When we think of health and nutrition many of us know about eating a balanced diet. We know that we should consider how much protein, fiber, and healthy fat we are consuming. We also know to monitor our sugar, sodium, and saturated fat intake because they are unhealthy and harmful in large amounts. But do we always make the best choices to meet our nutritional needs? Umm, no.
Everyone has their own level of knowledge and awareness when it comes to a healthy diet. Some people have no idea how truly damaging the KFC bucket is to their system, while others voluntarily consume McDonald’s fries despite the health impact (ahem, because they are damn tasty!). Anyone can learn from books, experts, and programs. Whether or not that information gets implemented is up to each individual. There are many ways to build awareness, too: daily food tracking, regular body weight recordings, and customized shopping lists to name a few. As the knowledge and awareness grow, the potential for making true lifestyle changes into a healthy diet increases as well.
Once you commit to changing your diet you realize there are so many choices. Let’s say I want to focus on increasing my fiber intake. Great! How about some lentils every day? Uhhh, no thanks. That’s not my favorite food. Chickpeas, oatmeal, sweet potatoes? Cool, count me in. What about boosting your protein intake? Bring on the fish and lean meats! Wait, you maintain a vegan diet? OK, let’s look at beans, ancient grains, and tofu. There are always options. There are endless possibilities. We don’t have to abandon our personal preferences to embrace a lifestyle change.
I believe we can look at empowered parenting in much the same way. There are components of parenting that offer deep connection and support to our children, and there are behaviors we must minimize because of their harmful effects. And we recognize at the end of the day we are human, with our own knowledge and awareness, plus our personal preferences. We can make incremental, steady changes that generate a lasting, positive impact. This results from understanding the benefits of empowered parenting and being willing to try out different options until we find our favorites. Let’s dive into the essential components (main food groups) of empowered parenting.
Let’s start off with the top of the food pyramid: the fats, oils, and sweets that we know aren’t good for us but we end up consuming anyway. In terms of empowered parenting these are the punishments, contrived consequences, threats (If you do this thing I don’t like, then I’ll do this thing you don’t like.), bribes (If you do this thing I like, I promise I’ll give you this thing you like.), and praise.
If I suggest you completely eliminate these practices from your parenting I expect two things to happen. First, you won’t trust me because you know that’s impossible and second, you’ll feel disappointed because if you would inevitably revert to them. These practices really are the lard of parenting: they were commonplace when we didn’t know how harmful they were. Now we know better and we have healthy alternatives to meet our needs and preferences. Bring on the good stuff!
Reflection is like vitamins and minerals, offering tremendous benefits to our parenting health, yet easily overlooked because we can survive a while (but not thrive) without it. Daily reflection in the form of journaling, meditating, or talking with a supportive friend adds value in two ways. First, through reflection you can stop any spiraling thoughts by getting them out of your system. Once they are on paper or spoken aloud they lose that reverberating effect. Second, by reflecting on what didn’t go well you can replay it again with the desired outcome. This mental rehearsal of desired outcomes will seem real to your brain: you create new neural pathways as if it really happened. All you have to do is write it out and sleep on it. How easy is that?
Communication is like grains on the food pyramid: a sturdy base of constant energy that keeps us going for the long haul. Empowered parenting has a plethora of options and tools for healthy communication: active and reflective listening, expressing emotions, empathy guessing, giving a meaningful apology, making a request, offering authentic appreciation and forgiveness to name a few. Communication is a staple in the empowered parenting diet because family is all about relationships. Relationships thrive in clear communication, and the more you bring it into your daily interactions the healthier your children become in their communication skills, too.
Emotional intelligence is like our protein food group: the superpower that builds you up and maintains your strength every day. Developing emotional intelligence doesn’t mean you feel happy and peaceful all day; quite the opposite. It means you can notice, identify, and express your own emotional landscape and tune into (but not fall into) the emotional experience of others. This is a practice that includes an awareness of physical feelings within your body, the language to name emotions, and an ability to connect emotions to what you are needing or desiring. Emotional intelligence gives you the skills to make sense of your emotional experience rather than getting stuck in it. This is another beautiful gift we offer our children as we model it and teach it every day.
In play we find the variety of our fruits and vegetables. You can experiment with so many different “flavors” through your parenting style and unique personality. Everyone has a play language: explore your own and learn your child’s. Sometimes those will overlap, and many times you and your child get to practice flexibility in how to experience fun and play. You’ll recognize success when there are plenty of giggles. Maybe it’s pretend play, rough play, singing and dancing, arts and crafts, construction, caring for others, storytelling, teaching, learning something new, or just being silly… The world of play is quite expansive, and the more you explore with curiosity the more you can connect to your personal joy and create shared experiences of lighthearted fun.
Throughout this metaphor I have focused on food. However, water is even more critical than food; it makes up a large portion of our bodies, it nourishes and cleanses our bodies, and we can’t survive more than three days without it. Let me offer one more component that is just as critical in empowered parenting: inner safety.
Inner safety refers to our perception of whether we are in danger or not. I emphasize perception because our minds and bodies do not distinguish between real or perceived threats: they respond every time as if it is real. These perceived threats get embedded into our systems starting at a young age, protecting us from repeated hurt, fear, shame, or grief. Our job is to recognize what we experience within our bodies, build awareness of our own perceptions, and identify the reality that is true despite our interpretations.
This attention to inner safety is the real foundation of empowered parenting. By recognizing the signals in our bodies we learn to slow down at the first sign of stress. As we name our instinctive behaviors we create the space to choose our responses to our children. When we identify limiting beliefs and generational patterns as the source of our perceptions we get to rewrite our truth, finding safety within discomfort.
Inner safety allows us to remain attuned to our needs and to live in our highest level of consciousness. We remain secure through challenging times and uncomfortable feelings. This is the gift we give to ourselves and offer to our children. We can have all the other components in place--studied, practiced, and performed--but it won’t matter if it comes from fear or doubt. Our children read our energy before they listen to our words. If we want to see the full expression of our empowered parenting it must come from trust, confidence, and compassion.
Living each day as an empowered parent is all about awareness, choice, and reflection. You see what is really happening, you choose how to respond, and you reflect on how effective you were. Then, after a good night’s sleep, you get up and do it again. Just like committing to a healthy diet, we have some cheat days when we slip back into old habits. Does that mean you failed? Absolutely not. That means you are human; beautifully, gracefully, imperfectly human. Empowered parenting isn’t a checklist. It’s a lifestyle. Make the choice to empower yourself.
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