Your alarm didn't go off, so you rush around getting all the kids up and dressed and pack their lunches. You get to your car and notice that you are low on petrol so now you have one more stop on your way. Your son drops his book bag into the mud and his lunch and books tumble out. He splashes joyfully in the puddle singing and smiling and when he approaches you for a hug you see the mud and pull away. “Not now - we’re late” you snap. Tears well up in his eyes and you silently berate yourself for always being late and for being so grumpy.
For parents, challenging moments like this that cause us to “snap” or “lose it” are regular reminders of how mindfulness can be such a valuable tool in parenting.
There are two parts to this: the first is being a mindful parent by making choices for your children and your family in an intentional way, and the second is parenting kids who learn to use mindfulness as a tool in their lives.
Start with intention. When you have a why behind your actions, it can help to ground your parenting. What’s the point of homework? If you see it as one more thing to check off a long list, you will approach it very differently than if you see it as a time to bond with your children and glimpse their learning process. When your son heads to the soccer field or your daughter goes to ballet, remember that you started these activities for joy and for exercise, the busyness they add to your family schedule can sometimes get in the way of remembering that there is purpose to their involvement. This allows you to stay out of the potential role of task master where you may encourage them to attain and achieve rather than to have fun and do their best. Practise having an intention to accompany every action.
1. Stay present. It’s easy to allow worry to take you away from the present. When you get a call from the school telling you your 5-year-old child has a reading delay and requires some extra testing, it’s so easy to imagine a future where they struggle in school and face frustration in the work world. They are 5 today. Deal with how this affects today. Not imagining the worst helps you be more effective at dealing with what’s happening in this moment. Worrying is like paying interest on a loan you haven’t been approved for.
2. Model and encourage communication about feelings. Communicating your feelings helps you and your family work as a cohesive unit. We are all wired differently so when things go wrong, we sometimes assume that everyone has the same reactions and beliefs. For example, my son has a messy room. Many of my friends have asked me why I don’t just “make him clean it up.” Years ago when I tried to bribe or force him it just led to him shutting down. When I asked him, “Why is your room messy?” I would have expected him to answer that he didn’t want to clean it but he what he explained to me is that when his room is all neat, he feels stressed out. He feels calmer when there’s a bit of chaos. I told him that mess for me causes a sense of disorganisation and it can be a source of stress. Our compromise: I am fine with his chaos as long as it is clean chaos and if I have company coming, he has to keep his door closed. Communication about why his room is the way it is and how I feel when I see a messy room led to us understanding one another better.
3. Listen. When you talk with your children about their day it is often either a one-sided, probing conversation that is initiated by you and gets one-worded responses, or a long-drawn-out story that the child initiates and you barely focus on as you cook dinner or drive to the next activity. Focus on opportunities to actively listen to your child. This means waiting to speak instead of directing the conversation where you think it should go. It also means not reacting or judging what they share. Become the kind of listener who asks great questions like “what did you like most about that” or “tell me about that”. Another pitfall to avoid is assuming you know why your child is sharing (this works with adults too!) I am solution oriented so when my child comes home complaining about a conflict with a friend, my nature is to try to help solve the problem. I’ve learned that some people like to talk about things and that is enough to help them feel better. Others need action. Asking a question like “How can I be most helpful?” or even “Do you want help, or do you want to vent?” can be extremely useful.
4. Admit your mistakes. Parents seem to think they must be perfect. We get frustrated when we don’t know what we should do and yet our children didn’t come with a manual. Sometimes we make a choice that in hindsight isn’t really aligned with how we want to parent (like snapping). It’s important to show children that we learn from mistakes so when they make one, they learn too. There is nothing wrong with pointing out that you made a mistake (“I’m sorry I snapped at you. That’s not the way I want to talk to you”) and then trying again (“I’ve taken some deep breaths. This helps me to be calm. Could you please explain to my why you drew on the wall with a Sharpie?”).
Raising Mindful Children
Parents today want so much for their children that there is danger of over-programmed children who control the home. The following are some important values to consider teaching and modeling for your children:
• Love yourself
• Be resilient
• Strive to do your best
• Happiness comes from within
• Have compassion
• Foster connection
• Feed your body and mind healthy things
Mindful practices that parents and children can do together to foster these values are:
1. Deep breathing. Teaching kids that three rounds of slow inhalation/exhalation can calm the fight or flight response will help them to feel in control of emotions rather than feeling that their emotions control them.
2. Practising gratitude. Making a point of talking about things you are grateful for helps everyone in the family to increase wellbeing. Try starting each dinner by listing the best moment of the day and something you are grateful for.
3. Meditation. Even parents who have their own meditation practice don’t always think to get their children meditating. According to Deepak Chopra, “The beauty of meditation is that everything comes from within, but ‘within’ means different things at different ages.” Be aware that children can probably sit for about as long as they are old, so a 7-year-old might start with seven minutes. Remember that everyone is different so let your child find what works for them. Model it, but don’t force it.
A mindful family works together as a team. I remember hearing Seth Godin’s definition of anxiety - experiencing failure in advance. As a parent you are guiding the team but not controlling outcome. If you can help reduce anxiety about mistakes by normalising them at home, you help to dispel the fear. Then you can prioritise joy and celebrate learning. This will allow the experience to feel easier for the entire family.
Tamara Lechner is the Canadian Regional Manager at the Institute of Positive Education based out of Victoria BC. She is responsible for helping the Institute attain their mission of delivering transformational educational programmes that place wellbeing at the heart of education worldwide.