Mindful Discipline: Conscious and Compassionate Parenting

Mindful Discipline: Conscious and Compassionate Parenting

Mindful Discipline is a beautifully written guide for parents to help their children develop their own inner compass so they can find their place in and skillfully navigate their world.  [See Resources below]

Based on relationship-centered practices of moment to moment awareness, acceptance, and guidance, Mindful Discipline helps all of us, really, become empowered, emotionally intelligent, and resilient.

REFLECTIONS on Mindful Discipline

Mindful Discipline presents step-by-step guidance to parents to help their children (and even inner children) move from reactivity to responsiveness to responsibility and integrity.  When children experience their parents’ empathy and responsiveness to their needs, they can trust the support and guidance offered to find their own autonomy, generativity, and flourishing.  As they learn to regulate their own emotions and impulses, they fully develop their own inner motivation and sense of life purpose.

The steps (and relevant chapter titles) are:

1.  Unconditional love: preserving trust and inherent value

2.  Space: supporting autonomy, competence, and responsibility

3.  Mentorship: promoting healthy habits, strong values, and emotional intelligence

4.  Healthy boundaries: encouraging impulse control and adaptability

5.  Mis-takes: the gifts of compassion, humility and forgiveness

There is a yin-yang to these steps: the unconditional love and acceptance of who the child is and the space to be who they are, and a healthy setting of boundaries and learning from mistakes.  The yin-yang of acceptance and learning fully develops the child’s resilience – they can persevere, adapt, and bounce back from adversity – and develops self-discipline – they know their values and can steer their own ship.

All the techniques taught are anchored in mindfulness practice – in the sense of being open, interested, attuned, discerning, and moving from reactive to responsive to intuitive states of consciousness – and the discoveries of attachment research – that by staying connected and responsive to a child’s needs, impulses and emotions – not overly permissive and not overly controlling – in that acceptance and compassion the child can learn from their own experience to self-regulate and emerge their own inner secure base of trust, of resilience, of values, of generativity, of autonomy.  All the tools of conscious, compassionate parenting are empirically validated; all of the neuroscience validating the tools is easy, even fun, to understand.  The outcomes of self-discipline, emotional intelligence and resilience are as close as we can come to a guarantee.


“When it comes to unconditional love, this means that we love our children – and more importantly that we express our love in ways that feel loving to them – no matter what their behavior or level of performance is.  Our children need to feel us saying, ‘There is no mistake, no acting out, and no failure that will stop me from loving and caring for you.  I will be here for you no matter what.  When our children feel that our love for them is unconditional, they relax into their best selves.”

Parents can say “no” to a behavior while still saying “yes” to the child – the child’s worth and importance, and to the relationship that holds the child’s growth and learning in love.

“Kyle’s mother asked him to please pick up the toys before dinner and went back to cooking.  Kyle is seven years old and has a habit of dumping out piles of toys in the living room and leaving them there.  About ten minutes later, seeing no progress has been made on the toy clean-up, mom felt a welling-up of irritation.  She put a pause between her irritation and barking orders, and took two deep breaths.  In that time, her impulse to yell changed to an instinctual desire to reconnect first: they had been distant lately.  Kyle turn around and saw her standing there.

“Immediately he remembered the clean-up request but stood still, waiting for her to say something.  Mom  walked over to Kyle, kneeled down and gave him a big hug that lasted for two deep breaths.  When they released, she looked into his eyes and said, “I love you sweetheart.”  “I love you, too, mom,” he replied.  She gave a little glance at the messy room and said, “It is almost dinner time,” and turned and went back to cooking.  As she was stirring the sauce, she could hear the toys being put away in the living room, felt a sense of relief, and smiled.”


There can be a space between an event and the reactivity to it.  With help and role modeling, children can learn to take a moment, pause, reflect, shift the landscape and change their response in the moment.  Rather than laying down a lot of rules, parents create an environment for the child to explore, experiment, and learn for themselves what works and what doesn’t; they help create the space and exploration for the child to build the “muscles” for learning, for persevering, for trusting themselves.

“Let your four-year-old pour her own milk.  Sure, she will spill some now and again; we all do.  But she will get better at it the more she practices.  You can help scaffold her emerging capacities by holding the glass steady at first, if she is okay with it, but try not to completely take over.  What is most important is that she feels your confidence in her through the fact that you are giving her some autonomy and space.

“And when she spills some milk, no need to make a big deal of it.  Just point to the rag and let her take care of her mess.  She will feel better  about you not being upset with her and feel more competent to do the whole thing herself.  She will also pay more attention to pouring with a steady hand in the future, knowing any cleanup will be her responsibility.”

“Many children these days have been robbed of the value of struggle.  Too often, we parents jump in at the slightest sign of frustration to help our children.  But there is great value in persisting in the face of difficulty – what is often called grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Challenge puts pressure on our creative brain to come up with solutions.  Difficulties exercise the prefrontal cortex as a child must try to stay focused and regulated despite increasing frustration.   This frustration is simply the energy that the brain generates to help a person get to a goal.  Frustration is not something to always be stamped out or avoided; rather, it is important for our sons and daughters to learn to work with it.  Learning how to handle frustration and other difficult emotions is crucial for the development of self-regulation and resilience.”


Through our own role modeling, our children may “copy cat” our own healthy habits of responsibility and integrity.  At a deeper level, the parents’ mindful empathy and mentoring can harness the natural developmental processes of the child’s brain to mature its own capacities of self-discipline and emotional intelligence.  When parents become “learning companions” to the child’s exploration rather than seeing them as receptacles in which to pour in information and knowledge, these inner capacities emerge on a developmental timetable in a natural “flow” rather than being imposed as requirements from the outside.

The brain’s maturing capacities for self-regulation of feelings and behaviors lead to fewer behavior problems, better social skills, better academic performance, more resilience, even better health (and less burn-out for parents!).

“If your child says he wants to build a birdhouse, you could simply outline the steps that need to happen to prepare to start the project.  But alternatively, you could ask him a series of questions like, “Okay, what materials do you think we will need?  What tools?  Where do you think we should set up to do the project?”  In this way, he becomes actively engaged in thinking about the project and planning.  The project really becomes his – he has much more buy-in, which will naturally increase his focus and follow-through.”

[See Stories to Learn From for a beautiful example of emotional coaching when things get truly rough.]


The authors use the metaphor of the banks of a river to illustrate how boundaries stop flow in a particular direction only to increase flow in another.

“Picture the banks of a river.  Without the banks the water would spill over chaotically and flood the plains.  The banks help channel the flow of water down to the sea.

“In parenting, part of our responsibility is to help guide the flow of our children’s instinctual energy into safe and appropriate expressions.  Sometimes we stop a particular behavior to prevent physical harm to our children or to others.  Other times we step in to protect their minds from being filled with too much violence and fear.  And there are also times when we need to stop a child from a futile course of action, simply to help them become capable of accepting things they cannot change.”

The authors focus on three areas where parents need to find the flow between being over-controlling and over-permissive:

Safety and health

“Our first charge as parents is to keep our children safe and healthy.  When your infant grabs a nickel off the counter and puts it in her mouth, you may lovingly say, “Oh no, baby girl…not in your mouth,” and remove the coin from her grasp.  When your toddler bolts from your side and is inches away from getting hit by cross traffic, grabbing his arm and pulling him to safety is a must. This clear and decisive limit – and the stern verbal lesson that might appropriately follow – is an intelligent response when faced with this normal, but dangerous expression of a child’s immaturity.  Love is protective.”

Impulse control and response flexibility

“If your toddler is hitting you, and that behavior is straining the relationship, it becomes your responsibility to guide him toward expressing his frustration in a less harmful way.  “We can hit pillows when we are frustrated, but not people,” is an example of guiding our child in a way that helps him stay in touch with his inner world of feelings while simultaneously inviting him to exercise his developing prefrontal cortex [self-regulating]  “muscle.”

Adaptiveness in the Face of Adversity

“We all face limits in life: our own limits of physical form and functioning, limits placed on us by people and society, and things we cannot control like pain and loss.  It becomes essential that we learn to recognize, regulate, and express our feelings of disappointment and our tears of sadness around the things in life that cannot be changed.  Becoming adaptive to reality is an essential life skill.  It is not what happens to us, but how we navigate the troubled waters of life that matters most.  Without adaptation, we become hardened, less resilient, and less fulfilled.”

“The up-shift form of resilience is when we experience some adversity and stress, stay focused and regulated, draw on our resources, and overcome the obstacle and reach our goal.  This is the resilience we need to give a speech when we are scared, to perform well on a stressful entrance exam, or to work things out with an angry friend.

“The downshift form of resilience is when we finally accept the truth: in this moment, we cannot get what we want.  We can’t win.  Instead, we open to our vulnerable feelings: disappointment, sadness, loss, powerlessness, and so on.  Fully feeling our vulnerability, we become transformed from the inside out.  We then can re-approach the situation with a newfound perspective, wisdom, and heart.  This is the adaptive process and is a key contributor to resilience.”

“Each time we accept the things we cannot change, we increase our capacity for emotional resilience.  Each confrontation with our inherent vulnerability brings us one step closer to what Chogyam Rinpoche called “unconditional confidence.”  This is not the confidence that we will always get our way, always be able to the change the environment or ourselves into what we think is best.  Rather, it is the confidence that we will be able to handle – and be grown up by  – whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.  We begin to trust life itself more than our judgments.  We begin to trust our ability to be in direct contact with our experience, no matter how scary.  It is our ability to be with our shaky tenderness that ultimately delivers us into our unconditional confidence.  Our children are completely capable of adapting.  Let’s not sell them short.”


“The myth of ‘perfect parenting’ needs to be shattered.  There is not, and never has been, a parent who never stepped out of line – not even close.  There is also no one style of communication or one approach to parenting that leads in a direct line to maturity.  Development is a long and winding road – always a work in progress, always full of potholes and constructions zones – and it doesn’t end just because we have become a parent.  Parenting is more like a dance than a straight sprint from here to there.  And when we dance, we sometimes step on toes.”

When we can bring a growth mindset to our mistakes as parents, we can help our children develop a growth mindset, too – mistakes are opportunities for learning, for growth, for recognizing something didn’t work or caused harm, and we need to try something else.

Helping children (ourselves!) leave behind an unachievable perfectionism and embrace the learning, growth, and resilience in skillfully working with imperfection, we not only correct course and build our muscles for persevering and learning, we develop a life-enhancing humility, compassion, and forgiveness that allows relationships to repair and development to continue unimpeded.

“Your six year old accidentally spills her glass of cranberry juice on the white chair. Your body tightens and contracts.  And then you see her little body contract in fear of what will happen.  You pause and breathe, and say, “It was an oops.”  She responds, “Yes, oopsy daisy.”  This is the code word you two have created for when you make a mistake and do something unintentionally that upsets the other.  “Come on, let’s clean it up together,” you say.  Messiness is just part of life.  These simple, everyday encounters can show our children how to gracefully recover from mishaps, and that we are still practicing, too.”

[P.S.  The last chapter in the book applies these five steps directly to brain development with a neat reference to Christine Carter’s “cool-know” and “hot-go” systems of higher brain/lower brain.  Worth an attentive peruse.]

Each chapter of Mindful Discipline offers many specific tools needed in conscious, compassionate parenting:

Creating a culture of respect and cooperation

Saying “yes” while saying “no”

Recognizing-regulating-expressing emotions (also called notice-name-tame)

Creating helpful routines and rituals

Limit setting for adaptation and growth

Setting consequences

Avoiding both counterwill and collapse

Encouraging manners

Teaching “it’s not my fault and I am responsible”

May these tools and reflections be useful to you and yours.


Parenting is one of the most challenging, demanding, and stressful jobs on the planet.  It is also one of the most important, for how it is done influences in great measure the heart and soul and consciousness of the next generation, their experience of meaning and connection, their repertoire of life skills, and their deepest feelings about themselves and their possible place in a rapidly changing world.

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings

Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired.  Attachment is not a behavior to be learned, but a connection to be sought.

– Gordon Neufeld, Hold on to Your Kids

It is the relationship you have with your child that supports the natural emergence of emotional intelligence, self-discipline, and resilience.  When you establish a loving hierarchy and take responsibility for meeting the needs of your child, you provide the best environment for him to grow up whole, authentic, and kind.  it is not what you do but who you are to your child that matters most: a loving alpha who dances flexibly between various relational expressions to respond to your child’s present-moment needs.  The love that binds you will be your guide.

– Shauna Shapiro and Chris White, Mindful Discipline

How much more precious is a little humanity than all of the rules in the world.

– Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgment of the Child

The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.  When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.

– Thich Nhat Hang, Living Buddha, Living Christ

A wise mother knows: It is her state of consciousness that matters.  Her gentleness and clarity command respect.  Her love creates security.

– Vimala McClure, The Tao of Motherhood

Love me when I least deserve it, because that is when I need it the most.

– Swedish proverb

For only as we ourselves, as adults, actually move and have our being in the state of love, can we be appropriate models and guides for our children.  What we are teaches the child far more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.

– Joseph Chilton Pearce

How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all of its beauty?  It felt the encouragement of light against its being; otherwise we all remain too frightened.

– Hafiz, The Gift

I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.

– Louisa May Alcott


Despite its being fifteen degrees outside and snowing, Violet wanted to wear her bathing suit to kindergarten.  Her mother gave her several reasons why that would not be a good idea, but Violet was fixated on wearing the suit.  Sara – well aware of the importance of giving children choices in the affairs of their lives – danced with her daughter for a while until they finally arrived at a compromise.  Violet proudly paraded into school that morning wearing her two-piece bathing suit over her warm clothes.  Sara’s cheeks were rosy, and the social norms were a little shaken up that day.  But more importantly, Violet’s sense of autonomy and her connection with her mom were preserved and deepened by the simple gifts of space and sovereignty.

* * * * *

Not long ago, I (Shauna) had been traveling, away from my five-year-old son Jackson for a week.  I was finally home, united with my little one.  I missed him dearly and wanted to reconnect, let him know that I was home, present, and loving him.  It was a beautifulSaturday morning, and I decided we would spend a day together at Muir Beach, a place we both love.  I proceeded to pack up towels, beach toys, picnic lunch, change of clothes, sunscreen, water, games.  I shifted into doing mode and became carried away in the speed of the agenda.  Jackson was in a much slower pace, and it took quite a while to get him dressed and out the door. However, finally, we were off, and we were going to connect and have fun (dammit).

As we walked through our front yard, Jackson paused to look at a trail of ants.  “Come on, sweetheart, it’s time to go to the beach,” I said, calmly, but with a hint of agenda in my voice.  However, he was already completely absorbed by the ants and without glancing up said, “Mom, come over here…look!”  I could feel the growing agitation and contraction in my body.  I paused a moment, noticing these uncomfortable sensations.  Luckily, I had just returned from a week of teaching mindfulness, so some of the lessons were still fresh in my being.  As I scanned my body, I breathed, and reflected:  “What is my intention?”  Oh, yeah, I want to have quality time with my son, let him know that I am here now, and  that I missed him.  This wasn’t a school day, we didn’t actually need to be anywhere at a specific time.  Could I simply relax my agenda and remember what it was that was truly important:  Jackson, here, now, in this moment, wanting to show me the ants?

He continued to stare at the ants.  I walked over to where he was squatting, sat down in the sunshine, and began to watch.  He scooted closer and leaned into me.  The sun was warm on my back.  A tear arose as I felt the poignancy and preciousness of the moment.  This was the connection I was wanting all along: my little boy, resting against my body, sharing the fullness of the moment together.


* * * * *

Your ten-year-old child comes home from school and slams the front door shut hard enough to make a picture fall off the wall and shatter on the floor.  You immediately feel hot and angry and are about to yell, when you stop yourself and take a deep breath before doing anything.  “Hey, buddy,” you say as he is walking away.  “Hold on.

He turns, scowling, and meets your gaze with steely eyes.  You feel a little irritated, thinking, “Don’t look at me like that.  I didn’t do anything to you.”  But you recognize he is angry and sense that something must have happened.  Most importantly, you know he needs you right now.  Choosing not to focus on his ‘bad behavior’ you ask, “What’s up buddy?  What’s going on?” and you continue to breathe and calm yourself.  He replies coldly: “Nothing.”  Meeting his eyes and softening your body a little bit you say, “You seem really angry about something.”

“Yeah, I am angry about something!” he yells, and starts off on a rant about an incident he had at school with his friend today.  You listen closely, totally attentive to what he is saying – both verbally and nonverbally.  You ride the emotional waves with him as he spews the details of the story.  You communicate understanding through nods and subtle vocalizations that let him know you really get where he is coming from, that you are with him.  Several times during the conversation you feel the impulse to calm him down, and to give some advice about what to do.  But you patiently hear him out, staying fully present for him, and delaying moving toward a solution before it is time.

Eventually, he starts to settle down a little bit.  During a span of silence, you ask a clarifying question, listen to his response, empathize with him: “Yeah, I get it.”  Then you ask another.  Over the next ten minutes, through your curiosity and confidence in him, you dance together toward some next steps that he might take with his friend. The conversation ends with an action plan in place, a long hug, and a feeling of closeness between the two of you.  You recognize that the situation could have ended much worse, and feel blessed to have had the capacity to ride out the storm with grace and skill.


Mindful Discipline adapts the practices taught in the book to the developmental age of the child, 0-7  years of age, 7-14 years of age, 14-21 years of age, and also offers exercises to help parents become more conscious and compassionate.  The exercise below helps the parent become a wise elder, taking increasing responsibility for recovering from our mistakes with grace.

Wise Elder Visualization

1.  Sit comfortably, eyes closed, body at ease.  Feel the breath as it naturally flows in and out, setting an intention to open to all experiences with a kind, curious awareness.

2.  Call to mind a difficult interaction with your child: something that is still unresolved and has caused significant stress.  Imagine you are back in the heat of the disagreement or challenge, and as vividly as possible picture yourself and your child.  Imagine what words are being exchanged.  Feel the emotions, tension, stress in your body.  And right in the middle of the conversation, imagine that there is a knock at the door.

3.  You pause the conversation and go to answer the door.  Standing there is a wise elder, either your older wiser self, or some wise being in your life.  You invite the elder in and with great compassion, her eyes and presence communicates to you, “I see how challenging this is.  I am here for you.  But I also have complete confidence in you.”

4.  You immediately sense the difference in your body.  There is greater ease and presence.  Imagine yourself, supported by the wise elder, re-engaging with your child.  Notice the words you speak, the tone of your voice, your body language, and how you are feeling.  Notice how your child is responding.  Notice how wisdom and support brings out the best in each of you.

5. When you are done with the visualization, make an intention to “call in the wise elder” the next time you find yourself spiraling into reactivity with your child.  Sometimes simply having a loving and encouraging presence in the room can make all the difference in the world.


Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits and Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child by Shauna L. Shapiro, Phd and Chris White, M.D. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2014.  [available June 1, 2014]

Beautifully written, Mindful Discipline puts the research-validated elements of good parenting  – loving unconditionally, supporting autonomy, mentoring healthy habits, setting healthy boundaries, reframing mistakes as learning opportunities – into the context of conscious and compassionate coaching, teaching parents to guide children in their natural developmental trajectory from impulse to judgment to responsivity.  Drs. Shapiro and White offer simple, practical tools that develop the capacities of emotional intelligence, resilience, and self-discipline that grow an authentic inner compass of responsibility and integrity for both parent and child.  I’m recommending the book wholeheartedly to every parent and parent-to-be; it’s a masterful gem.

Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents by Christine Carter, PhD. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010.

Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Myla Kabat-Zinn.  New York: Hyperion. 1997

The Whole-Brain Child:  12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson.  New York: Delacorte Press, 2011.

The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance by Polly Young-Eisdendrath.  New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2008.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting by John Gottman, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

The Art and Science of Mindfulness by Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson.  Washington, D.C. The American Psychological Association. 2009.

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