Parenting as a Spiritual Path

The step into parenthood is an initiation in the truest sense of the word — a huge leap into the unknown. We suddenly find ourselves with 24-hour a day responsibility for another human being who is totally dependent on us.

As the task unfolds we discover that we are called upon to be teacher, provider, disciplinarian, healer, spiritual guide and friend. Our children test us, they call on us to face unhealed baggage from our own childhood, and they inspire us to dig deep for resources that we never knew we had. Ultimately our mission is to support and guide them to the point where they can leave us and move on. As Kahil Gibran says to parents in his book The Prophet, "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."

When we approach parenting as a spiritual path, it does not suddenly becomes all love and light. There is no way of getting around the fact that parenting is an enormous amount of hard work. At times we may feel quite overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. Can we ever be good enough as parents, and how do we gauge our success anyway?

Let’s take a look at what this role entails. We can sketch out three broad skill sets for the parent: protector-nurturer, role model-teacher and spiritual guide. As protector-nurturer we have our task cut out for us living in an age of terrorism. With so much stress, and such an emphasis on competition, achievement and material gain, there is certainly a lot to protect against. The challenge is to expose our children to that which nurtures them on all levels — body, heart and soul — but filter out that which is toxic physically, emotionally and spiritually. We each have to find our comfort zone as parents in this dance between allowing our children to experience the world and protecting them from it. We may need to turn off the news and turn on the music. Even harder, we may need to clear our own emotions and prejudices so as not to impress them on our children.

An important aspect of protecting and nurturing is to provide structure by setting clear limits. It helps children to feel safe when they know what to expect and exactly where the line is. As parents, we draw the line, and then they walk up to it and stick their toes over just to test our resolve. Our job then is to respectfully and repeatedly reject the inappropriate behaviors, while continuing to love the person behind them.

As a role model-teacher we must realize that our children are more likely to do what we do than they are to do what we say. It is rather daunting to discover how much children watch and learn from us even when they don’t appear to be paying attention. When we make mistakes it gives us the opportunity to model humility and self-forgiveness. We can acknowledge shortcomings, apologize, and then move on. Our children watch us; do we respect ourselves and others? What coping skills do we use? Do our lives demonstrate how to find balance, and in Joseph Campbell’s words "follow our bliss?" There is no greater joy than sharing the things that inspire us with our children, communicating a love for nature, books, music, ideas, whatever sparks our enthusiasm and helps us feel most alive. Regular time and space for sharing is an important part of the structure that supports children: the bedtime story or listening to music together, a special television show, eating dinner together, religious rituals, holiday traditions, all become part of the rich tapestry that lives on in our children long after they leave home.

There are so many pressures on us as parents, let’s not allow our concept of spiritual parenting to become yet another impossible ideal to live up to. For some people the term "spiritual" may sound otherworldly and vague, but the definition I prefer to use, is that to be spiritual is to be natural. This sounds very simple until we ponder it more deeply. As spiritual guides to our children, how can we help them to be natural, to be who they truly are? Perhaps the greatest gift we can give another human being is to see them in their essence. The other person experiences themselves through us; as we see their beauty and reflect it back they discover themselves through our eyes. Reflecting back to a child their strengths and qualities is like shining sunlight on a plant; without it the child does not know in which direction to grow and their potential never comes to full flower and fruition. Research tells us that when a child has just one adult who sees their strengths and cares about them, it can transform their life. This one person may be anyone — a friend, grandparent, teacher, school bus driver or parent. As a parent, we are so emotionally involved that our own hopes, needs and aspirations tend to cloud our vision. But in this culture, with such an over-emphasis on achievement and appearances, a child’s self-esteem can easily be battered. The shift towards seeing and valuing our children for who they are, as much as for what they do, is very important. One step parents can take in this direction is to meditate on their child. Take a few moments alone and turn your awareness within. Then let go of all preconceptions, and looking through the eyes of love, allow your child’s strengths and positive qualities to come in to view. This quiet contemplation helps one to later be aware of the child’s positive qualities as they emerge in everyday life. Whether you see humor, compassion, truth, creativity, reflect it back and celebrate it with your child.

There is a wise expression from ancient cultures made famous in the mainstream by Hillary Clinton: "It takes a village to raise a child." We live in America where "the village" is virtually gone! In conversation recently with a Turkish mother, the woman recounted how she cried for her first six months in this country because she felt so alone. She had never heard the terms "play date" or "babysitter" in Istanbul. Women in her apartment complex cooked together, raised children together, and cared for each other. As parents we desperately need support, and as human beings we all need community. How can we help our children to become who they truly are unless we have support to do so? Since this society does not provide it, we must reach out and take hands to form a web of support for ourselves as parents and to help create the village necessary to raise our children.

Gloria Deckro, MD, is the mother of two teenage children. At Silver River Institute in Stoughton, MA, she combines approaches from mind/body medicine with spiritual practice to help adults and teens improve their own health and well-being. Gloria also provides workshops, trainings and retreats for healthcare professionals, educators and corporate clients. To find out more visit or e-mail or call 781-344-9814.