“Suppose you read about a pill that you could take once a day to reduce anxiety and increase your contentment. Would you take it? Suppose further that the pill has a great variety of side effects, all of them good: increased self-esteem, empathy, and trust; it even improves memory. Suppose finally, that the pill is all natural and costs nothing. Now would you take it?
The pill exists. It is meditation.”
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
Did anyone think my daily pill was going to be a multivitamin??? Nope! This month, I’m focusing on developing a mindfulness meditation practice.
In the past year, I’ve ready many books that encourage regular meditation. These are my favorites:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the late Desmond Tutu
Raising Good Humans by Hunter Clarke-Fields
and now I am in the middle of The Happiness Hypothesis by my absolute favorite social psychologist [and quickly becoming my favorite author], Jonathan Haidt.
The titles of these books give hints as to why I want to meditate regularly, but I also just wrote a paper for my General Psychology course about the health benefits of meditation and there are SO MANY reasons to meditate. Meditation can improve your mental and physical health! It can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, help with mental cognition such as retaining memory, alleviate chronic or clinical pain, and help treat addictions! Meditation is powerful stuff.
Of course, when I call it “the happiness pill,” I’m not insinuating that it makes you immediately happy in that sort of superficial, smiley, “today’s a great day!” kind of way. Meditation works in a more subtle and much deeper way to cultivate a sense of contentment and inner happiness. A better word for it might be “joy” such as the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu describe in The Book of Joy.
Meditation works because our lives are dependent upon our perceptions. I don’t want to get overly philosophical [or overly scientific], but everything we experience and feel and even remember is filtered through our brains. This has never been so apparent to me as it was while I was studying anatomy this past semester. Our brain interprets everything and that interpretation is based on what is already inside our minds and that interpretation affects future interpretations. Everything is filtered through a lens [or schema, if you want the psychology term] and what most people don’t realize is that we can change the lens through meditation.
“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind.”
I don’t know if I explained that right or if it made any sense. If you’re curious about meditation, here’s a New York Times article by David Gelles [who also wrote the book Mindful Work] about why and how to meditate: “How to Meditate”.
My goal is to spend 10 minutes in mindful meditation four days a week. I actually started a few weeks ago, with just five minutes of meditation in the morning before the kids get up. It is harder than I anticipated — especially at 5am, where my brain doesn’t want to wander so much as fall back asleep! But I am determined to keep at it.
In other news, we are half-way through 2022 and real talk ya’ll—these monthly health goals are CHANGING MY LIFE! I am not kidding. If you’ve ever wanted to make some changes, I HIGHLY recommend this monthly approach. It is just enough time to solidify new habits and by tackling them one at a time, I never get overwhelmed. So far this year, I’ve kicked the late-night snacking habit, cut back on alcohol, gotten back to my daily yoga practice, increased my water intake, and started serving a salad at [nearly] every dinner! I am so excited about the second half of the year!
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of parenting books in a never-ending attempt to become the best parent I can be. Some books have been amazing, others have been so terrible I couldn’t even get past the first chapter. Some have been life-changing [like the one that said I don’t have to finish every book I pick up, which is why I stopped reading some parenting books mid-chapter] and some have been only minimally helpful.
Of course, whether a books is “good” is totally subjective. I’m not trying to say that I am some authority on the topic [or even on books in general], but I will tell you the kind of parent I want to be, and that should give you an idea of the types of parenting books that I appreciate the most.
The Parent I Want to Be
When I had kids, I knew one thing for certain: I didn’t want to raise my kids the way I was raised. And, initially, that was the extent of my thoughts about it. I knew I didn’t want an authoritarian, “my way or the highway” approach that demanded immediate, unquestioning obedience from my kids, and I didn’t want to dole out humiliating corporal punishment for disobedience, disrespect, or even questioning authority. [I knew by the time my firstborn was one-year-old that I was absolutely against spanking.]
Don’t get me wrong. My parents loved me very much. They would probably be appalled to read what I wrote above. They would insist that they had done what was right…not to mention what their religion told them was the only way to rear a child. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” and all that ancient bullshit. But, hitting a child is still hitting a child, no matter how good one’s intentions. And regardless of who is “right,” that’s just never going to be my parenting style.
I want more than just obedience, I want a relationship with my kids — one built on love, respect and trust that is mutual. I want my kids to trust and respect me because I’ve earned it. I want my kids to question my rules and decisions because I’m not always right. I want my kids to be a part of solving problems and finding solutions because I believe they are capable. When they grow up, I want them to say, “My mom’s my best friend.” I want them to call me if they’ve had too much to drink at a party. I want them to come to me for advice when they’ve messed up and know that I won’t punish or threaten or even judge them. I will love them.
But, heck, I’m a mom of four kids [ages seven and under]…and so I also need cooperation. I can’t just let them do whatever they want. I have to have some order, some structure, some firm guidelines. Sometimes I just need my kid to put on her frickin shoes so we can leave. But the only way I knew how to get kids to behave themselves was the way that my parents did it with me: through fear, threatening, and hitting.
So, I had to read some books. Turns out, there are non-violent, non-threatening, non-authoritarian ways to get kids to behave themselves. This is the path I have chosen.
In the end, all I’m really trying to do is raise competent, compassionate, independent adults. That’s really it. If they grow up and become these things — kind to others, capable of contributing to the world and taking care of themselves — then that’s a win in my book. And if I can teach them to do that without instilling fear, using intimidation, or teaching them that it’s the right of the powerful to strong-arm the weak, then that’s how I want to go about it.
I have definitely not arrived, but these five books have helped me tremendously on my way to calm, compassionate, mindful parenting.
Top 5 Parenting Books [Best to Very Best]
#5. How To Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids by Carla Naumburg
First of all, this book is hilarious. Well, it’s hilarious for parents. If you don’t have kids, I’m not sure you’ll get the humor. [But if you don’t have kids…why are you reading about parenting books anyway? 🤨]
In How to Stop Losing Your Sh*twith Your Kids, Naumburg gives the BEST tip to prevent your kids from pushing your buttons [and you know those grubby little fingers are always reaching for buttons]—make your buttons harder to push! It’s so simple and yet so BRILLIANT!
“Many parenting books focus on how to get kids to stop with all the pushing already. While it is technically your job as a parent to teach your children to keep their hands to themselves, both literally and figuratively, this is not the best tactic for managing your shit. Do you really want to hinge your sanity on the behavior of someone who licks the walls and melts down over the shape of toast? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Fortunately, there’s a better plan.
Carla Naumburg,PhD How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids
This book basically taught me that to be a good parent I have to be good to myself, as well.
#4. Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne
I was reading this book while I was in the process of becoming a minimalist for my own reasons and I learned that simplicity is just as important for my kids as it is for me. All the struggles I was having with consumerism and clutter and excess and wastefulness and feeling hurried and glorifying busy and losing creativity and being stressed…all of that affects kids too. [Maybe even more so.]
This book helped me with intentionally structuring our family life and thinking through all the things I want for my kids and, more importantly, all the things I don’t. If it hadn’t been for this book, I think I would have been swept up in middle class American family life—filling my house with cheap plastic toys, allowing screens to babysit my kids, constantly trying keep them entertained, dragging them from one program to the next, and ultimately missing out on the joy, beauty, and wonder that simplicity fosters.
Instead, I learned that I had to be intentional about making space for my kids to be kids.
“Children need time to become themselves–through play and social interaction. If you overwhelm a child with stuff–with choices and pseudochoices–before they are ready, they will only know one emotional gesture: More!”
Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting
#3. The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
The Whole-Brain Child helped me to better understand my children’s developing brains which it built on all the great advice I learned from Now Say This [the next book on the list]. For instance, there is no point in trying to reason with a toddler in the middle of a meltdown because their “upstairs brain” has been hijacked by their “downstairs brain” — their strong emotions. So, instead I “connect, then redirect.”
A lot of the actual parenting advice is the same as in other books, [including the “connect, then redirect” tip above] but it makes a lot more sense when given with the context of what is physiologically happening inside your child.
“It’s also crucial to keep in mind that no matter how nonsensical and frustrating our child’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our child. It’s vital that we treat them as such in our response.”
Daniel J. Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child
The book also has helpful cartoons to illustrate these concepts for your kids [or in my case, my partner, since he refuses to read any books].
#2. Now Say This by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright
Now Say This has been my favorite parenting book for YEARS. I’ve read it multiple times and I intend to read it many more times before my kids are grown. [It was just recently moved to my second favorite by another book, but I’ll get to that in a minute.]
This book helped me understand my kids on a deeper level and marked the beginning of my long journey toward more skillful communication. I learned how to accept my kids’ feelings without condoning their actions. I learned how to see the underlying need my child was expressing, rather than just seeing them as being difficult and disobedient. I learned how to sit with my kids through their big feelings so they would know that I won’t shame or isolate them for having emotions. I learned how to stop threatening, accusing and punishing my kids. [I still do all of these things sometimes, which is why this is an ongoing practice and I re-read this book frequently.]
This three-step method of handling behavioral issues [or any issues at all] has become the backbone for how I communicate with my kids [and even my partner] – though I am still far from perfect at it. First, I attune to my kids’ feelings. Then I set the limit. And then we problem-solve together. This shows my kids that I care about how they feel [even about trivial things like the color of their plate] but that there are limits to how we can behave [we don’t throw our plate because it is not yellow] and I am open to suggestions of how to solve the problem [you can have that plate tomorrow, maybe?].
Ya’ll, this process works! I have seen it in my family. But like all things worth doing, it also takes a lot of work. It’s definitely not an instant, miracle cure for all parental aggression. But, trust me, it really works.
#1. Raising Good Humans by Hunter Clarke-Fields
I just finished reading Raising Good Humans and it has surpassed my previous parenting favorite [Now Say This] because this is the first parenting book that makes mindfulness a priority. The first part of the book is dedicated solely to the work we must do on ourselves before we can even hope to change our responses in heated moments.
This was the key I was missing from all the other parenting books that tell you to speak softly and get down on your child’s level and give them a hug and say with empathy, “I see that you are really upset about that” — when all I have the emotional fortitude to do is scream and storm off to my room. How the heck am I supposed to put all this great parenting advice to good use when my nerves are frayed and I’m low on sleep and high on caffeine and hanging on to my sanity by a thread?!?
The answer is mindfulness meditation.
Meditation may sound daunting [or maybe even ridiculous] to people first considering it, but I’ve read many books about meditation over the years and I am totally convinced in the benefits of a regular meditation practice. I just haven’t started it…til now.
This book shows how mindfulness meditation is necessary for skillful parenting because it calms down the emotional waves inside ourselves, allowing us to be there in a calm, nonjudgmental way for our kids.
Guys, this is a game changer.
I’m going to write more about it next week because [surprise, surprise] my health goal for July is to prioritize a regular meditation practice.
Honorable Mention: Parenting Beyond Belief
I have to mention Parenting Beyond Belief, which is actually a collection of essays from secular parents about how they handle religion and ideas about god with their children. As I was in the process of leaving the religion I was raised in, this book was an absolute life saver.
It IS possible to raise kind, compassionate, moral kids without god or religion. If you want to try it, I recommend this book.
Let’s face it, parenting is tough. Parenting intentionally is even more tough. It takes a lot of work and effort and practice…and in my case, reading.
All of these books have impacted my parenting in big ways and I highly recommend all of them. I’ve tried many, many times to get my partner, Brett, to read these books, but he won’t [books are not his thing]. So, maybe I’ll have better luck convincing one of you that these books are worth reading.
Final word of encouragement to all parents out there: you don’t have to raise your kids the way you were raised. You can find your own way. It may even be a better way.