My apologies to William Shakespeare. The title of this essay is purposely provocative, implying that there are two ways to be a parent—unconscious (automatic, pre-programmed to always do the right thing, following an innate ability) or conscious (reflective, willing to learn, humble enough to realize that we often veer off course). Like most things in life, this is not a binary choice. It is not one or the other. It is both. I contend that we vacillate back and forth continually as we try to maneuver this journey called parenting.
In my most recent book, CONSCIOUS PARENTING: USING THE PARENTAL AWARENESS THRESHOLD, I discuss the parenting journey with its ups and downs, its hills and moguls, and the emotional roller coaster that we ride. I note that that parenting in the 21st century requires a conscious awareness of the status of the parent-child relationship. This is not an innate ability. It is learned over time and constantly revised.
The construct of the Parental Awareness Threshold (PAT) was developed from a Conscious Leadership paradigm by Jim Dethmer and colleagues. Conscious leaders are willing to assess their current status of emotional well-being and interpersonal interactions, and this assessment can be viewed by being above or below an imaginary line. “Above the line” interactions occur when individuals are open, receptive, and ready to learn. “Below the line” interactions occur when individuals are closed, defensive and convinced that they are right. Given our humanity, we will all be above and below the line at times. Yet effective leaders are able to recognize when they are above or below the line and be willing to change for the common good.
The same principles hold for parenting. My definition of conscious parenting is the conscious awareness is the learned ability of parents to understand their interactions with their children and to alter their responses to maximize positive responses and minimize negative responses. The key words in that definition are learn, understand and alter. Note that I did not say capitulate. Parenting is not giving in or giving up but rather learning how to interact, using that learning to understand and then alter responses if needed. The key concept is listening to your children (active listening to their words, actions and emotions) and listening to yourself (your words, actions and emotions).
Certain critical qualities are needed for this conscious parenting journey. My checklist sounds a combination of those qualities required for both effective citizenship and parenting—and indeed they are. The parenting journey should be a citizenship journey. These qualities are humility, sincerity, empathy, vulnerability, love for others, forgiveness, patience, persistence, optimism, the ability to change and the ability to not change, sustained involvement and rational discourse. That laundry list might seem too broad but is absolutely necessary. Yet our humanity will often get in the way as we slip in and out of our conscious parenting role with our children.
So how do we try to be a conscious parent? This is where the Parental Awareness Threshold or PAT comes in. It is defined as the state of conscious awareness about the past, current and future interactions of a parent with their children. It is not a magic wand but rather a yardstick to measure our interactions and to measure our degree of introspection. Analogous to the line in conscious leadership, when we are above the PAT, we are open, curious and committed to learning. When we are below the PAT, we are closed, defensive, unreceptive to other ideas, and always right (or in parent lingo – “because I said so!”).
This parenting model is not absolute. We will be on both sides of the PAT frequently (monthly, weekly, daily and even hourly). I think the model is useful because it provides a framework that one can use in-the-moment or in retrospect. We can assess our reactions and see if we are above or below the PAT. But the real question is how do we move from below the PAT to above the PAT.
To shift from below the PAT to above the PAT, I would suggest the following – if a conscious assessment notes that we are below the threshold, it is time to PAUSE. Such a pause is that proverbial deep breath, that lack of a knee-jerk reaction or that brief reflective moment before the next step. The next step is to ASSESS. The assessment is that time to gather one’s thoughts, to collect as much information as possible in a brief period of time and to figure out the situation that one is in currently. Also tied into the assessment is using one’s learning of the developmental and emotional states of children to assure a reasonable response, if at all possible. Then it will be time to CHOOSE. Making a choice may mean taking a risk by being open, vulnerable and perhaps trying something different or new. Making a choice may mean sticking with one’s initial reaction to the situation. The point being that conscious awareness of the situation and the ability to PAUSE, ASSESS AND CHOOSE in the long run will enhance a parent’s ability to react and parent in an enhanced way in the future. If the choice went well, then the shift from below the PAT to above the PAT was worth it. If the choice did not go well, then a retrospective review with a trusted partner (spouse, sib, parent, friend) might help assess how to handle things differently next time a similar situation arises.
Let me return to the Shakespearean dilemma. Our goal should be to become conscious parents with a conscious awareness of our interactions with our children. When we slip into the unconscious (below the Parental Awareness Threshold) mode, an in-the-moment or retrospective analysis (pause, assess, choose) can help bring us back to a better place. Being in a better place as a parent puts us in a better place to raise our children to be good citizens – caring for others, caring about others, understanding and practicing empathy and practicing forgiveness individually and socially. When we slip, we can acknowledge our humanity, accept our mistakes, ask for forgiveness and try to do better the next time.
One final note. I have learned that parenting is a life-long journey. When your children become adults and mature, your parenting burden does not lessen. The challenges just change. And then we hopefully apply our parenting skills to any grandchildren that come along. And then there is one last time when parenting is crucial. As our parents age and need more assistance (physical, emotional, mental health), our own parenting skills are put to the test in a very unique way, to care for them with a different set of circumstances. This last challenge can be quite difficult (speaking from personal experience) yet completes our singular ability to demonstrate to our parents the lessons learned and our commitment to their well-being late in life. So conscious parenting is indeed life-long.