Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant

Another guest article from our Kadampa working dad. The rest can be found here.

I believe our job as a parent is to become irrelevant!

What does every parent want for their children?  We want our children to become fully capable individuals that make wise decisions on their own.  A wise decision is one that leads to true happiness.  Everything we do as a parent should lead to this final result, and we should use this final result as a guide to know how to respond to every parenting challenge and as a litmus test to see whether what we have done as a parent is mistaken and needs to be corrected for.

When our children are born, they are incapable of anything and make all the wrong decisions (put your finger in an electrical socket, anyone?).  In the end, we want them to be capable of everything and to be able to make all the right decisions on their own.  So in the beginning, they need us for everything, but in the end we want them to need us for nothing – in short, we want to become irrelevant (or more precisely, no longer needed). 

So how does this work in practice?  There are no fixed rules, rather general principles we can follow as a parent.  When it comes to helping our children become fully capable, I try to use the following principles:

1 For things they are not yet capable of doing: don’t expect them to be able to do it.  I would say 90% of the problems we have as parents in the early years of our children’s life come from being upset when our children don’t live up to our expectations.  We expect them to already be able to do things, and then when they don’t, we become upset at them.  When we get upset at them for not doing something, we create serious obstacles to their ability to joyfully learn the new skill themselves.  They will reject what we have to say because for them it comes as a punishment and a control, not a helping hand.  For the things they are not yet capable of doing on their own, just do it for them with an excited attitude of “one day you will be able to do this all by yourself.”  Think potty training!  This attitude makes them want to do things on their own in the future.

2. For things they can learn to do:  help them learn how to do it on their own.  This takes tremendous patience.  Usually as parents we are very rushed.  We feel we don’t have time to indulge our kid in spilling the milk bottle 20 times so they can learn from their mistakes, rather we figure it is just quicker and easier to do it ourselves.  But why are we so rushed?  We are rushed because we have to do everything ourselves.  Why do we have to do everything?  Because our kids don’t know how to do anything yet!  So while it is true in the short-run that it takes more time to help our kids do things on their own than for us to just do it for them; in the long run, we are actually saving ourselves time by taking the time now to teach them how to do things on their own.  It is crucial at this stage to instill in them the excitement of “me do it”, where they want to do it on their own – how liberating for them to become capable of doing things for themselves.  If you get this attitude correct at this stage, you avoid the pitfalls of the next stage.

3 For things they are already capable of doing:  don’t do it for them.  It is very easy for the ‘compassionate parent’ to fall into the extreme of becoming their child’s slave.  While this may seem compassionate, there is no wisdom to such an approach.  Yes, we are supposed to serve others and all the rest, but we must do so with wisdom.  We are not helping our children by teaching them laziness and manipulation/exploitation of others.  So if something comes up that they are capable of doing on their own that they want you to do for them, just say “sorry, you are capable of doing that yourself.”  They will say you are being mean, but you will know you are being a wise parent.

If we check carefully, we will see that what we want as a parent for our children is exactly what a qualified Spiritual Guide wants for their disciples, the only difference is the scope of ‘capable’ and the extent of ‘wise decisions’ involved.  The Spiritual Guide wants us to become as capable as all the Buddhas and to develop an omniscient, compassionate wisdom.  As a parent, we would generally be happy with our children being able to get on in the world and to make good decisions in this life.  While much smaller in scope, it is a start and a prerequisite for the capacity and wisdom the Buddhas want for our children.  So we can view our job as a parent as preparing the ground to hand our children over to higher paths (if they so choose).

In the next part of this series, we will look at three key wisdom minds we should try help our children cultivate so that they can make “wise decisions” on their own!

Are you a parent? Have you tried these methods? Please share your ideas and experience in the comments box below.

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

21 thoughts on “Our job as a parent is to become irrelevant”

  1. I followed these methods and I might conclude that I have been a successful parent. Both my children have jobs they like, have goals for their future, many friends, are active in social causes. On the flip side, they never call me, they are disparaging when I say I miss them and want them in my life, they show no interest in sharing their lives with me. Somehow I can’t help feeling that I’ve failed when I see all my friends spending time with their kids who are needy but still love their parents.

    1. Hi Em, wow, your message really touched my heart. I don’t think we can say because they never call means they don’t love you. If they are putting into practice in their lives what you taught them by living their lives their fully, then their every act is an expression of the love and respect they have for you. You are so much a part of their lives that they are with you every day in their every action. If they were still needy towards you, then perhaps you would see them more, but would they be better off? They would be less confident and less capable, and so would their kids. I also think we need to be careful about the cause and effect relationship here. Your teaching them to be able to succeed on their own is the cause of them having a successful life, their not calling arises from different karma. Our job is to so purify our love for our kids that we don’t need anything from them in return. The unconditionality of a mother’s love, your message is showing me, extends long after they leave the home. Loneliness arises when we grasp at ourselves as somehow being this independent, isolated thing. But does their not calling you prevent you from loving them and thinking about them and praying for them? You can still think about and love them all day. Does their not calling prevent them from respecting you every day by happily living the fruit of your labor? So you are with them, and they are with you. When my mother died, I thought that was it, I could never be with her again. My teacher told me, “sure you can. She is still somewhere, just somewhere different. You can still love her, attain enlightenment for her sake, pray for her, etc. In fact, in many ways, her absence enables you to learn how to love her unconditionally because you know there is no way she can give you something in return.” Is any of this easy? No. But that is why we grow from it. I’m not saying it is good they don’t call – they should – but I am saying you can transform their not calling into an opportunity to further purify your unconditional love for them. Perhaps doing so might purify the karma of them not calling. Even if it doesn’t, you are doing the right thing. They might be so absorbed in their life, it’s hard for them to see outside of it. In that sense, they are no different than anybody else. Finally, remember, the Buddhas are always with you. We can feel their presence even in the blowing of the wind. When we feel this, we are never alone.

  2. “So if something comes up that they are capable of doing on their own that they want you to do for them, just say “sorry, you are capable of doing that yourself.” They will say you are being mean, but you will know you are being a wise parent.”

    Seriously, don’t say sorry. It’s a pointless gesture. It teaches them that you are being mean as you are saying sorry. Be positive. Understand positive messages. Encourage their own inspiration, which is what GKG does. It’s far better to bring out their positive Buddha nature by helping them see/understand the consequences of their own actions so they can decide for themselves. You cease to become mean because you give them their own decision to make. They become responsible. If they don’t decide to do something, you help them see the consequence. If they are too young to understand, there are tons of other techniques you can use by positive messages and Buddha’s teachings on cause and effect.

    (Comment shortened due to length — LK).

    1. Our job as a parent is not to become irrelevant at all but i understand the purpose of the provocative title.

      Geshe-la’s children would hardly call him irrelevant would they?

      The key point is making children self-reliant.

      Get both types of reliance of the spiritual guide in balance within your self and and parenting takes care of itself.

      We could say our main role as a parent is to actually ‘get out of the way’. So that our real self, our true Buddha nature can shine through bathing our children in light and blessings.

  3. I have been trying to reply to the individual posts, but for some reason it is not working. I will try leave a general comment here and see if it works!!! 🙂

    For Anonymous, any effort we make to overcome our delusions creates the good karma we are after. Whether we succeed or not does not matter, what is important is that we try and keep trying.

    For Maria, Grandparents, in my view, have it doubly difficult because you have to work through two layers of kids – your own and then your grandkids. It is a difficulty of parenting squared! All the tips you can provide will be much appreciated!

    For Felicia, for me the hardest thing about empowering my kids is to find the way to say no I won’t help you because you can do it yourself. If we can master that in a supportive way, our kids will generate all the confidence in the world. Confidence is knowing we can do it!

    For Mariatonella, I will be publishing quite a number on parenting. Stay tuned!

    For Vide, Dumbledore can be a parent’s Yidam!

    For Mark, every situation is equally empty, so all are equally transformable. If other’s don’t understand this and mistakenly conclude parenting is an obstacle to one’s practice, then it is just due to a lack of experience on their part. Our job as parents is to learn how to transform parenting into the path. I remember in my early days, nobody knew how to integrate children into the Dharma communities, but now there are kids classes everywhere and it is normal. If we are patient and demonstrate ourselves how it works, gradually attitudes change. This is our responsibility to the tradition.

    1. Dear Ryan Engen:

      my teenage son, went with his father for not following the rules. her father permits many things like drinking and going out to bars and nightclubs. 2 days ago turned 17, I made a birthday party and at the end he decided to continue the party with his friends. did not give permission so that he decided to escape and go to live with his dad.i know this is a special occasion to practice dharma….and to be patient…and at the same time i would like the best for him…and i know … not having rules is very cool for him…the father has power and money…is there some thing besides pray and ask for blessings that could be more benefit for him? Ryan, what would you do in my place?

      1. While our kids are still under our house, the principle we can follow is: Discretion in a box. We give our kids a certain box in which they are free to make their own decisions. When they demonstrate they can use their freedom responsibly, we make the box larger; when they use their freedom irresponsibly, we make the box smaller. We build up the link between freedom and responsibility. In your case, you are confronting two problems: the failure of the father to “be a parent” to your son and the transition of your son from child to adult-child. For the former, depending on the relationship you have with the father, ask the question: “I know you love our son as I do. Does it actually help him for us to facilitate his making irresponsible decisions?” For the latter problem, you need to respect that from now on he is going to make his own decisions. When he knows you respect that, you can position yourself as just trying to help him make good decisions that think about the long-term. Again, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. He will probably reject what you have to say for now, but at least he will know where you stand. Let him know that you are always there to help him with his good decisions, but you can’t in good conscious help him with his bad ones. He will then likely go off, be forced to confront the consequences of his bad decisions, and then he will come back. As long as the father, though, is protecting the son from the consequences of his bad decisions then this process won’t take hold. Finally, just make many requests to the Dharma protector that whatever happens to your son becomes a cause of his enlightenment. You have a strong karmic connection with your son, and there is no doubt your requests will work. What is best for his enlightenment might not be what is best from an ordinary sense, but often it is only after walking in hell that we realize the truth of wisdom.

  4. Important for me to read this again and again. It’s hard not to feel like a failure with your kids sometimes, especially with teens. I wish I could start over again 🙂 but I know its never too late. I remember Gen-la Dekyong saying, “parents do the best they can according to the level of their delusions” so I know my main job as a parent, wife, daughter, friend, student, teacher is to recognize, reduce and abandon my own delusions and stay out of my kids’ business as much as possible. Whatever I think they need to improve or change, it’s clearly what I need to improve and change.

    1. Being a parent is great from a Dharma perspective precisely because it provokes so many delusions in us. This gives us plenty of opportunities to practice. At the end of the day, it does not matter if we succeed in overcoming our delusions, what matters is that we try. Our trying alone creates the good karma, regardless of whether we succeed. If we “never give up” trying, we will get their in the end and earn the respect of our children along the way. – Ryan

    2. Just trying to overcome our delusions functions to create the good karma we are after, regardless of whether we succeed in doing so. All we do is try, and that is enough.

  5. Thank you for this article. I am a grandmother and you are so right in what you are saying. I can see that this is the right way just watching my sons and grandchildren.

  6. I enjoyed reading this post. I am a mother of 2 very young boys and their independence & self-confidence are top priority for me. Would you happen to know of any child-friendly buddhist centers in broward county, even dade perhaps?

    1. Hi Felicia, thank you for your comment. There is a Kadampa center in Fort Lauderdale called Drolma Center who used to do kids’ classes — you could enquire there.

  7. Brilliant article – thanks Luna and Kadampa Dad. One of the best parenting tips I got was believe it or not from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! In the film, Professor Lupin gets the whole class to try a new spell. They all try – some are good, most are awful. What’s his reaction? Instead of shouting at them, he encourages them, recognising that they are just learning.The praises them all heartily and gets them to try again. So that’s what I try and do with my kids when they try something new. It is so easy to be impatient with children and forget that they are literally trying it for the very first time.

    I believe my job as a parent is to give my children values, which they can apply in their lives. Kadampa Buddhism has been extremely helpful in this respect.

  8. Great article! It is so wonderful that mature, relevant and realistic discussion of parenting is coming to the fore in dharma discussions. Having been around dharma centres for many years, I have and still do see some cringe worthy attitudes to having a family/parenting/children. Thank you for working to redress the balance.

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