As mindfulness makes its way progressively into the mainstream media and the world at large, the wide-ranging researched benefits continue to accrue:
Increased—focused attention, compassion, resilience, creativity, and immune function.
Decreased—anxiety, stress, and avoidance, to name but a few.
Good, good stuff. Exactly the kind of good stuff we parents wish for our children. It comes as no surprise, then, that parents are increasingly curious about how to teach their children more about this invaluable life skill.
I field many inquiries from moms and dads regarding kids and mindfulness: At what age can children begin? How best to teach them? What if they refuse? How much should one push?
There are virtually limitless ways to teach children: explicitly, indirectly, with music, with stories, through guided meditations, with books.
But the single most important, and I would argue beneficial, way for parents to begin is with their own mindfulness practice. For, the more aware we moms and dads are of our own triggers, our habits, and our reactions, the more often we can choose how to parent, how to model healthy behavior, and how to live more mindfully as a whole.
In fact, according to Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness, “…Practicing mindfulness doesn’t just lead to decreased stress and increased pleasure in parenting, it brings profound benefits to kids [even if it is only the parents that are practicing]. Parents who practiced mindful parenting skills for a year were dramatically more satisfied with their parenting skills and their interactions with their children, even though no new parenting practices beyond being mindful had been taught to them. Over the course of the year-long study, the behavior of these mindful parents’ kids also changed for the better: they got along better with their siblings and were less aggressive, and their social skills improved. And all their parents did was practice mindfulness. [italics mine]”
I have taught my fourteen-year-old much about mindfulness over the years, while my little guy seems to have soaked it up more by osmosis and by example. At age four, my little guy has no formal daily meditation practice, but nevertheless manages to remind me to breathe at the most fitting of occasions. He recognizes when I have lost my mind(fulness) precisely because he (mostly) knows a mom who aspires to live mindfully.
I did say aspire. Let me share a snapshot from a recent day….
It is an early work day morning and I am feeling especially rushed and frazzled as I haul our various and sundry belongings into the car. My thoughts are scattered, haphazardly running through the assorted checklists occupying what seems to be precious little real estate in my mind—the little guy’s bag, my computer, work papers (oh, and don’t forget to return those emails), purse, lunch, mail to be mailed, bank deposit to be deposited, etc.—check, check, check.
Only after my four-year-old and I are warmly bundled in our winter coats does he tells me of his need to use the potty once more. I let out a forceful, “aaghh!” and unzip his coat as I begin to sweat in mine. There is a good chance I slightly resemble a madwoman, because in some ways, in this moment, I am.
After returning from the bathroom only to witness my frenetic state of mind, the little guy encourages, “Mommy, take five brefs!” (That would be “breaths” for those of you who no longer speak four-year-old.)
For a split second, I nearly ignore his plea with some sort of dismissive directive to hurry up, but fortunately catch myself just in time to hear what he is really saying in that earnest preschooler voice. I hear my own words flooding back at me as he sagely reminds me to pause and breathe.
I smile weakly and tell him I don’t think five breaths will cut it today. Without missing a beat he responds, “okay, take seven brefs.” And I do. Crouching down to his level, I look into those heart-melting brown eyes, step back from the sense of urgency and take seven deep breaths. He begins to inhale and exhale slowly right along with me. And suddenly, it feels as if I have come back to myself. Because I have. With his gentle, mindful guidance.
And so, I am once again humbled by the ease with which I am caught up in a busy, over-scheduled, unmindful world, a seemingly parallel universe. Those seven calming breaths take less than a minute. We are still on time, heading out the door with arms full of bags, slipping shoes onto feet, and hats onto heads. But everything has changed. I can see clearly again—all that is here—the boundless blessings, gratitude, love, and wisdom in the form of my little guy.
The moral of the story, of course, is that our children learn by example.
Teaching our kids mindfulness without practicing ourselves is like never having stepped foot into water, reading about swimming, then teaching our kids to dive in and swim with only second-hand verbal instructions. It could be done, I suppose, but is certainly not the same as when we teach them from direct experience while in the pool right alongside them.
Describing for them how to be more mindful is one thing. Demonstrating by living it is another.
In my next post I will write more about how to directly teach your children mindfulness. But for now, start with yourself. Five minutes a day. If you are unsure how to begin, you can learn more here.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Your actions speak so loudly I can not hear what you are saying.”
What is it you ultimately want your children to hear?