Your children don't want you to be perfect, they want you to be real. They desire a genuine connection combined with mutual respect for self and others. They want to be who they are and feel safe and affirmed in your presence. This sense of safety builds confidence, and this is what allows children to trust themselves and believe in what they can do.
Offering this sense of safety requires our self-awareness. Self-awareness isn't something we achieve once and for all, but is a daily practice of noticing ourselves. We practice being aware of our feelings and behavior, which in turn allows us to take responsibility for our lives. Instead of focusing on what others do or say, which is completely out of our control, we make choices for ourselves, deciding how to respond and participate. This is freedom, and this is what Gandhi was inferring when he told us to "be the change" we are looking for.
If we want our kids to know themselves and feel good about who they are, we have to demonstrate what this looks like. We have to stop believing that self-criticism and self-loathing are acceptable, and instead begin the practice of self-compassion and acceptance. Kids understand this at a very early age, as they share their feelings and trust their instincts. Sadly, we unconsciously steer them away from self-trust, focusing their attention on what society wants rather than allowing them to stay connected to their own internal guidance.
We use fear, guilt, shame, pain and other outdated modes of behavior modification, thinking we are parenting, when in reality we are devaluing and controlling our children. As we do so, we unconsciously foster the development of a fierce inner critic in them -- a pattern of negative self-talk that becomes a life-long saboteur. This is what leads kids to suppress their feelings, live in fear and numb out with life-threatening substances and behaviors. When an individual's internal life is damaged, it dictates how we show up in the world. In other words, our behavior is a result of what we're feeling.
Self-awareness is essential, and it can be developed regardless of age. When I teach my social work and sociology students at Dominican University, self-awareness is the core of the curriculum. How is someone expected to help and understand others professionally unless they first understand themselves?
Self-awareness is the foundational principle of Zen Parenting Radio, a podcast that my husband and I host. Attachment theory has taught us that the best predictor of a child's well-being is a parent's self-understanding. For this reason, self-awareness is the underlying objective of every episode. Yet, the message reaches beyond parents. We get emails from grandparents, young adults and students who hear the underlying meaning and apply it to their current lives and experiences.
Be U, a conscious-living curriculum we created for kids, parents, and professionals revolves around self-awareness. How can a young girl or boy accept themselves if they don't know who they are? If they are always searching for what they don't have -- things that so often are dictated to them by the media and society -- they miss the experience and wonder of their own individuality. Rather than feeling the joy of flowing with their internal compass, they embark on a search for happiness through external means.
Self-awareness isn't just a parenting skill, but a life skill everyone benefits from. Due to the uniqueness of the parent-child relationship, parenting affords the ultimate opportunity to practice self-awareness. Our deep love for our children propels us to look into the mirror and take ownership of what we see.
This is a beautiful gift from our children. They are actually waking us up to our true nature, reminding us to go inside, see ourselves clearly and heal what needs to be healed. They are extraordinarily talented in pointing out what we need to learn, even though this often involves discomfort, disagreements and of course, extreme joy.
When we allow our children to be our teachers, they remind us of the value of seeing the world as they do, which involves living more simply, showing greater compassion and being more mindful. We get to repay them by demonstrating how an adult can possess and practice these skills. And so the cycle continues.
Cathy is the author of Living What You Want Your Kids to Learn: The Power of Self-Aware Parenting. Follow Cathy on Facebook and Twitter.