We are a new generation of parents today. One that is spoilt for technology, but is desperately short on time; one that is bombarded with research-driven mumbo jumbo, but misses on the bigger picture; one that is constantly racing to be the best, yet has no time to stop and smell the roses. Bringing the focus back to the simpler joys and gratification of being a parent, is the parenting style which is as natural in its beauty as the dimple in a child’s cherubic cheek. ParentCircle catches up with Dr Shefali Tsabary, author of The New York Times bestseller, The Conscious Parent, to learn more about the parenting tips that even have Oprah Winfrey’s commendation. It’s a ParentCircle exclusive.
PC: Thank you for taking time to chat with ParentCircle. You are one of the most revered names in the parenting space, globally. You are also the messiah of ‘conscious parenting’. Tell us a bit about its inception and meaning?
Dr Shefali: The idea of ‘conscious parenting’ grew out of a combination of my own experience as a mother and those of my clients. I found that traditional approaches, either of strict discipline or a more laissez-faire approach, simply weren’t working. As I attuned myself to clients, I began to spot the real issues, all of which revolved around a lack of awareness - both of their children, and indeed of themselves. Without awareness, we fail to connect, because we hear what we want to hear, or we set up a mental debate with what our child is saying. Failure to truly connect with children is the root cause of their behavioural issues. Parenting consciously is about first growing into parenthood, by allowing our children to show us the ways in which we aren’t yet mature. This, in turn, equips parents to help children discover and develop their resilience, creativity and character. Everything children require for a successful life is within them - our task is to provide a nurturing environment that draws it out, rather than imposing society’s ways on them. This is how a self-defined, self-disciplined life develops.
PC: You have always stated that ‘each child is different’. Does that mean there is no one right way of parenting?
Dr Shefali: Each child is indeed unique, which means she must be approached in an individual manner and not in a formulaic way. This is precisely what ‘conscious parenting’ facilitates! We listen to, tune in, and pay attention. By connecting in this manner, we know how to handle each situation. We work with our children, not by controlling them, but by allowing them to flourish from within.
PC: So, in a way, you are saying that parents should raise their children to be ‘self-regulated, independent and autonomous’. Can you explain how parents can achieve this?
Dr Shefali: Parenting is not about raising children in our own image. Our aim needs to be to help them find their own feet, their own path, which is the way for them to become self-regulated. If they love something, they will work towards it. If they feel imposed upon, they will resent and rebel against it. We should foster authenticity, not impose conformity. The goal is to raise our children to be disciples of their own heart and inner being, without us telling them what to do and when to do it. We need to give space for children to discover themselves—to find out what their particular interests are, what they enjoy and what excites them.
PC: How can parents strive to perform their roles better?
Dr Shefali: The best way for parents to fulfill their roles is to open themselves up to growth. They need to view themselves in the mirror their children provide for them. If we are truly open instead of being defensive, our children will show us where our blindness lies. We can then address these issues through our own behaviour, our own way of thinking and our own emotional state, so that we ourselves grow.
PC: In a nationwide survey conducted by ParentCircle in association with the world’s leading research and analysis agency, IMRB*, we found that 1 in 3 children in India feel that their parents constantly compare them with others. What kind of an emotional impact does comparison have on a child’s psyche?
Dr Shefali: Comparison destroys individuality and undermines the child’s capacity for self-motivation. Children don’t need external motivation, constant coaxing, threats and penalties. Instead of fostering the child’s unique identity, personality and character, comparison crushes his uniqueness.
PC: What’s your take on the Indian parenting style and scenario?
Dr Shefali: I don’t think in terms of an ‘Indian’ parenting style since families are different and we can’t stereotype. I rather think in terms of a general human problem of failing to value our children as individuals in their own right. It’s a problem the world over. Different cultures may emphasise different aspects, but it all comes down to parenting in a rote way rather than in an aware and attuned way.
Education and Discipline
PC: You’ve been on Oprah’s show and you’ve also spoken at TEDx, discouraging strict disciplining. What makes you take a stand against discipline?
Dr Shefali: Discipline, in all forms, is about attempting to control a child—to get the child to conform. While we all have to become civilised to a certain degree in order to live together successfully, forced civilisation is fundamentally different from learning by example. Parenting consciously isn’t about controlling kids but about facilitating their learning. This is best done by following a family routine. Rehearsing things that need to be learnt is important. When things are done a certain way in a family, and children are encouraged to pick up on this, they automatically imbibe those practices.
Discipline, when enforced, leads to resentment, which undermines a child’s initiative. It is like having a negative energy pushing against one’s natural curiosity and excitement about life. Another effect is that it crushes a child’s creative, imaginative and inventive spirit. Also, when discipline involves punishment—often mistakenly called ‘consequences’—a state of anxiety develops in the child, as well as in the parent. This can show up in a variety of symptoms, both physical and psychological, which only become magnified with time unless they are addressed at the root.
PC: You’ve said that children are part teachers and part mirrors… Can you help us understand that concept?
Dr Shefali: This really goes to the heart of my philosophy. To raise a child requires being wholly tuned to the child and listening beyond the words. It also requires great personal self-confrontation to address the issues the child is triggering within us. This is real hands-on parenting, attentive in every moment and ever-watchful to enable flourishing but not to control and overpower.
PC: Should parenting style change as the child grows up? What is the right way to parent a teen?
Dr Shefali: The fundamental approach to parenting doesn’t change as the child grows up, since it’s all about being deeply connected to our children. However, as children become older, they are better able to share with us their feelings, experiences, and needs. If, instead of imposing our way on them, we really listen, the teen years are a wonderful time to be there for our children.
PC: In our nationwide survey, we found that 2 in 3 children have not had the sex-talk with their parents. In fact, parents find it uncomfortable to initiate such conversations. What is your stance on it?
Dr Shefali: The ‘sex talk’ shouldn’t be a one-time event, but an important part of the growing natural curiosity of a child. If we are connected to our children all the way through their years of development, the big talk becomes redundant. We will have already addressed issues in an age-appropriate manner as they arose across the years. We don’t flaunt sexuality, but neither do we hide it or in any way cast a negative light on it. Children grow up learning both to embrace and honour their body and personal space — to establish appropriate boundaries from a young age.
PC: What, according to you, is the biggest parenting challenge of our generation? How should we face it?
Dr Shefali: We are all so busy that we race through life without taking the time to listen to and connect. We also rush our children into busy lives, imagining this is going to prepare them for a successful future. What our children need the most from us is our loving presence, downtime, and the opportunity to develop at their own pace. If we model being true to ourselves in these ways, they will then learn to be true to themselves.
PC: It is often said that parents should be very careful with the choice of words and language they use with their children. Are there any specific dos and don’ts?
Dr Shefali: We should speak to our children in the way we wish to be spoken to. How would we speak to our employers, friends, or other important people in our life? Our children deserve the same attention and respect. If we want our children to respect us, we need to speak to them respectfully at all times. If we honour them, they will honour us. It becomes a way of life.
PC: What is your personal style of parenting?
Dr Shefali: I parent in the manner I describe in my books. My daughter and I are close, and we really try to attune ourselves to each other. She has a mind of her own, and I encourage her to voice it. She is allowed to be authentic in every way. This means she can debate with me, disagree and make her case as strongly as she needs to — and I listen respectfully. Together, we brainstorm issues, coming up with solutions through honest negotiation in which there are no power plays, no manipulation; just honest discussion and setting forth of each other’s needs.
PC: What is your advice to Indian parents, our readers?
Dr Shefali: My advice to readers? Set aside your ideas of parenting—all the techniques you’ve been told you should use. Begin listening to your children, identifying what they are saying to you, and doing the hard work of growing up yourself so that you respond maturely to them as real human beings, rather than reacting in the way parents do so often.