Parenting: What does raising YOUR consciousness have to do with parenting?
“Everything!” says Dr. Shefali, Oprah’s top parenting expert, whose message is that it is not so much about fixing or cultivating the child as it is about working on your own self, that it is a time to learn and grow more than teach.
Besides being interviewed by Oprah, Dr. Shefali Tsabary has written four books on parenting, three of which are NYTNYT best- sellers, including The Conscious ParentThe Parent and The Awakened FamilyThe Family..
It’s the start of a new school year and already I’m feeling dismayed about the high-pressure environment at school that my daughters describe, much of which causes my husband and I considerable concern.
Imagine my pleasant surprise then to hear about Dr. Shefali, an international parenting guru whose ideas about conscious and mindful parenting have shattered many preconceived notions I’ve held about other desi parents, immigrants and non. After talking with her, I feel reassured that there are other South Asian parents who seek to parent intentionally, who want better things for their children beyond scrambling for admittance to prestigious colleges and earning million-dollar salaries in STEM fields.
Of course, if you talk to any of us desi parents, we will say that all we want is well-adjusted, happy, healthy children. Yet, as my experience—and now my interview with Dr. Shefali—reveals, what we say and what we do are often drastically different. The thoughtful insights shared by her during our interview hint at this inner conflict in desi parenting strategies. But her responses are an assurance that there is a solution to the dilemma of modern parenting instead of just pointing fingers at those who seem to perpetuate the problems we want to save our children from.
Dr. Shefali is a Mumbai-born-and-raised clinical psychologist and mother who emigrated to the U.S. for her training and earned a doctorate from Columbia University before embarking on a career in parenting psychology that has put her books on the New York Times bestsellers’ list and won her the admiration and support of Oprah Winfrey.
As we start a new school year, what are some specific things parents can do to keep their children from becoming overextended in academic and extracurricular pursuits?
Parents forget that school is about learning, trying, and growing. We focus, instead, on the wrong things such as competitions, grades, and achievements. The latter places great expectations and pressures on our children. If we want our children to flourish at school, we need to keep the focus on the former and reduce the anxiety over the latter. Our children need to feel safe to explore their worlds, make mistakes, and endure failures without the burden of having to meet our high expectations. We must remember: Our children’s mental health is more important than their academic achievements.
What would be your advice to a parent who feels that their child is not taking “enough” advanced courses at their school? What is enough? Is this even the right question?
This is not the right question at all. All of us know that what we mean by “enough” is extra and over-the-top. If it were up to the parent, nothing is ever enough. We all want to raise fantasy children who are perfect, don’t we? A little bit of Julia Roberts, a little bit of Michael Phelps, and a whole lot of Einstein. These fantasies of perfection and over-achievement lead to intense anxiety within our children who feel objectified—as if their worth depends on their achievements. If we wish to raise emotionally resilient and whole children, we need to make sure they feel they are enough as they already are. Once our kids feel they are enough, they will always find ways to perform well enough.
How might conscious parenting or mindfulness help a child learn to be fulfilled doing less? Is that the answer?
It is not about doing more or doing less. It is about being authentic and whole. We parents are constantly focused on doing, doing, and more doing. This is how we were raised—to get perfect grades and lead perfect lives. This is an illusion. It leads to us being inauthentic, fake, and untrue to our own inner truth. Most of us raised in such childhoods know that we hated being pushed by our parents and yet, this is precisely what we end up doing to our kids. The cycle can only end when we end the pressure on our kids to “do” in order to feel worthy. We need to impart a new message that says: You are whole just as you are. You don’t need to do anything more to receive my validation and honor. I celebrate you as you are. Imagine if we had received this message growing up!
Do you think parents today are afraid to say no to their child’s demands? Is there a way to be firm and mindful at the same time?
Parents today go between extremes—between high pressure on one hand and high indulgence on the other. Both extremes are toxic for our kids. We do this because this is how we are leading our own lives these days. We ourselves are highly distracted and unconscious—running from pillar to post, obsessed with our screens, and disconnected from our own present realities. We are more anxious than ever before. All of this streams down to our kids. So, we are raising them in a highly disconnected and distracted manner. If we wish for this to end, we need to become conscious parents. When we become more conscious, we are able to attune to our children’s needs and meet their demands in a more conscious, connected, and empowered manner. This shift to consciousness is extremely powerful and life-changing.
In your experience, to what extent have typical desi formulas of success and achievement contributed to the increased levels of anxiety and depression facing our young people today?
I would say that it has greatly contributed to high degrees of stress and anxiety in our kids. But it doesn’t just end here. It leads to low self-worth and esteem. Our kids grow up feeling as if their worth is conditionally based on how they look, what they achieve, and who they socialize with. All of this is toxic for their emotional well-being in the long run. When parents move away from traditional “success-oriented” parenting, they are afraid that they will raise a bunch of “losers.” Actually, the opposite is true. They raise children who feel secure in their self-worth and inner empowerment. Such children are buffered from anxiety and depression as they are more connected to who they are from within.
How can parents be more mindful while they socialize at dinner parties to foster environments that promote well-being for all children instead of furthering competitive anxiety?
We are obsessed with showing off, aren’t we? Now, with social media, this has become an epidemic where we share everything with strangers. This has created a culture of competition and comparison which leads to increased anxiety and stress, especially amongst our youth. If we want to end this, we need to start with ourselves. It all begins with the individual. We need to stop posting picture-perfect photos of our life and begin being more real about our vulnerabilities and failures. The more real and authentic we are, the more will our children know that they are safe to be the same way. The only way to promote healthy emotional well-being is by being authentic and real. The less we focus on our appearance, wealth, and success, the more emotionally whole we and our children will be.
Based on your global interactions, are many parents in India facing the same challenges as American desi parents today?
No matter where I teach around the world, every modern parent faces the same challenges. Every parent has trouble with how to raise emotionally secure and worthy children. The reason for this is because our generation of parents was raised with strict rewards and punishment. We were controlled through shame, guilt, and fear. This is why we vacillate between these traditional techniques on the one hand or complete indulgence on the other. The only way to break free is to shift into a new paradigm of parenting which is what I teach in conscious parenting.
A dominant theme of your book is that parenting is not so much about “fixing” or “cultivating” the child as it is about working on your own self and raising your consciousness. Can you comment on this?
My entire work in conscious parenting is about the parent raising their own selves before they raise their children’s selves. The reason for this is that unless we realize how deeply conditioned we are from our own childhood baggage, we will impose this unconsciously onto our children and create toxic disconnection with them. When we parent our children unconsciously, we impose all sorts of expectations and fantasies on them from our own childhood that make us blind to who our children authentically are. Our children feel this from us. They rebel against this, and this is how disconnection gets created between parents and kids. In order to raise emotionally resilient children, parents need to learn conscious parenting and they will be inspired to be amazing parents!
In attempting to sum up and usefully apply the advice above, I was struck by Dr. Shefali’s central theme. She suggests quite strongly that our children will be happier if we can unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about desi expectations: that children must do things to make their parents happy, that the parents and elders are always right, that what other people notice about us and talk about matters more than who we are on the inside, and that interacting with our community is worth any cost, no matter how much our social dynamics may have devolved over the past generation to toxic levels of comparison-making rather than true connection.
What she says has given me support to rethink how my children get exposure to certain ideals and customs that are contemporary interpretations of Indian culture and to keep searching for wisdom, free from the WhatsApp threads and Facebook posts.
Dr. Shefali’s Top Five Parenting Tips
- Treat your children as your teachers.
- How you treat your kid is how you treat yourself. Examine this closely.
- Connect with your kid before you correct them.
- Look beneath the behavior to discover the emotional need.
- Don’t treat your children as a “mini-me.” They are not you.
Reshmi Hebbar (@reshmijhebbar) is an Associate Professor of English at Oglethorpe University specializing in multicultural literature. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Slate and her fiction has been published in several literary journals. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
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