The little boy sat throwing blocks across the room, narrowly missing his playmates, screamed while others tried to hear a story, and threw a snack-time tantrum because he wanted to sit in an already-occupied chair. I watched a few other parents shake their heads in disapproval. But the teacher, a woman with a big heart and a deep soul, gently admonished the grown-ups not to judge. "They are a work in progress," she soothed. "It's all fine. Actually, it's perfect."
A work in progress. Aren't we all? And yet to see that work as part of a perfect picture is one of the most challenging -- and critical -- spiritual practices parents face. A colicky baby screaming into the night is perfect? A toddler ripping a hole through your expensive leather couch? A grade-schooler called to the principal's office for hitting her teacher? A teen who sneaks out to be with friends?
A wise sage once said that God (however you imagine it) has a spot on a map just for you, and it's exactly where you are. The same, of course, is true for your child. Perhaps the most unspiritual thing we can do is to judge that child as bad or lacking because of his place on that map. Alas, judging is something most of us do in our lives most the time.
Breaking out of the mindset of judgment is challenging; it's such an integral part of American culture. The minute we leave a movie everyone asks, "What did you think?" When a new work appears in a museum, a crowd quickly gathers to assess its appeal. When we exit a restaurant, we typically proclaim whether we liked the meal, and maybe even the people we dined with. People even ask parents in the first weeks after birth whether a newborn is "good" (meaning, in their view, whether he is quiet and sleeps well; as if an uncomfortable, unhappy baby somehow is not).
I once made it my spiritual practice to go an entire day without passing a single judgment. My plan was to observe and experience, without needing to categorize events or people into pleasant or unpleasant, satisfactory or disappointing. I made it through good-morning hugs with my young kids without deeming whether the moment was over too soon, and I even saw myself in the mirror--hair spiking in all directions--with ease. But when I read an email from an editor indicating that he was still unclear about an upcoming project, I dubbed the man "stupid." Then I went further, berating myself for "failing" to complete my mission. I'd lasted a whopping 40 minutes.
It's no surprise, then, that when our children fall short of our grand plans and lofty expectations we judge them, too. Doing so, however, robs kids of the ability to know their magnificence, and robs us of the opportunity to have a mindful, loving encounter. There is a fabulous story in the book Everyday Blessings by Buddhist researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn, about a man who heard Kabat-Zinn talk about the acceptance that had consumed him when his son came home from college one Thanksgiving, even though the son arrived so late the meal had been eaten and the family was in bed. The man wrote to Kabat-Zinn that his story allowed the man to finally approach his own grown son nonjudgmentally, to fill up with unconditional love, rather than the disappointment he had experienced for so many years. "It is as if up to now I needed another kind of son to love, and now I don't anymore," the man observed. How wonderful that the man could finally see his son as perfect--no alterations required; how wonderful it would have been had the dad seen him that way for all the years before.
"Presume every person's holiness," spiritual author Neale Donald Walsch writes in his book, Conversations with Good - Book 2. Presume our children's holiness, he further decrees. "A tree is no less perfect because it is a seedling. A tiny infant is no less perfect than a grown-up. It is perfection itself."
Seeing our child as holy takes only a flick in our perception. The facts stay the same, but an altered perception renders them anew. (As a little magnet on my refrigerator reminds me, "Attitude changes everything.") Here's a great story of how much perception matters: Back when I was younger and single, I met a guy who told me he lived in an apartment with his mother. My mind filled with visions of him as an immature momma's boy, and I pondered how to end our date prematurely. Moments later, however, he elaborated: his mother actually lived with him. His father had died a few months earlier and he had opened his home to his grief-stricken mother. Suddenly, I saw him in a completely different light; he had transformed from pitiful to perfect in seconds.
Once, I attended a spiritual group meeting where a newcomer exclaimed, "I could love you all if I knew your stories." An even more spiritually advanced practice would be to love us all because she knows we do have stories, whether she hears them or not. Those stories have led us, and our children, to the current, perfect place in our lives. If I had said that the block-throwing boy in the preschool had just been diagnosed with leukemia -- or that his father had -- most of us would feel compassion instead of contempt. Why can't we experience that compassion no matter what?
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, an educator and author of the book, Raising Your Spirited Child, believes that parents most easily fall into the trap of negatively judging their children when their temperaments are at odds. An extroverted father more easily belittles an introverted son. A tidy mother casts aspersions on her messier daughter. A low-key parent disapproves of her wildly energetic son. But isn't it better to work towards embracing the differences between our children and ourselves and proclaim all styles superb?
Accepting a child as perfect, of course, does not mean ignoring your role as parent to guide him when he disconnects from his higher self, but this can be done softly, without judging him as bad or inappropriate. I'm reminded of a parable a financial investment company once put in its brochure, where a girl and her mother walk on the beach and find thousands of starfish washed ashore. The girl dashes about, trying to toss some of them back into the water, but her mother declares that there are so many her actions won't matter. The girl stares at the precious starfish in her hand and declares, "They will to this one."
Today, no matter what your child does, accept the perfection of your own starfish washing up on the beach--and know that it is equally perfect for you to gently, but non-judgmentally, lead her back to the pristine water.
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the upcoming book of essays on spiritual parenting, "Enlightened Parenting," where this essay will appear. She also wrote the spiritual women's novel "Downward Dog, Upward Fog," which Foreword Reviews calls "an inspirational gem that will appeal to introspective, evolving women." Her articles have been published in Parenting, Parents, Glamour, Whole Living, Reader's Digest, and other national magazines.