Dharma for Moms and Dads

Ty Phillips looks at the Five Precepts—the ethical code of dedicated Buddhist practitioners—and finds five powerful guidelines every parent could use.

Ty Phillips12 February 2016
Five Precepts Parenting Children Buddhism Lion's Roar Ty Phillips
Photo by Skip.

Ty Phillips looks at the Five Precepts—the ethical code of dedicated Buddhist practitioners—and finds five powerful guidelines every parent could use.

As Brynn and I trudged through the metroparks today, I became enraptured within the welcoming silence and beauty of the snow covered forest.

As I stood in awe I noticed a shared silence. My three-year-old, usually boisterous and always at volume level 10, was silent. I turned to look and to my delight, she was staring in the same wondering manner as I.

We gazed up at the mighty snow covered boughs and the nimble pines as they bent down their great wreathed limbs to touch us. This was her first time being in the woods in winter. We sat down and looked around; listening to the squeak of a frozen leaf, still caught on a skeletal branch. We tasted the fresh fallen snow and made angels in the white blanket of cold silence before it had been marked with gentle steps. We were fully present within the moment.

Being present is easy for a child. Every moment is like the opening of a new book—a new page in this great adventure. As adults, we often fail to recognize the wonder of the subtle, the profound in the every day. We miss out on the moments of joy until our young ones tell us, “be happy daddy!”

In my interaction with my children, I have come to realize that the Five Precepts of Buddhism are perfectly matched as five principles of parenting. When taken in a literal context, the precepts of non-killing, non-stealing, abstaining from sexual misconduct, abstaining from false speech, and refraining from partaking in things that cause heedless conduct seem obvious—but when you apply them to parenting, they morph into an ethic that can change both your child’s life and your own.

1. Non-killing

This should really be non-violence. Non-violence is huge for me as a parent, and as a former bouncer and fighter. It took years for me to abandon violent behavior and even longer to let go of violent thoughts. It is the mind that leads us down the path of violence.

Everything we do teaches our children something. Non-violence is so much more than not spanking our kids. It’s how we speak to them. Our interaction with our children becomes their self-talk. Are we constantly immersed in violent movies, games, music, and speech while at home? The environment we provide is how our kids will see the world. We can’t be truly non-violent and then relay the message of do as I say not as I do. Nonviolence is a lifestyle—an immersion into compassion.

Non-violence with our children is discipline vs. punishment, action vs. retaliation, education vs. a pointed finger. Non-violence within us creates non-violence within the home and within the heart.

2. Non-stealing

Again, this seems like a basic moral precept, but does it stop simply with not taking material possessions that aren’t ours? When I look at my children, I see non-stealing as the process of allowing them to retain their innocence; allowing children to blossom with hope and compassion for the world.

Not-stealing time from our children; being present while we are with them instead of being sucked into our phones, the TV, or our own interests. We often forget that it was our choice to bring a life into the world, not theirs. We have so much to gain from being fully present with our children. There is a joyous reawakening of our own child that comes out of us when we allow our adult stuffiness to take the back seat.

Stealing their sense of wonder and hope—their chance at self esteem and security—is not preparing them for the future. It is consigning them to our past and passing on our own insecurities. Allow yourself a chance to feel wonder with your children is beautiful.

3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct

This is huge. Misconduct as a parent is allowing our children to grow up with a notion that they are not good enough. We may not directly tell our girls that they need to be rail thin and pretty, but did we call a girl fat? Ugly? Have we allowed our judgments to pass into our daughters lives? Do women need make-up? Do they need to conform to our notion of what feminine is or is not?

We may not tell our boys that playing with a doll is ‘gay’ but do they hear us saying, “this is what a real man does?” Do we say people need to “grow some balls?” Sexual misconduct is leading our children down a path where they feel insecure with their own notions of sexuality because we plague them with our own bias. Allow them to be who they are; to discover their bodies naturally without adding feeling of shame or disgust. We can make them feel beautiful or handsome by being accepting of who they are.

4. Abstaining from false speech

We don’t like being lied to and being truthful creates bonds of trust and community, so we all tell our children it’s wrong to lie. False speech also applies to bigotry, prejudice, and violent speech. It offers us a chance to allow dialogue without fear.

We want our children to be able to talk to us. When they are afraid to tell us what is going on, we have created an environment of lies. When we refuse to speak to our children or we communicate harshly, we have created an environment of fear and uncertainty. Abstaining from false speech means creating an environment of truth and honesty; it is offering love, respect, instruction and an open channel for communication.

I tell my children that I always want to hear what they have to say, even if I don’t agree with it by letting them know that their opinion is important to me and that their feelings are important. I want them to feel secure in speaking their mind.

5. Abstaining from partaking in things that cause heedlessness

Traditionally, we could say this would mean abstaining from drink and drugs. But again, the origin of heedlessness is profound and relates to our ability to parent in every way. What do we do that makes us heedless at home?

Are our pastimes seen as a priority over our children? Do we sacrifice them for our own personal gain? I often hear people talking about what they sacrifice in order to succeed in a certain pursuit. The problem with this notion is that sacrifice means what we give up in order to help others find happiness.

When we neglect our children for self-gain, we are being heedless. What we give up in order to ensure their self-esteem, their sense of security, is true sacrifice.

We don’t have to be perfect parents. What we need is to not fear failing sometimes. Our children won’t remember our failures; they will remember our attempts at engaging with them in spite of when we failed.

Remember back to those moments of fear and doubt you had as a child, and be joyous at the opportunity to change those for our children; to sit in the snow and be filled with wonder with each other. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Ty Phillips

Ty Phillips

Former big city bouncer turned pacifist and Buddhist, Ty Phillips is the co-founder of The Tattooed Buddha and a freelance author whose writing has been featured in The Good Men Project, Patheos, Elephant Journal, Rebelle, BeliefNet, and The Petoskey News. He is a long term Buddhist and a lineage holder, as well as a father to three amazing girls and a tiny dog named Fuzz.