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Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent

What parent hasn’t lost their temper when a kid misbehaves? A parent who hasn’t lost his or her cool is a mythical creature, probably riding on a unicorn over a rainbow right now.

I could count the times I’ve lost my cool as a dad on the fingers of one hand — of course, that hand would need to have limitless fingers and I’d need a really long time to count those fingers.

However, I can say one thing: I’m a much calmer dad these days. I still get mad from time to time (I’m human), but it’s no longer a daily occurrence or even weekly.

What’s my secret? Lots of conscious practice.

I realized this: that yelling and punishing don’t work.

Let me say that again: yelling and punishing are ineffective parenting methods. If they worked, we’d all be brilliant parents and kids would always be perfectly behaved after we yelled.

But they don’t work. I don’t need parenting studies to tell me that: I can see it in my own kids. Sure, I can yell at them, and perhaps they’ll cower in fear if they think I’ll raise a hand. What I’m teaching them is not good behavior, but to fear me. And worse, I’m teaching them to yell when they get angry, to resolve conflicts with violence, instead of talking things out and coming to a peaceful resolution.

I’m teaching them that what I want is more important than what they want, and I’m willing to do awful things to get what I want at any cost, even at the cost of our relationship.

Those aren’t things I want to teach my kids. I want them to know that my relationship with them is more important than getting them to behave a certain way this one time.

And yes, I know that kids need boundaries — I believe in boundaries too. I set them and my kids know it’s not cool to go beyond them.

And yes, I know that they need to be taught how to behave appropriately. I just no longer believe that yelling is the way to teach them appropriate behavior. Losing my temper and behaving badly is not the way to teach them how to act when they lose their temper and behave badly.

Because the example we set for them — how to act when things don’t go our way — is much, much more important than the rules we set for them. They learn lessons about behavior by our example, over time.

Walk the walk. That’s why I committed to being mindful and peaceful as a parent, even if I violate that commitment from time to time. When I violate the commitment, I apologize and talk about why I was wrong. Because then my example is how to behave after you’ve behaved badly.

So here are a few lessons on keeping your cool, when things go badly:

  1. It’s not about you. We parents tend to take kids’ bad behavior personally, as if what they’re doing is a personal attack on us or our belief systems, a personal offense. That’s why we get mad. The anger isn’t helpful, but it comes up because we think they’ve done something to us. They’re not really trying to do anything to us — they’re kids, and they don’t know how to handle themselves when they don’t get what they want or they get angry for some reason. It’s about what they’re going through, and if we remove ourselves from the equation, we can more objectively see what they’re going through and how we can help.
  2. Be their guide, not their dictator. Kids need to learn how to make their way through the world, because we won’t always be there to tell them how to act. And so the best way to teach them isn’t by laying down the law all the time — if we dictate their actions then they never learn how to make decisions on their own. We should let them make their own decisions, within boundaries of course, and guide them when they need our help. Imagine being Yoda (the mentor) instead of Darth Vader (the death-grip dictator). Sidenote: Using Star Wars to teach lessons to your kids is awesome.
  3. What do they need? When things don’t go their way, when they’re angry, when they’re afraid … what do they need? You yelling at them or threatening them isn’t helpful — put yourself in that situation (and imagine you’re smaller) and ask if you’d like someone yelling at you when you’re upset. How would you react if someone bigger and more powerful than you were yelling and threatening you? You wouldn’t like it, and would just resent the bigger person. What would be helpful? Maybe some comfort? Some calm conversation about the problem, examining solutions. Some empathy and compassion. And yes, some stern words or a restraining hand if they’re actually going to hurt themselves.
  4. Take a timeout. When you’re angry, in the moment, it’s usually best to walk away, and breathe, and calm down. Talk to them when you’re cooler, and can think straight. This is hard to do, because as parents we tend to just dive in and try to take care of the situation in the moment. But it’s hard to make good decisions, talk calmly, not act irrationally, when we’re upset. That’s true of kids too, btw.
  5. If you haven’t yet lost your cool, drop down for a moment. When you see yourself stressing out about a situation, or starting to get angry but not full on lost it yet … take a breath. Pause. Drop down inside yourself and see yourself frustrated or stressed. Give yourself a moment of compassion for this frustration, which is perfectly normal and OK. Ease your pain, wish yourself happiness, and then take another breath. If you can, try to see that your child is suffering in much the same way, and needs your compassion too.
  6. Commit to being mindful with them. I actually promised my kids that I’d be a more mindful parent, and asked them to watch me. If they caught me losing my temper, I would put a dollar in a jar to go get ice cream with them. It helped — they haven’t called me out yet. Suckers — they never get ice cream anymore! Only kidding — we still get ice cream.
  7. Know that you’ll mess up. Expect to have difficulties, but learn from them. See where you went wrong. Be mindful as the difficulty is happening, and see this as a good step towards being more mindful and compassionate as a parent. Review your actions, and instead of feeling bad, see where you could improve, and have a plan for next time this happens. It’s important to plan it out when you’re calm, not decide how to handle things when you’re angry. And adjust the plan next time things go wrong, so that the plan gets better and better over time, and so do your compassionate parenting skills.

The main problem is that we have some ideal as parents, of how our kids should behave. We think they should be ideal kids, but in truth they’re not ideal, they’re real. They have faults, just like we do. They need help, they make mistakes, they get angry, they get frustrated. We do too. Let’s figure out how to behave when we make mistakes, get angry, get frustrated, and show the kids how to do this through our example.

Accept them for who they are, faults and all. Love them completely, with hugs instead of yelling. I’ve found hugs to be a much more effective teacher than anything else in my parenting toolset.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC