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Thursday, November 15, 2007
Mindful Mothering
Presence.tv recently published the article that I'm sharing with you entitled "Mindful Mothering". I would love to hear your thoughts about it..

"I'm sorry that you feel disappointed in yourself." When I said those eight words to my son this morning, immediately I felt disappointed in myself. I just sensed that I hadn’t communicated clearly that I am there with him, that I empathize. As I replay the conversation over and over in my mind, I ask myself, “What I could say better in the future? What I can say when he gets home from school?”

He had procrastinated on some school assignments. He intentionally put them off for a time because he wanted to finish other projects first. This approach, he thought, would let him pay full attention all of his projects so that he could complete them in a manner that would reflect his effort. Eventually, he forgot to turn them in, and this resulted in low grades on his report card.

He beat himself up for forgetting. I felt sadness seeing my son so frustrated with himself for not living up to his idea of perfection, so I wanted to help him be easier on himself. At the same time, I hoped he would discover the natural result of consequences. This conflict weighs heavy on me as I’m feeling an internal struggle. Watching my teenage son go through a tough time makes me want to short circuit his learning process. Yet, I know there are some life lessons that can be discovered only through experience.

Looking back at our conversation, hopefully I said some things that comforted him. I told him that I know how hard it is to feel the fear of the possible exposure of perceived failures. He had hidden his report card from me for as long as possible and expressed to me that he worried about disappointing me. I told him that he had made a mistake, but I assured him that I am not disappointed in him because of it. I love him because he is my son, not because he is a grade-getting machine.

However, I hear the words of Einstein replaying in my mind: "Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them." Had I failed to prevent a problem by not effectively teaching him self-discipline? Had I failed to instill in him a sense of inner security when he makes mistakes? Had I failed to inspire him with the motivation for success? How had I failed at preventing this situation? What brought us to this point?

For a long time, I have been appealing to “greed” to jump-start him in setting long term goals for himself—not greed for money and stuff, but greed for choices. I’m convinced that a solid education will get him choices in life. However, I have to ask myself, “Am I taking away his choices now in holding him hostage to my prescribed expectations? Or will allowing him the freedom to make mistakes now motivate him for success later on?” Is it a mistake to let him not make mistakes?

Mindful Mistakes

Like a lot of parents with their own children, I’ve not always been easy on my son for making what I consider to be mistakes. At the same time, I’m not always easy on myself either.

In the not-too-distant past, I was afraid that if I did not instill a strong sense of shame in my son that he would be empowered to “mess up” without caring at all. It was essential (I thought) to care about mistakes, to gravely care. He needed to learn strict willpower at an early age so he would grow into a disciplined adult. I assumed that sowing the seeds of carelessness in his youth would cause him to reap a whirlwind of suffering later on. More than that, I believed that if he made certain moral mistakes when he was older that he (and I) might suffer hell for them. Now was the critical time to teach him properly.

I can see that I learned this way of thinking in my own childhood. When I was young, my parents looked on my mistakes as careless errors, and carelessness was inexcusable. It meant that I wasn't being as vigilant as I should have been. I suffered their wrath for my failures, physically and emotionally, and learned the lesson of hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors intended to detect threats. Imagine the actions of a zebra in the open plains of Africa, and you may begin to understand some of those intense behaviors accompanying the constant feeling of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance causes continual watchfulness because it perceives nearly everything as a matter of survival.

I internalized hypervigilance, and it became part of who I was. Biblical passages that I might otherwise question the meaning of, or notice the settings of, jumped out of the pages as words validating hypervigilance. Sermons were filled with the encouragement to “Be wary, for woe to the soul who is not!”

God was painted as a thief, who will sneak in at dark and destroy your home. “Watch, then, for you do not know in what hour your Lord comes. But know this, that if the housemaster had known in what watch the thief comes, he would have watched and not have allowed his house to be dug through” (Matthew 24:42-43 ).

The Devil was behind every rock, hoping to find you in a weak moment so he might pounce. “Be sensible, watch, because your adversary the Devil walks about as a roaring lion seeking someone he may devour” (1Peter 5:8).

I didn’t want to be caught by a thief or devoured by a diabolical lion. I longed for survival. So, I developed Zebra Vision. The eyes of prey animals—like zebras—are set on the sides of their heads so that they can better watch for their stalkers. Zebras are able to see behind their own bodies with their panoramic vision.

Though biologically my eyes were facing front, my inner eye of perception was squarely in the prey position. My idea of "Satan" stirred up fear in me that showed itself externally. He, I believed back then, was able to torment me in this life and in the next if I didn’t watch out.

No matter where the judgment seat was, now or in the afterlife, imagining it was terrifying. "What if I had missed something? What if I were wrong about something?" Rather than looking at the love of God, I froze as I stared at my own perceived weaknesses. Making a mistake would be eternally life threatening, and openly showing fear would suggest weakness. This would leave me as prey vulnerable to attack or failure. I must not be afraid. "Be strong." I must not cry. "Suck it up."

Because the idea of making a mistake in any aspect of my life horrified me, I certainly didn't want my son to experience similar torment. So, I strategized to keep my son “safe” and concluded that shame coupled with huge doses of fear and guilt would prevent his suffering.

However, my plan didn't prevent his feeling shameful about everything he perceived as a mistake. He feared sharing those mistakes, and he developed a strong feeling of self-loathing. My plan certainly didn’t prevent him from inflicting shame upon his soul just imagining failure. Paradoxically, I nurtured the very things that I didn’t (and don't) want for him.

"Mindfulness" recently entered my vocabulary, and it perfectly describes awareness in action minus self-destructive hypervigilance. Mindfulness involves attentiveness to life without the accompanying fear, guilt, shame, and the condemnation. Mindfulness transforms mistakes into learning opportunities.

Sometimes the experiences that go along with our “mistakes” are harshly painful. For a child in school, low grades can bring about feelings of disappointment and sadness. For an adult, consistent tardiness can result in the loss of employment. Mindfulness means acknowledging our actions, consequences, and emotions; whereas, hypervigilance often responds with paralyzing invalidation, anger, and shame.

George Bernard Shaw said, "To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer." That statement rings true for me. Feeling like "prey" is no less than drifting in a hellish lake. Surely we are not able to control every aspect of life; however, we can decide mindfully how to approach every situation.

It wasn't until I knew God's unconditional love that I began to be loosed from the bonds of hypervigilance and the shame of failure. It was as if my soul had been entombed, and the very love of God allowed me to experience my freedom.

Awareness of God’s love allowed me to become mindful of mistakes, and to take some time to consider what I might learn from them without the spiritual self abuse that used to torment me when I “messed up.”

It took a large chunk of my son's life for me to learn this lesson, and now I sometimes struggle with having made that mistake in parenting. (Hypervigilance raises its head once again.) As much as I've learned about making mistakes, this is the largest hurdle yet…to forgive myself for passing that suffering on.

For me, not to forgive myself means continuing with shame, guilt, and self-condemnation. My son will perceive this, and possibly internalize it for himself. So, for my son’s sake, I’m learning to forgive myself and to stop punishing both of us.


Punishment is the practice of imposing something unpleasant or aversive on a person (or animal) in response to an unwanted, disobedient, or morally wrong behavior. The key concept here is “imposing.” This suggests inflicting external penalties, as opposed to experiencing the natural order of consequences.

Passing down hypervigilance taught my son self-punishment instead of self-discipline. Unforgiveness perpetuates punishment, and my unwillingness to forgive myself caused me to punish myself and my entire family through the way my self-punishment worked its way out in life.

I’ve come to see that the difficulty I was experiencing is punishment itself. When I rest in God’s unconditional love, I can I find deliverance because I lose the fear that causes torment. This allows me to live with empathy toward my son. He and I are not problems to be fixed; we are people to love and be loved.

Mindful of how I felt with loads of self-disappointment, I will be able to affirm his feelings without shaming him as he learns that mindfulness comes through experiencing consequences. So, I can embrace him as he feels sadness over his current situation, and I can help him find the learning in these circumstances.

He received low grades as a consequence of his procrastination. Hopefully he will allow this consequence to teach him the self-discipline of a timely work ethic. Even though I can’t force him to learn the lesson, I can support him as he feels the sting of disappointment. Whether he learns or not (and I imagine he will), I will love him without condition and let him know that he might love himself in such a way as well.

Right now I feel sad that my son feels down, and I’m bummed that it got this far. Yet instead of intentionally increasing (“driving home”) the impact of his mistakes upon him, amplifying his emotional experience, or punishing him by heaping guilt upon him and me, I’ll embrace him and help him learn. I’ll walk with him through this valley.

So, in an ironic consequence to his mistake, I’ve learned from mine. Now, I feel hope for both of us that our disappointment turns into success, mindfulness, and love.
posted by Anonymous at 12:40 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 11/15/2007 01:58:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    So where did the kid learn to feel shame at a low grade? From the mom who tied her approval and love to his performance? Did she not get that what the kid needs here is love and unconditional acceptance from mom and not a pep talk about discipline and consequences? Perhaps the mom could figure out a way to encourage him in who he is and support his strengths instead of teaching him shame for not being who she wants him to be.

  • At 11/15/2007 02:15:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    Julie, I would really appreciate it if you would clarify your comment.

    I'm afraid I might be misunderstanding you.

  • At 11/15/2007 02:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous


    The point of the article was my sharing my growth out of that mindset. I was passing down hypervigilence (fear) and shame and those were the very things that I did not want for him.

    As well, I went through great effort to communicate the approach that I am currently taking which is not the one that I used to take.

    I didn't give him a "pep talk about discipline and consequences", I wrote, "Whether he learns or not (and I imagine he will), I will love him without condition and let him know that he might love himself in such a way as well." And I wrote, "Yet instead of intentionally increasing (“driving home”) the impact of his mistakes upon him, amplifying his emotional experience, or punishing him by heaping guilt upon him and me, I’ll embrace him and help him learn. I’ll walk with him through this valley." ..among other things that I thought (looks like maybe mistakenly) were clear in communicating the direction that I'm taking now, and the direction that I WAS going.

  • At 11/15/2007 04:04:00 PM, Anonymous Sarah Chia

    I think this is a great turn for you, Amie.

    Ever since I read Captivating, by John and Stasi Eldridge, I've looked at parenting in a new way. I've tried to think about whether I'm wounding my child in the way I respond to her behavior or choices.

    I'm learning to correct with more love and understanding. Thanks for writing this.

  • At 11/15/2007 04:34:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    Sorry - I took the point of this as a way to instill self-discipline in a child. I didn't realize that this was your own story, I thought you were asking for comments on what was happening with the mom and child. I do appreciate the journey from shame to love and think that is a helpful way to grow. I guess my question was how this change is communicated to the child? How does the child change his perception of his mom and how she views him?

  • At 11/15/2007 05:37:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    Amie, I thought your article was well done. I appreciate your transparency. I am on a similar journey with my own children and am encouraged to find others who have been or are currently on that path.

    Julie, I was surprised at your initial comment. I was relieved that it was due to misunderstanding the original article. I still wonder as to the effectiveness of the tone. It seems that the same problem with parents trying to make a child into who they want her to be is reflected in the tone of your comments. I'm sure this was not your intention and I know this is a topic you feel very strongly about. Please have grace for those of us who are still journeying, learning and growing as persons and as parents.

    I was very idealistic about how I would be as a mother...before I had children. Since then, I've learned that it can be very difficult and I don't always respond as I should. Like Amie, if I live in guilt, it really doesn't benefit me or my children. So, I work at forgiving myself. I also work at communicating to my children about my own journey. I ask for forgiveness a lot.

  • At 11/15/2007 07:25:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 11/15/2007 07:28:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Kwon

    Yes Amy, I think asking for forgiveness is an important part of a relationship with one's kids. I feel that children are innately forgiving when parents sincerely approach them and ask for it, and what is needed for intimate relationships, including with kids is not perfection, but a culture of giving and receiving love, grace and forgiveness, as well as working toward new solutions and approaches that enhance everyone's well being. Laughter helps too :)!

    A book I like is Liz Pantly's No Cry Discipline Book -- it has a very gentle, down-to-earth tone, lots of practical ideas from making socks talk to parenting with an eye to the future, even in things like teaching your two-year-old to load the dishwasher. Pantly's perspective is that if you do the right thing 70% of the time you'll be able to have a happy family and raise kids who turn out well. I appreciate the humility and hope and grace encompassed in that figure of 70% although of course I'd rather be perfect ;)

  • At 11/15/2007 10:45:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    Jemila, I'll have to check out that book. I also recently read, "Growing our Children, Growing Ourselves," which you have on your book list. (Thanks for the recommendation).

    I'd love to be perfect, too! But, I'm thinking that's not going to happen anytime soon, unfortunately. ;-)

  • At 11/16/2007 10:01:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous


    Thinking about the effects on our children by our actions is being mindful and I'm on board with that! It's difficult (for me - though I'm working on it) to make mistakes parenting without feeling fear and shame. Those things really stunt the ability to grow as a parent in my experience. I celebrate this new awareness - I'm so grateful!


    One of the many points that I brought up was my wanting him to learn to discipline himself, yet these lessons are so hard to watch him learn. Truly the greatest teacher for him is life itself, and as I transform from "hypervigilant" to "mindful" I am more and more comfortable with allowing him to learn at his own pace. Efforts at forcing anything only made things worse for us both. I feel much less fearful in letting him make the mistakes that are his to make.

    I think that the most notable and obvious change was that I (and hubby) didn't punish him. Punishment will have validated his fears and compounded his self-loathing. We ended up working together to put a plan in place that would help him reach the goals that he wanted to reach. If this plan doesn't work (though it has been so far), then we'll brainstorm something else. I hope that we have successfully shown that we are on his team, and not judges in a higher court.


    It is comforting to know that I am not alone in this journey. I asked him to forgive me, because I had been one of the largest contributors for his feeling the way that he was feeling. Poor guy, he had dug quite a hole trying to do it all himself and experiencing the inner turmoil that comes from needing help but not being able to get it. In working to forgive myself, I find myself often repeating Dr Phil's "When you know better, you do better." Sometimes that seems so trite in view of the size of my error, you know? Interesting (to me) in reflection though, is that the grander the mistake, the grander the opportunity to learn something really life changing.


    I so agree! Unconditional love isn't taught with words - but actions. I like Jim Fay's "Love and Logic Parenting". He teaches the importance of parenting with empathy. I wasn't utterly disconnected from my child before, but really being mindful of empathy as a practice helped me to wake up to what my son was going through.

    Everybody :-)

    I think that we are perfect just the way we are - mistakes and all.. What an awesome support group here.



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