Letting Love Be the Guide

When confronting the need for discipline with our kids, we can look to spiritual traditions and teachings for inspiration.
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Photo: Ben Kerckx on Pixabay

“You can’t teach anyone anything without love, and without being happy with them.” ~ Adi Da Samraj, Spiritual Teacher, Writer, and Artist

As our children get older, the challenges of parenting morph beyond coping with sleep deprivation or figuring out how to navigate the 24-hour needs cycle. We are thrown into a world of questions such as what to do when one of the kids is acting out, or how to deal with conflicts on the playground. And what about when rules are broken? These were ultimately questions of discipline — and how to follow through with consequences in a consistent and ideally loving way.

The word discipline is often associated with the uncomfortable space of setting boundaries and enforcing limits. During the well-checks with the doctor, the ‘time-out’ method was the front-runner of suggested techniques. Others recommended books such as Foster Cline’s Parenting with Love and Logic. I did what many parents do. I observed others, tried on all sorts of approaches, and learned as I went.

I began to consider how I could translate my values into tangible parenting strategies. How could I parent in ways that create the conditions for equanimity, balance, and service to others and one’s environment? How could I foster sensitivity rather than hyperactivity? How did daily needs for discipline fit in? I didn’t want to resort to fear and punishment. Ultimately, I wanted love to be the guide.

The word discipline comes from the Latin discipulus, meaning “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge.” Engaging discipline in this way, it was
possible to feel into the prospect of daily disciplines pointing towards greater teachings I wanted to impart. Beyond the ‘hardline’ and the ‘boundary,’ perhaps there were realms of discipline that drew from the great wisdom traditions — calling forth our most realized understandings of relationship and love.

The Buddhist Preschool Example

My boys’ preschool was there to model the way early on. Rooted in the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism, the teachers at Alaya Preschool act based on the premise that there is a pearl of basic wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness can be cultivated. The first-year classroom for two-year-olds is called the Tiger Class, with the tiger referencing one of four “dignities” that Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent human ‘goodness.’

Each “dignity” points to certain characteristics a person can develop in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. At Alaya Preschool, it is never considered too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion, and wisdom — toward which the four dignities point.

The Tiger is meant to teach the qualities of contentment and discernment. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Trungpa’s son and a leader of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, says:

“As we slow down and consider our thoughts, words, and actions with the question — Will this bring happiness or pain? — we become like tigers who carefully observe the landscape before pouncing. In looking at what to cultivate and what to discard, we are remembering our precious human life and deciding to use it well.”

As a parent, I had so often urged my children to not hurt others’ feelings, be gentle, and be mindful of how we move our bodies in space around others. Perhaps a key to teaching discipline was to reflect with our children on what causes happiness or pain (both for ourselves and others). The Buddhist preschool taught discipline through slow and steady cultivation of discernment and mindfulness of speech and action. Creating moments for reflection to accompany whatever ‘discipline’ was at hand is key to cultivating a foundation of compassion, reflectiveness, and empathy.

Discipline: An Act of Love?

I’d been actively experimenting with what kind of discipline I wanted to infuse into my family rhythms when a friend invited me to join a parenting group that met weekly for six weeks. In the group, we discussed spiritual teacher Adi Da Samraj’s book, Discipline Is an Act of Love, which highlights discipline and structure as means of teaching right relationship between a child and family and then community. Discipline Is an Act of Love reminded me that the art of true discipline lies in the ability to move a child into the “right adaptation to the law of life — which is to be in relationship to all beings and experiences that arise rather than in reaction to them.”

The book suggests that the great insight to communicate to children was for them to “embody a heart converted to love.” The trick was to help children return to a loving and happy state of being through releasing negative feelings. Part of attaining this was to help children connect with a sense of greater mystery in the world. The book also reminded me of the importance of paying attention to my own reactions to whatever was arising. How was I responding? Was I myself living up to the invitation to “embody a heart converted to love?”

The most important element of discipline here is to stay in connection and come from a place of love. The task of true discipline is to help children return to the understanding that “they are loved and that they are also obliged to be love.” This in turn creates the conditions needed for children to feel their relationship with self and others — and then beyond the family unit towards community and the natural world.

What if the primary thing my children were reacting to through so-called negative behavior was their desire for connection? What if I was tending to the action and not the feelings behind the action? Each time I needed to redirect one of my boys, I tried to step back, consider causes, and check-in with my own personal reactions before responding. I made a point of considering how connected or disconnected my children may have been feeling. What did they need? How could I make sure they knew they were
loved, even when mistakes were made?

You Can’t Teach Anything Without Love

“You can’t teach anything {to children} without love, and without being happy with them,” wrote the author of Discipline is an Act of Love. Are we nurturing threads of relationship when trying to teach life lessons? Do we take a deep breath before reacting? As parents, how can we ultimately let love be the guide?

Children respond to our disposition perhaps more than our words. If we want to teach anything, perhaps we must first be feeling our love for our children, even in the very moments of pinnacle frustration. Until we ourselves are embodying equanimity, can we expect our children to also live with a sense of equanimity? When our children are out of balance, perhaps we too can take time to ask ourselves if we are serving balance in our homes.

Rather than creating a separation between ourselves and our children in the moments of intense frustration or disappointment— when the most meaningful teachings are demanded of us — we could instead respond by staying in connection and remembering the role of love in discipline. Even if a “time out” is required, we can stay connected. And if that connection is severed, we can be diligent about reconnecting as soon as possible. Ultimately, we can let love be the guide.

Having children had expanded my heart a million times. I was asking again and again what love looked like and felt like in difficult moments. What was love like when my boundaries were being tested? What was love like when my children were breaking rules? How could love be the guide for all of my actions relating to discipline? Discipline had indeed become a practice that required daily tending.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, “Using discipline to generate compassion, we leap beyond the fickleness of mood into the confidence of delight in helping others.” Love is the force that makes this leap possible. Discipline is the daily opportunity to generate compassion and inspire service and
reflection. As parents, we are gifted with daily opportunities to bring forth the most important lessons in life. With love as a guide, we whirl onward.

The Invitation

What is your relationship to “discipline?” How do you practice “discipline” in your family?

Consider ways to let your children know that “they are loved and that they are also obliged to be love.” Remember, every gesture of the day is an opportunity to maintain or deepen connection.

Identify three ways that you practice love already in your life, and three ways you would like to practice love more often.

Commit yourself to letting love be the guide — moment to moment, day to day.

Deborah McNamara is the author of The Invitation of Motherhood: Uncovering the Spiritual Lessons of Parenting, from which the above is adapted.Deborah McNamara

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