I composed this article in response to a call for submissions to the Halifax Shambhala Buddhist Centre’s monthly publication, The Banner. The article was winnowed down from many recent writings I’ve done on this topic, all related to using mindfulness and meditation practices to help get through the daily stress of raising toddlers. This piece was published on page 12 of the April 2010 Issue of The Banner, available in PDF format (9.1 MB) here.
Update: An excerpt from this piece has also been included in the “First Thoughts” section of the Fall 2010 issue of Buddhadharma magazine.
I’ve been a full-time, stay-at-home dad since 2004; first with our daughter who’s seven, and now with our two sons, 2 and 3 years old. With both of our boys now firmly in the terrible twos, I’ve found myself questioning if I’m destined to keep any shred of my sanity by the time they reach school age.
Many toddlers require nearly constant supervision. They’re quick to shun their basement playroom full of safe toys, games, puzzles and train sets, choosing instead to empty the kitchen cupboards and drawers of the most breakable and delicate contents; to relieve the filing cabinet of its most important papers; or to raid their sister’s doll house and toy chest of her most prized treasures.
Child-proof drawer and cabinet locks no longer pose a challenge. Even our upper cupboards are accessible now they’ve discovered how to use the lower drawers as stairs to reach counter height. Cooking raises distinct challenges; I’m constantly on the watch to avoid potential cuts or burns arising from their sudden, unexpected appearance at the cutting board or stovetop. As beautiful and inquisitive as they can often be, they’re also indefatigable and incorrigible; nearly all of our verbal instructions to them are ignored as a matter of course. My wife and I refer to them not infrequently as our pair of Tasmanian Devils.
It is exactly these qualities which remind me that rearing children can be a most fruitful spiritual practice. I realize that the greatest frustrations in my day-to-day life arise from my children not acting according to my expectations. Even when my expectations are reasonable — say, not climbing directly onto our gas-fired stovetop to investigate the contents of a boiling pot — these boys still manage to dash them just by acting upon their utterly normal, curious impulses. When they erupt in a screaming tantrum because I’ve yanked them away from the computer keyboard which they’ve just decorated with a permanent marker, I have come to understand that their angry outbursts are a natural response to what they perceive as an unwanted and abrupt halt called to their ordinary investigations of the world around them. In their minds, I am the one with a problem — not them.
Meditation and mindfulness practices help us to train our minds to accept our lives just as they are in this moment; even the stuff that apparently drives us crazy. The wisdom of extremely young children is that they always live inherently in the present moment, never concerning themselves with what happened an hour ago or what might happen an hour from now. Whenever I successfully align my own expectations with that kind of time frame, I find myself instantly living more harmoniously with my sons.
I turn my attention regularly to my breath and on bringing my awareness back into the moment. I can imagine what it must feel like to be them: to be surrounded by giants who have complete control over their every move; to be forcibly removed from the only activities and places they haven’t yet fully explored; and to have little or no language skills with which to express their true desires at any given moment. When these glimpses of realization occur, the compassion I feel for them stops me in my tracks. It makes me squat down to their level to find out what they really want at that moment. It makes me realize that I can hold off on washing these dishes for a few minutes to play a short game with them. It reminds me that I can even let them help me measure out the ingredients for that night’s meal, accepting that I’ll need to do more clean-up than usual after the fact.
In short, I need to suspend my own expectations for the way I think things should be, replacing them with acceptance for the way things are. It’s a profound spiritual teaching, and I didn’t even need to go on retreat to learn it. I just happened to pick it up in my own kitchen from my very own toddler gurus.