In the last segment in this series, I introduced how to raise an enlightened child, beginning with some basic Buddhist approaches to parenting. In this article, I will focus specifically on the period of development (Skandha) between infancy and about eight to nine years of age.
Before I begin, I would like to reiterate the Buddhist intention in raising a child (in addition to basic nutrition and health of course!). Simply stated, the intention of all Buddhist teaching is to help folks to “wake up”. To be awakened is to regularly open our eyes to the interdependent nature of the universe and then to intentionally immerse ourselves, with eyes wide open, in the experience of this web of inter-being through the actions of our daily lives. In some circles, this experience is also defined as “oneness”. The practical import of this awakening is that we practice interacting and seeing with the world through the pragmatic practices of meditation and mindfulness. The fruits of mindfulness are a greater clarity of consciousness, an expansion of joy and a responsive action of compassion.
The challenge with a young child is how to accomplish this in a way that is true to the particular development stage the child is going through. I say “going through” because one of the things that we all learn as parents is that childhood is a deeply transient period. Part of the wisdom of our tradition, I believe, is that we realize that our child is not static and, therefore, our way of relating must not be solitary. We need to change our approach with every new passing aggregate or we will find ourselves caught in a communication gap.
In this particular stage between infancy and eight or nine years, our approach is to avoid indoctrination or rigidly applying the teachings. Rather we should seek to harmonize with the child’s natural inclinations. From birth to age four, we teach primarily by example because children of that age notice and imitate everything we do!
There are two primary ways we can serve as an example for imitation. The first is that we focus on our own practice. I am often asked, “What are the most important things in your life?” The order for me is:
2. My wife and son
3. Family, friends and Sangha (the community of practitioners)
4. My vocation
This may surprise some folks as they are accustomed to one’s vocation or family being first, but I know that if I don’t practice the art of being mindful, the rest begins to fall apart. There is an old Buddhist saying, “If I miss my practice for one day, I notice. If I miss it for two days, everyone notices.”
Our kids, especially during these early years, learn by imitation. They are just becoming verbal and their ability to form memories is not quite developed yet. They primarily pick up on what we call our ‘energy’. Much like the family dog or cat, they are attuned to us emotionally, which manifests both physically and verbally. The emotions are, in turn, created by our thought processes. In fact, a very simple and foundational Buddhist concept is that we create our experience of the world with our thoughts.
This is why it is critical that we practice daily. It doesn’t mean we will be perfectly mindful, which is impossible and unnecessary. It just means that we discover that being mindful is the very key to happiness and our positive relations with others.
The second way we teach by imitation is by letting our child participate in our daily meditation practice in the home. Our home practice involves primarily bowing to our centering space (this is a space that becomes a spiritual orientation in the home or chanting and sitting in contemplation). We can welcome our little urchins to crawl about or imitate our movements. I can’t tell you how joyful it was to watch our little boy bow or sit down beside us when we meditated. We never had to explain anything to him. We never corrected him. He learned to practice by observing and adapting to the practice himself.
It is important that this participation be neither coerced nor mandatory. In fact, I don’t recommend that parents bring small children to the temple or center until about kindergarten age. Even then, it should only be for special events for families or programs aimed at their age group. In my own example, our son was never required to attend the temple. The wisdom here is that as they get older, they are drawn into a desire to participate in the “grown up” world. Our centers have very few teenage “drop outs” from temple life. I believe that the main reason for this is that attendance or practice was never compulsory. It was something that they themselves were drawn to in their own way and in their own time.
Try to remember, no matter how well you think you are doing or how much you think you are failing, we are all in this together. Ultimately, your child is my child too. Reach out to each other!
In the next article we will talk about the prepubescent period. Peace to all.