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March 03, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Guest Opinion: The fear in parents' voices when speaking of their children's future Guest Opinion: The fear in parents' voices when speaking of their children's future (March 03, 2004)

by Mary Ruth Quinn

When parents talk about their children's future, I am struck by the fear in their voices.

This anxiety pervades conversations about their health and safety, acceptance to schools, sports, academics, sibling relationships, social life, rules of behavior and attainment of dreams. Too frequently parental joy seems submerged under a sea of worry, stress, managing and marketing.

No one doubts that the decisions are many and the stakes are high. Still I wonder: How can parents navigate this sea with greater peace of mind?

Routinely we look outside ourselves for expertise in what is best for our child. Everywhere society stands poised to offer advice and commentary. It begins when we compare our newborn's sleeping, eating and eliminating to norms. It continues daily as we consult culture on how to dress, act, think, look, be accepted and become successful.

How do we know when society has us in its thrall? We live out of fear and perceive success as scarce. We feel separate from and in competition with each other. Based on research at a local high school, this reality is brilliantly described in Denise Clark Pope's book, "Doing School": How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.

So what is the alternative?

Nature is often elegant in its design. One of the first sounds heard by a fetus is the mother's heart. This heartbeat, an internal not external compass, suggests another way. "Parenting by heart" draws on the Latin root, educare, meaning to draw forth. It poses these questions to the child: Who are you? For what have you come? What do you need to support your vision, exploration, purpose, muse or life adventure?

Parenting by heart starts with a basic trust in the process called "life." Courage is enlisted daily to live with authenticity, integrity, inner knowing and empowerment for both parent and child. Every child is a gift in the world. All people work together to discover and develop the nature of that gift. The task is not to prepare and package for an outside goal but to continue to listen, respond, and grow from the inside out.

This year I listened deep within my own heart and powerfully changed my parenting. I realized I was a closet perfectionist who held unreasonably high standards for my sons. I saw that my children are wonderfully different from me, so I worked humbly and hard to respect their ways.

No longer preoccupied with "fixing" them, I became more present to them. I observed and laughed more, listened better and said less. I assumed they had good reasons for their actions nearly always. Ironically, the qualities in them that once irritated me now endear me. Such is the magic of the heart!

This orientation is celebrated at the March 6 Mother's Symposium entitled: "Mothering by Heart: Compassion Within the Moment." It features four speakers of rare wisdom whom I briefly describe:

Living by heart requires mindfulness, what Dr. Amy Saltzman describes as finding grace amidst the chaos. She believes the goal of parenting is not attainment of perfection, but an opening to compassion. In compassion we meet another in raw truth. Their strengths and vulnerabilities touch ours, and we leave mutually enhanced. Magic ensues when this occurs between parent and child.

The alchemy for this magic is not so elusive. Patricia Ryan Madson of the Stanford Drama Department outlines five steps of "heartful" living. First, we pay attention to ordinary life. Second, we experience appreciation for what we notice. Next, we aim toward our purpose. Fourth, we accept reality as it is, developing flexibility, humor and humility. Lastly, we move into action from a mindful awareness. Madson states the over-arching premise simply but emphatically: You are enough; whatever life takes, you can handle it.

Helping families handle their daily lives is the mission of Kris Goodrich and Josetta Walsh. They co-founded the Child and Family Institute in Menlo Park to model and support healthy family practices. They believe in the power of play for all ages and the ongoing "romance" between parent and child. When hearts are open, wisdom, love and harmony flow within a family, and touch the world in sacred ways.

Parenting by heart charges the world with wonder and peace, and invites more joy into the privilege of parenting.

Albert Einstein once was asked what question he would pose to the cosmos. He replied, "Is the universe friendly?"

How we answer that question determines much of how we parent.

Mary Ruth Quinn is a Palo Alto resident and the mother of 9- and 12-year-old sons. She leads retreats for local churches and dioceses, and formerly served as hospital chaplain at Stanford and UCSF, and taught at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park. She is the moderator of the Mothers' Symposium next Saturday, March 6, 8:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. at Fairchild Auditorium, Stanford -- call (650) 498-7826. She can be e-mailed at

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