The Inner Game of Parenting
Insights on Raising Children that Thrive
I walked into the classroom and noticed that Alex was not there. “Where is Alex?” I asked the principal. The principal replied, “He has not moved from the room next door all week.” “Would it be okay if I go and see him?”, I requested. “Sure, please do!” said the principal enthusiastically.
I walked into the room and found Alex cowered in a corner with headphones on, staring blankly at his laptop screen. Alex was 13 years old and clinically obese. His face was very pale with dark circles around his eyes. His vitality was clearly very low.
I sat down beside him at eye level. He looked up and politely shifted aside one of the earpieces of his over-ear headphones.
“Hi Alex… I see that you may be feeling frustrated that I am disturbing you. Would that be right?”
“You probably need to be left alone right now.”
He nodded again.
“I just want you to know that I’m feeling a little anxious because I need you to be in my class. Listen, I’m not here to disturb you in any way. I’d just like to share some ideas that have really helped me, and may be of help to you. Tell you what, how about if you come to the room? You can bring your laptop and headphones, sit wherever you like. I’ll leave the door open so you can leave at any time, and I will not ask you to participate in any way that you don’t want to. How would that be?”
Alex nodded, again. As the two of us walked across the corridor I caught a glimpse of the principal, mouth agape, as if witnessing a miracle.
As the class continued, I was thrilled to see Alex willingly participating in the dialogue circle and I remember so well his smile at the end of the class. That was two years ago. Alex has been coming to the class ever since, and blossoming like a wilting flower drinking water.
Actions, Feelings and Needs
I have been a yoga and meditation teacher for over two decades now. In that time, I have had the good fortune to teach in virtually every environment and to every demographic of people imaginable. An environment that nourishes me greatly is guiding practices in at-risk youth schools, with students like Alex. These are young adults that have been rejected from conventional schools. Often, they come from tragic backgrounds involving death, disease, violence and addiction.
From them, and through powerful life experiences and incredible teachers, I am learning that there are some simple laws of nature. They are so simple that we often dismissed them as cliché. These laws apply to all human beings regardless of age, gender, culture or social status. Like the law of gravity, they apply regardless of whether one believes them or not.
One such law was taught to me by the wonderful teacher Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). This law states:
Behind any action be it verbal or physical, there is a feeling be it pleasant or unpleasant. And, behind every feeling there is a need, either met or unmet.
I have found this to be very helpful in navigating through life, and especially when interacting with children. With Alex for example, it was clear to me that he felt like a loner. Chances were very high that his need to feel safe and validated were not being met. This simple understanding allowed me to see right to the root of the matter, beneath the actions and feelings.
Similarly, when my two-year-old daughter refuses to wear her clothes and starts acting out, I have the opportunity to wonder what need she is looking to express. Was she in a creative process and had a need to complete it? Did she want to connect with a more attentive father rather than a distracted one?
As a parent my role essentially is to create a home environment that is conducive to everyone’s needs being met. As a natural consequence, when everyone’s needs are met, everyone behaves in a pleasant and agreeable way. It is only when one or more of our needs are not met, do we act in tragic, unwholesome ways.
This is certainly true regarding my own actions. If I am being snappy or loud with other family members, what needs of mine are not being met? Is it a need for appreciation, or freedom? Knowing this, I am better able to request help in meeting this need or find creative ways to meet my own needs.
I have found that meditation practice has really helped me in understanding my intimate emotional terrain. As I understand my own, I am much better able to understand that of others. This is because, at the level of feelings, we are all built the same way. Regardless of being American, Japanese, Jewish, Buddhist, male, female, old or young, the experience of say anger or joy has remained the same since the dawn of humanity.
Being a parent to three children has been such an eye opener. How could it be that three children, with virtually identical upbringing, can be so different? My oldest son Jai is an intellectual introvert and a gifted soccer player. My older daughter Eva is deeply caring and has a love for dancing. My youngest daughter Uma is perhaps best described as a ‘brilliant tornado’!
We are all born with such unique and potent gifts, talents and attributes. It actually takes a lot of skill to ruin this, and as a society, we seem to do this remarkably well. As Einstein is credited to have said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. Perhaps the greatest of humanity’s waste are all the geniuses around the world that we keep destroying.
Our education system is designed around ‘industrialization mechanics’. For example, say one were to be in the business of mass-producing roses. There will be a huge field of roses as far as the eyes can see in every direction. Anything not resembling a rose is instantly removed. Nature however is more like a wild garden or forest with tremendous biodiversity. Our schools seem to only favor roses, and roses do quite well whereas all the other flowers suffer.
Imagine that someone gifted you a seed of an orange tulip. However, the market only values roses, mangoes and red tulips. Will that seed ever grow into a rose, or a mango tree, or even a red tulip? No, it can only ever be an orange tulip. You could cry, pray and get as angry as you like. You can even be violent and cut the shrub to make it look like that of a rose. In the end, you only end up with a battered orange tulip plant.
I feel deeply that this is the same with parenting. Every child has a unique genius and character. Our role is to observe what the natural tendencies are and provide a suitable environment for this to thrive. An orange tulip requires very different soil, sunlight, shade, water and so on, than say a cactus or a pine tree. Every seed wants to thrive, given the right context.
What Alex was watching obsessively was Japanese anime. He took great interest in Japanese culture and could draw beautifully. All I had to do was tell Samurai stories and use art as a way of cultivating mindfulness.
We as parents must recognize that society is changing exponentially fast. The rules have changed. With the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics, traditionally safe jobs like doctor, lawyer, engineer and accountant are being radically impacted. Any education system that is still based on memorizing and data processing is now obsolete. It has become even more necessary for each child to discover their unique talent and master it. At the same time, our child will need to know how to adapt quickly and to collaborate globally with technology and other experts from various industries.
It is a school inside a maximum-security men’s prison. My meeting with the warden was set at 9am. The warden eventually arrived at 9:30am. In a dismissive way he said, “I’m busy now, come back later”. I responded contently, “Sure, when would be best for you?”. Towering above me, he looked down with curiosity and continued in a gruff manner, “Okay, I’ll take a couple of minutes, come with me.”
We walked past barb wire fences, security guards a with guns and tasers and through military grade access doors. The warden nonchalantly pointed to various rooms and their function, in between giving me a running commentary of the place, “This is the highest security prison in the region. Only the toughest criminals are sent here”. I followed along fascinated. Eventually he stopped and said, “Okay, you can teach here. This is a rough environment and I had to be sure that you can handle it.”
Later that week, the first class began with about a dozen participants in prison garbs. The hall was cleared for yoga practice. All the brand-new yoga mats were in neat rows with a participant seated uncomfortably in the middle of each mat, carefully overseen by security guards.
“Hi everyone, my name is Bhaskar, and I am very happy to be here with you. The purpose of our time together is for you to feel a little more comfortable in your body, and a little more comfortable in your mind. This has made a big difference in my life and I trust that it will benefit you as well. Let me start with a story…”
These men were tattooed, pierced and scared. Some with severe injuries and noticeable addiction challenges. They all instantly became like little children, mesmerized by the story. Now, three years later, every class begins with, “Sir, you got a story for us?”
Fixing, Helping and Serving
I feel grateful for being mentored by a wonderful organization called Service Space. They have gifted me with many profound insights, one of which is the difference between fixing, helping and serving.
It is of course very clear that these participants are human beings and not machines. Nothing is broken, and I was not there to fix anything. I have no right to inflict the indignity of objectifying anyone. Yet, this is the society that we seem to be co-creating. Seeing people as a means to an end. Utilizing people, and in fact all sentient beings and nature itself, as tools or hardware for our personal gain. Perhaps we are even using our children to make us look good in society.
More subtle is the nature of helping. Initially I felt, what is wrong with helping? It seems noble and righteous. Yet, when I really sat with the intention of helping it revealed a subtle yet very clear power dynamic. It implies, I am better than you. I have spoken at a few fundraising galas. The fortunate are dressed in their finest attire in a lavish affair with a five-course meal, live band and a line-up of entertainers. At $500 a plate, the event is promoted as a fundraiser for the poor. It is the subtlety of this that makes it all the more vicious and systematic. When I position myself as being responsible for helping my children, I fall into the same trap.
Let us observe the nature of serving. Isn’t it true that we only serve that which we appreciate, value and care for? Isn’t it true that we only serve that which we see as same or look up to?
“I am here to help you.”
“I am here to serve you.”
It’s a small change in words, and a big difference in intention.
As parents, with helping, we often end up projecting our own unmet needs, limiting beliefs and unfulfilled desires. This is because ‘we know better’. Serving however requires humility. I have to consider the possibility that my children may have many qualities that I wish for in myself. My children may actually teach me things that I had forgotten along the way. If nothing else, my children are definitely mirrors that reveal all my insecurities.
As I express all this, I use the term ‘my children’ loosely, for social convenience. I feel more like a gardener sincerely serving the precious unique seeds that I have been gifted.
Yoga and Meditation
“Bhaskar, you will soon realize that your child will not learn from what you say. He will learn from who you are”.
These are the words my wise friend Karen told me when my son was born. This is perhaps the most humbling reality about being a parent. The realization that, in the best-case scenario, I will ruin them just a little bit! Like most parents, I am far from being a perfected being. There still remains so many reactive patterns and unexamined beliefs.
When I practice yoga postures or sit in meditation practice, the strength, flexibility and calmness that comes with it are more of a pleasant side effect. My real reason to practice is that I have to deal with my reality as it is. The reality of my body feeling stiff and sore every morning. The reality of my mind wandering away to irrelevant thoughts at every moment. This gives me an experiential understanding of acceptance, patience and persistence. It also experientially develops in me the qualities of compassion, friendliness, appreciation and equanimity.
These I find are very valuable tools for navigating through life, and for raising children. After all, they will only learn from who I am.
About the Author
Bhaskar Goswami is an impactful speaker and a senior yoga and meditation teacher from Assam, India. He has led numerous international retreats, having presented in prestigious organizations and events like COP22 (UN Global Climate Change Summit, Morocco). In 2007 he founded BODHI, a multiple award-winning company dedicated to offering genuine wellbeing to people in their homes, businesses, schools and special care places. He is also the founder of daana (CBC Media Prize 2016, Startup of the Year), a non-profit organization making wellness accessible to all by creating anonymous contribution activities around the world. He has published two international albums, Open Yoga and Wisdom Stories, and is the author of Wisdom Stories — Book 1
Bhaskar has a Masters Honors in Electronic Engineering from the University of Nottingham (England) and a 10-year international engineering career. He lives in Montreal with his family of three children.
Learn more: bhaskargoswami.com