The mindful parenting paradox

By Hanna Rosin / Slate

Published Jan 24, 2014 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — Many, many spiritual eras ago, before there were yoga studios on every third urban block, my friend took me to a yoga class in someone’s apartment. I had never done a single downward dog or said the word namaste with my eyes closed. It was all strange to me, but none of it stranger than when the class ended and we all lay down for shavasana (corpse pose, for all you holdout Western heathens). The Indian man teaching the class — there were mostly Indian men teaching in those days, not lithe young women — came over and looked at me like I was a rotten corpse. He adjusted my feet, arms, hips and fingers and barked at me that I didn’t understand how to “relax correctly.”

Until then it had never occurred to me that relaxing could be done correctly or incorrectly or that it in any way required work or effort or even the slightest bit of thought. After all, an old couch and a bag of potato chips had done me just fine all my life. I opened my eyes and gave him a mildly hostile and mostly baffled expression, the same one I have on my face these days when I read about the new trend of “mindful parenting.”

Our ‘monkey minds’

If you have never encountered “mindfulness” or tried to meditate, then congratulations, your soul must be very post-evolved (or absent). Mindfulness is now up there with juicing and SoulCycling for anyone who wants to be a better you (and who doesn’t?). My old cognitive behavioral therapist is into mindfulness, the rabbi at the conservative Washington synagogue I attend runs a meditation class, my very close friend plays only Thich Nhat Hanh or Tara Brach tapes in her car. (Hanh is the Vietnamese-born, American-educated monk who is credited with translating mindfulness for the West.) 50 Cent evangelizes mindfulness, and Lena Dunham has advocated meditation because “I come from a long line of neurotic Jewish women who need it more than anyone.” The Marine Corps loves it and, of course, so does Arianna Huffington, who is starting a “Third Metric” revolution designed to teach stressed-out professionals how to chill out.

Boiled down to its simplest element, mindfulness means slowing your thoughts down enough to be aware of what you are doing at that moment. Given the way we live now, this is harder than it sounds. Mindfulness devotees like to talk about our “monkey minds” jumping from one thought to another. The aim is to stop jumping and settle. So, to practice while taking a shower, don’t immediately start making to-do lists. Instead, think, I’m in the shower. The water is hot. The room is steamy, etc. Don’t judge whether the shower is awesome or annoying; just slow down and experience it. After a while you can try mediation. And eventually, so it goes, you can reach a state where you become less jumpy and reactive, less attached to some preconceived, expected outcomes for the future, more open to responding to experiences as they are.

Being calmer monkeys

Don’t we modern American parents need to learn to be calmer monkeys? Absolutely. In its diagnosis of the ills of modern parenting, the mindful parenting movement is spot on. In her new book “Mindful Parenting,” family psychologist Kristen Race writes in a chapter called “Overscheduled” about Eva, a girl whose mother brings her in for therapy. Eva was a calm kid who in the middle of first grade suddenly turned anxious and defiant, so Race asked her mother to write down her weekly schedule. Every day after school Eva has some planned activity, such as gymnastics or soccer. Then she goes home, watches TV, does her homework and after dinner practices piano. Eva, Race points out, has almost no unscheduled time in her week and no “calming” activities. (Race does not consider TV calming.) “The message modern society sends us is clear,” she writes. “If we’re not providing enough ‘enrichment’ or extracurricular activities, even in early childhood, our kids will get left behind.” In other words, we’re too busy striving for the fixed notions we have about our children’s future instead of just living in the present with them.

Race is part of a budding backlash against a generation of overinvolved parenting, embodied in books such as “Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids”; the upcoming “The Kids Will Be Fine”; and Hollywood’s favorite parenting guide, “Baby Knows Best.” Jennifer Senior’s excellent new book, “All Joy and No Fun,” based on this New York magazine cover story and out later this month, makes a convincing case that modern parents are making themselves miserable by believing they always have to maximize their children’s happiness and success. Senior’s book is not prescriptive. She doesn’t tell parents to be more mindful or drink more wine or neglect their kids; she just wants them to understand why they are always so stressed out.

Learning to breathe

At its core, mindfulness could be a pretty radical challenge to the parenting ills. A mindful parent would not buy into any preconceived notion of success. She would react to the child she has, not the one she wishes she had. And yet in practice the prescriptions given by the new mindful parenting gurus seem suspiciously to be all about molding a very particular kind of child — one who eats vegetables, doesn’t watch TV, shares his feelings and loves the Earth. Just as you might want a more French or more Asian child, you might want one who is more mindful.

In psychologist Carla Naumburg’s often smart and knowing blog Mindful Parenting, guest blogger Logan Ritchie tells a story in a post called “Sucker Punched” about the day she learned that her son threw a “gut punch to his best friend.” Ritchie was confused about what to do. She knew her own instinct was to chide and punish, to feel out of control when her children act out, so she curbed that. Her husband suggested the boys-will-be-boys approach, but Ritchie wasn’t having it. “I don’t believe in that theory of rough-and-tumble play and it isn’t how I’m raising my three young boys.” She also doesn’t believe in “forced apologies.” Instead she decided to remain calm and just listen:

“His feelings poured out. I learned more about playground politics, his classroom and teachers, his buddies, and his insecurities that night than ever before. All because I stopped talking and started listening. I asked nonjudgmental questions. I was calm, relaxed, and focused.”

In many ways this is exemplary parenting. She didn’t yell. She gave her son an excellent lesson on managing emotions. She and her son bonded. But it is not, as Ritchie perceives, neutral. Like many mindful parents, Ritchie goes into the conversation with a fixed set of judgments. Rough-and-tumble play is bad. Talking about feelings is good. Wrestling club, probably out of the question. Earthwalks camp, excellent. No doubt her son could sense the desired outcome, and it was not, Mom, I was in a bad mood and he got in my way. If stress is caused by parents overmanaging their children, then mindful parenting seems like the opposite of the solution. It’s merely another way of making sure our kids behave in an exemplary way, and we are always there to facilitate that.

I suspect it’s true that American parents are making themselves miserable, that children are overscheduled and pressured to achieve and be better. But mindfulness is not a corrective to that. The last thing American parents need are more goals that they are failing to meet. “Breathe” and “live in the moment” are just two more things you didn’t get to that day.

— Rosin is the author of “The End of Men,” a co-founder of Slate’s DoubleX and a senior editor at the Atlantic.