they’re mere mortals or they have to deal with all the realities of parenting in a complex or messy world.”
Douglas says we have to acknowledge that some children are more challenging to parents than others, some parenting stages are proven to be more difficult and some families are grappling with extraordinary needs and circumstances.
She also says we have to recognize how hard parenting is and that everybody gets it wrong at some point.
Douglas points to one part in The Conscious Parent where it says, “Parenting is not that complicated or difficult once we become conscious because a conscious person is naturally loving and authentic”—which some parents would rightly be offended by. “Parenting has been the focus of all of my professional and personal activity for decades, and I still find it really hard,” Douglas says. “So I wouldn’t want a parent who finds it hard to think they’re doing it wrong. Parenting is actually hard.”
Over the past month, I’ve done a lot of the mental work to put conscious parenting into action: I’ve taken time to sit in silence before the kids wake up in the morning. I’ve started writing a gratitude journal before going to sleep at night. I’ve tried my best to avoid emotional reactions to things my daughters do that push all my buttons and make me feel powerless, so I can be the centred and loving mother they need me to be.
When my kindergartner recently blew up at me for cutting her craft paper the “wrong way,” instead of taking it personally and snapping back that she was being rude, I diffused the situation by telling her I needed a five-minute break so we could both think about our feelings—this is part of conscious parenting’s philosophy that conflict is natural as well as healthy.
This approach is not only working out by helping to contain some of the fits but it has actually brought us closer. When I ask her if she has felt her feelings today, part of the philosophy’s suggestion to honour your child’s essence, she tells me, “You fill my bucket with love.”
Eventually, I hope she’ll be able to express a range of feelings and emotions, like sadness, anger, frustration—but for now, I’m basking in the glow of an adoring four-year-old.