What was the most important message that you wished to communicate through your book?
It was the fact that raising children is a perfectly good context for having quite a profound spiritual practice. It’s not necessarily a better context than not having children but it certainly isn’t a worse one either – we don’t have to wait until our children have grown and flown to practise. I also think that being a parent does offer very particular opportunities in terms of our spiritual life, and I wanted to highlight the ways in which we can be aware of – and really make the most of – those opportunities. Obviously, being a parent presents huge challenges to our practice as well, and the book acknowledges these challenges and discusses how we can work with them in a creative way.
You talk about the benefits of meditation for parents. I was wondering what your view is on introducing children to meditation. Did you encourage your children to practise Buddhism in any formal way from an early age?
Yes and no. When I had young children, the practice of families getting together within the FWBO, as it was then, and learning to meditate was really in its infancy. But one of the first things we did was to set up a Buddhist family group in north London where we’d have monthly meetings, retreats, and celebrate Buddhist festivals, and there were activities for children designed to bring out some of the key Buddhist teachings. I did learn over the years how to teach meditation to children in that context, but by the time I felt competent or confident enough to do that, my children were already too old.
So Buddhism was very much part of life for my children, but with hindsight I probably would have done more in terms of introducing them to meditation in particular. I’d definitely encourage parents to do this because I think children can really benefit from learning meditation at a young age. The teaching has obviously got to be very age-specific because it’s quite easy to mishear or misinterpret some of the core teachings if they’re not communicated well. (I remember my son coming back from a Buddhist lesson at school saying that Buddhism is too depressing because it’s all about suffering!) And it definitely helps to have the support of a sangha in this context – I think that for my children the sangha was the strongest of the three jewels because they felt the kindness and the generosity of the community and really enjoyed the time they spent within it.
So would you have any advice for parents looking to involve their children in a Buddhist community?
Well I think a good first step would be trying to get together with other parents and families who are interested. And you can begin by making Buddhist practice part of family life as well. When the children were younger, for example, I didn’t want meditation to be a barrier or something that they resented, so I would meditate with the door open and permission to come in. I know some people also actively have a few minutes each day together where they go and sit by the shrine and light a candle or some incense. These things can be done at a very young age, and children often really appreciate them.
You mention the possible negative effects of the media and advertising on children. Do you have any advice for parents who want to be protective but not overprotective of their children in this context?
Well children can actually be quite intelligent – they can hear different perspectives – so I think a big part of it is about exemplification, making an effort not to be affected by those messages yourself, not to live by them. My daughter is 15 now, and sometimes an advertisement will come on the TV, and she’ll automatically say ‘I want that’. And I’ll try to reflect that back to her by asking why she said what she said and how she might have been influenced. So I think it can be helpful to encourage children as they’re growing up to have some kind of intelligent dialogue with the media, because then it’s not so much that you have to take them away from that world, but more that you’re equipping them to be able witness it without getting lost in it, and making them aware of the fact that there are other ways to be.
How do you balance not placing expectations on your children with trying to teach them values that you believe will benefit them as individuals?
I think what’s really fundamental here is to separate out exactly what the expectation is, because I don’t think there is anything the slightest bit wrong, for example, in holding up the core ethical principles of Buddhism as expectations for our children. In fact, they can be exceptionally useful guidelines to live by. But perhaps we have other expectations for our children that just stem from societal norms or because it was the way that our parents always did things, and these kind of expectations might not be so healthy. So it can be useful to question exactly why we’re putting a particular expectation on our children, and then be clear about what we think is really important to teach them.
The book was published four years ago when your children were around 10 and 12. Has your perspective on parenting changed now that your children are teenagers?
Well I’ve definitely had a huge amount of really different experiences over the last few years. As you say, the book was published when my son was 12 and it was very soon afterwards that he went into teenage years with a vengeance! In some ways, I’ve just had many more opportunities to really put into practice what I wrote in the book: one of the chapters is about loving and letting go, for example, and I remember I drew heavily from other peoples’ experience of having teenagers when writing this. Now, my son’s just left home and I’m experiencing loving and letting go all for myself, and it can actually be quite helpful to look back at the book and be reminded of the advice that I gave! But one beneficial aspect of having practised all these years is that I can definitely look back and think that I really experienced my children’s childhood – warts and all – and I’m so grateful for that. This has nothing to do with being around all the time because although my work is flexible, I work a lot – it’s more about being present in the here and now. It is this practice of mindfulness that, more than anything, I would highly recommend to any parent.