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What is Spiritual Parenting?

March 24, 2009

Taking a break from the series I’ve been working on, to muse a bit about this phrase ‘spiritual parenting’. This has been triggered by some posts I’ve read lately on blogs I like, including Freedom from Success is Freedom from Failure at Holistic Mama, Living Outside Our Labels at Mermaid, Idealism, Motherhood and Being a Rooster at The Awakened Heart, Giving Yourself a Timeout: Lessons in Mindful Parenting by Jan at Awake is Good and many more which I’ll try and organize into a list sometime (I REALLY need to update my blogroll.)

It’s also been triggered by changes in my 2 3/4 year-old twins, who have hit a developmental milestone I’ll call The Ability (or Curse) of Worrying About the Future and Thinking About the Past. To sum it up, they don’t live 100% in the present anymore, the way babies and toddlers do. Of course they are still in the present much of the time, but not always, and that’s a change. They weigh things now, comparing them to their past experiences, and drawing conclusions based on that. They judge. And they enter more and more experiences with expectations born of those judgments. As Ekchart Tolle would put it, they aren’t naturally in ‘The Now’ all the time anymore.

To me, it’s the birth of The Ego. I almost hate to use that term, because it gets bandied about so much these days, especially in spiritual writing, and it means different things depending on who is using it. But I don’t know what other term to use for the body of habits and patterns that develop as we grow up, and that separate us from The Now, from source, from our natural enlightenment, from God, from Goddess, from nirvana, or whatever term you prefer. Spiritual practice is largely the tools we use to try and see past these barriers, to reconnect, to live at a level of our awareness not bound by them. This is simplifying of course, and makes it seem like babies and toddlers are spiritually awakened (whatever that means), and that’s not what I’m trying to say, but I think you get my drift.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this new phase the twins have entered (and remembering it in my 4 1/2 year old), partly because we’ve had out of town family visiting the area this month, and thus have attended several extended family gatherings, and so I’ve seen how every parent can’t help but project what they value onto their kids. A creative-minded parent beams when their child uses a toy in an unconventional way, seeing it as a sign of creativity, while a parent that values obedience beams when complimented on their children’s table manners (but frowns at the unusual toy use, viewing it as disorderly.) The sports fan can’t help but light up when their two-year old throws a ball across the room – even if it knocks over a glass – exclaiming ‘look at that arm’, while the parent who places a big emphasis on helpfulness heaps on the praise when her own child helps clean up the mess.

We send hundreds of tiny messages a day to our children, some explicit and some subconsciously, about what we value and what we don’t, and they respond in kind. Their Egos start to form around these judgments, and the process of separation is begun (or if you believe in reincarnation, restarted, because some patterns have been brought into the incarnation as well.) And of course many of these are positive – it’s not that the Ego is an evil thing – we develop resources within ourselves as well. But experiencing divinity, the sacred, the Now, requires seeing past it all, learning how to drop it all (or unlearning). It’s about how to be right here without that intermediary mind.

So what I’ve been contemplating is, is the Ego separation avoidable? Does spiritual parenting, mindful parenting, intuitive parenting – whatever phrase you want to use (although I know to many they are not all the same) – prevent or lessen that separation, or provide our children with a different type of Ego? What’s the real purpose behind trying to meet our children as they are, accepting them for who they are, attempting to minimize the judgments we project? Is it really possible to do so, and if so, what does it provide them with?

I wonder because often in spiritual parenting literature the whole idea seems to me to get romanticized  (it’s not romanticized in the posts I selected above – which is why I selected them). To me too often it ends up sounding like somehow there is a way to parent a child into enlightenment (and I don’t mean to cheapen the word enlightenment by using it here, but had to use something for what I mean.) It’s like the authors see their own spiritual journey, and the personal work they’ve had to do to break through certain Ego patterns to find peace, and think that we all can somehow prevent all that work for our own kids. And I’m not sure it works that way. It seems to me that experiencing separation is part of the essence of being human – that we have to ‘lose ourselves to find ourselves’, so to speak.

I do think my own view is largely shaped by the Mahayana Buddhist idea of the Boddhisattva – a being who attains enlightenment, and could thus choose not to incarnate again, to simply dissolve into the universe, but chooses to come back, in order to help all other beings to attain liberation also. The kicker is, each time a Boddhisattva reincarnates, he or she has to regain enlightenment. It’s never guaranteed – although it is said to get easier each time, and certain Boddhisattvas are said to eventually become so strong they can incarnate into Hell realms, regain their enlightenment there, and help the darkest beings – the demons – find freedom. But there is no such thing as being born enlightened.

And what’s even more interesting to me is that in this same system, being born human is actually considered a fabulous gift, because it is the perfect realm to pursue liberation. Unlike the bliss/pleasure realms, there is enough suffering to assure that we each keep striving towards freedom, and unlike the hell realms, there is enough love and light available for us to see a way out. The entire process of being human – of starting over each time as a child dependent upon its parents, and of not remembering what we’ve known before, facilitates the spiritual process.

What this all has to do with parenting for me, is that it allows me to realize I can only do so much. My goal is to provide my kids with the tools – empathy, humor, self-awareness, mindfulness – that I have found personally useful in walking my spiritual path. But I am inevitably also going to ‘damage’ them – I am going to be part of what separates them from themselves, in spite of myself, and that is OK. They will eventually have to see past whatever judgments I have projected on to them, see through the boundaries of their own ego. And no one, including me, can do that for them.

Of course that’s not an excuse not to try and parent better, and in fact I expend quite a bit of time searching out new parenting views and approaches, mostly in the spiritual/mindful vein (including all those blogs!) That’s part of my own spiritual practice now too. But realizing that every sign in my children of Ego, especially ‘negative’ behaviors like aggression, selfishness, anxiety, etc. is not a sign of failure, helps me relax. I can only do so much. They’ve got their own shadows to discover and work through. And that’s all in the natural course of things. (Not that that knowledge necessarily makes the related suffering any easier to watch, as I’ve often discussed with friends of teen or adult children.)

As always, I appreciate your own thoughts and comments…

15 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2009 2:23 am

    Hello Lisa,

    You bring up some interesting points about what spiritual parenting is. I believe that a child has to develop a strong healthy ego that allows her to navigate through life. Nisargadatta Maharaj the Vedantic master was asked if the type of dispassion he taught should be taught to children. He replied, “No. If that’s done, they’ll have no ambition to grow further; they must have certain ambitions, certain desires, for their proper growth…the one who has come to understand, will never try to interfere in the play of consciousness.” Jung also talked about having to develop the ego before you can transcend it.

    I firmly believe that if parents work on themselves to become spiritually aware, then the natural imprinting that takes place in early childhood from the strongest role models which are usually the parents, that is the most healthy parenting style. Anything else might be forced and may create more damage than good.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  2. March 25, 2009 6:28 am

    Interesting thoughts you’ve shared. I’ve got two kids aged 8 and 6 myself and have no doubts that due to be unawareness, have caused them to have various negative aspects.

    I share the same thoughts as Miruh, in that I believe that working on myself is their best bet to having a healthier childhood. Kids learn a great deal through modeling. I can’t tell them what to do if I am not showing good behavior myself.

    Luckily, I know enough tools and techniques to help my kids in their negative emotions. I also take the extra effort to do some repair work for them, on an energetic level.

    It’s great that you are spiritually aware. Your twins are already so blessed to have you as their mother.

  3. JAYN permalink
    March 25, 2009 6:45 am

    The parental spiritual climate in western civilization is at a delicate point of balance. Aware parents of children in their twenties have literally ‘brailled’ their way through ignorance and prejudice to lay the foundations of the ‘awake-parenting style’ I am hearing Lisa speak of. Indeed, our children must have the experience of being fully human and by default, so do their parents. It’s all part of the magical Earth journey and to deny that it needs to be just so, is to deny the present moment. We learn, adapt and grow unto death.

    Lisa, love your ever so sensible posts!

  4. March 25, 2009 10:33 am

    Ooh, couple of new blogs to peruse…

    As usual, i tend towards your thinking.

    The idea of “parent[ing] a child into enlightenment” is alarming to me!

    Firstly, I’m very pro-Ego. To me, it’s part of our human reality.

    Since having my own baby, this is what I’ve learnt – THEY are our spiritual teachers, not the other way around.
    My role is a lot more prosaic. It’s as you say, providing the simple tools, the ones to navigate through this very earthy existence.

    To me, parenting a child into enlightenment isn’t possible, but it’s alarming to me because it’s stealing their right to the journey. Perhaps that’s the difference, whether you’re a parent who places value on the end-product or the journey itself.

  5. mommymystic permalink*
    March 25, 2009 3:22 pm

    Miruh – thanks for the Nisargadatta quote, that is perfect. Interestingly, that seems to be the consensus among the Eastern traditions. Where I am seeing the ‘parenting into enlightenment’ theme seems to be in a lot of Indigo/Crystal children type writing. To be fair, not all of it, but enough to make me a bit nervous about the trend.

    Evelyn- yes I couldn’t agree more, that children learn as much (if not more) from our example than our words, so following our own journey, bumps/warts and all, is what serves them best. Interesting point about the energy work, I do some too, but it is another thing I have been thinking about, in terms of the line between helping and interfering – the same line healers have to walk with their clients. Maybe I’ll post on that some time and get some feedback…

    Jayn – thanks for your comment. I agree- being ‘fully human’ involves getting lost at some points, and finding your own way.

    Mon – Thanks as always. As I said to Miruh above, where I seem to be seeing this theme a lot is in some Indigo/Crystal children writing – part of the ‘they are here to save the world’ theme that I know you and I are both uncomfortable with. I agree on the kids as teachers part – my kids have taught me more than I ever could have imagined so far, but it’s not because they are ‘enlightened’ beings. And I get your point on being pro-Ego – it’s partly why I hesitated to use that word, because it’s used in a lot of translations of Buddhist texts to mean the force that separates us from peace, and thus has a negative context, but in Jung and other writings it seems different – it’s what makes us human and who we are. So it’s a tricky word. I will have to find another one.

  6. March 25, 2009 3:27 pm

    Having been through all these stages, I know it is so difficult to let your children be independent. It’s so much easier to totally control them. I truly believe there is something within each child that we have no control over and letting that child explore and just be himself is very hard for a parent to do.
    The spiritual experience comes from watching and observing their parents and the world around them.
    Mon, I like what you say about your child being your spiritual teacher. We need to sit back and just enjoy who they are.

  7. March 26, 2009 11:02 pm


    This is a great post. You really got me thinking. Like Mon, I have found that my son has a lot to teach me because he is still much more attached to the universe/the divine (whatever you want to call it) than I am.

    He’ll be 5 in a month, so yes, he has an ego, but still he is full of innocence and love and confident of his own innate power and knowledge. It’s a beautiful thing. I definitely don’t see my job as parenting him to enlightenment – that is his journey, why he has been born, it is not mine to take away.

    Like Evelyn, I see that if I pursue my own spiritual journey then he will benefit most because he will learn less fear, doubt and anger. He will be better set up for life and not move away from source so much as he ages. But I do see this moving away from source as inevitable.

    We do not parent in a vacuum. The world comes in to teach our children things against our values and some they will hold onto, whether we like it or not. Bunny has his own personality and he will have his own struggles, so I see my job as one of accepting who he is, while guiding him forward with positive, loving values and giving him the strength to take his own path in life.

    I hope he will not fall down in life as much as I have, but then who am I to say that falling down is a bad thing? There is much to be learned from it, so I guess one day I’ll just have to sit back, let him go and hope he finds his way, knowing I did the very best I could.


  8. March 27, 2009 12:34 am

    I love this post. So many things to think about. I find I am constantly hearing myself speaking value-laden language to my daughter. And also where I put my energy, how I spend my time.
    She already has a very clear idea of what I value and she responds to that. But I also wish to allow her the space to explore what she wants, what she values, and try to open the possibilities for that. It’s a challenge to be maintaining self-awareness and not impose.

    I agree with Mon that children are our teachers. I am being taught a whole new level of mindfulness through mothering. A Boddhisattva is also “a warrior of Compassion”, and this could well describe mothers and the role of mothers. With or without Enlightenment perhaps.

  9. sunnyjamiel permalink
    March 27, 2009 1:04 pm


    Glad to have found your blog. Your posts are insightful and contain those subtle empowering messages that make our lives profound.

  10. March 27, 2009 2:02 pm

    I love the courage with which you have written this post. It is hard to see the ego develop as it does in any human being and that we, as parents and friends, are part of that. As much as I tried to be a conscientious and mindful parent, I know my own ego “issues” impacted my children and may have contributed to the formulation of their own. But such is life, as you have already alluded. Each person must find their way. Each has their path to walk and each is “given” the path they have been give for their own perfect unfolding—wounds and all.

    If anything, your post affirms what the Buddha taught–that we are all so intertwined–that we ARE one another. We cannot grow and develop without others and the threads of their influence–ego and all.

    Hugs to you, mommy mystic, you are doing an amazing job with your wee ones. I just know it!

  11. March 29, 2009 10:05 pm

    Wonderful, thoughtful questions. To pick up on one thread:

    “What’s the real purpose behind trying to meet our children as they are, accepting them for who they are, attempting to minimize the judgments we project? Is it really possible to do so, and if so, what does it provide them with?”

    It is possible to do so, and it happens whenever parents don’t use their children to prop up their own egos by expecting their children to be like them or to fulfill their own unmet ego strivings.

    What this provides the child with is the truth about themselves – that there is nothing “wrong” with THEM, nothing lacking in their very being or persons. It’s OK to like music more than sports, or vice versa; to lean more or less toward art, or math; to be or not be conventionally pretty if a girl or conventionally rugged if a boy.

  12. March 29, 2009 11:50 pm

    I think you are asking wonderful questions. Kahlil Gibran’s poem speaks volumes on this subject:

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

    You are the bows from which your children
    as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    and He bends you with His might
    that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    so He loves also the bow that is stable.


    I have a great spiritual job to help my daughter cope with the stresses of the world. Perhaps I will also project my own ideas about mindfulness and spirituality onto her. It’s humbling to know that when she isn’t doing what I want, she is indeed following her own path and living her own true nature.

    Thank you for the reflections.

  13. mommymystic permalink*
    March 30, 2009 6:53 pm

    Just wanted to thank you all for your comments, and for adding so much to this post through them. To me this is blogging at its best, because I think each and every one of you has added something unique and beautiful to this topic, and helped me to see it in a new way too…

  14. March 31, 2009 9:35 am

    Before I do any form of healing for my kids, I always check if I have the permission to do so. I also do that for all my clients or friends. In this manner, I would not be interfering. I perform all checks at their subconscious level. Mostly, the answers are yes. Their souls are looking for assistance. If I get a “no” for an answer, I do not step in at all.

  15. Kate permalink
    April 12, 2009 4:07 am

    Yes, our children are each on their own path. I think our highest calling is to help them read what is written on their hearts. I homeschool and I have a follow-the-child mindset there too. But I can be protective (no videos, picky about books)because I want them to be innocent for as long as possible while they build themselves along with some resiliency.

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