Your alarm didn't go off so you rush around getting all the kids up and dressed and packing their lunches. You get to your car and notice that there's ice on the windows, which means you will need time to scrape it off. Your son drops his book bag into the snow and his lunch and books tumble out. He makes snowballs and lobs them playfully in your direction. You say, “No, don’t worry, I can scrape the windows” under your breath. 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 doing things for and with your children, start with why. What’s the point of homework? If you see it as one more thing you have 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. For example, 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. 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. Practice having an intention to accompany every action.
- 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 today. Worrying is like paying interest on a loan you haven’t been approved for.
- 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 ask 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 disorganization 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.
- 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 creates 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.
- Admit your mistakes. Parents seem to think they have to 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:
- 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.
- Practicing gratitude. Making a point of talking about things you are grateful for helps everyone in the family to increase well-being. Try starting each dinner by listing the best moment of the day and something you are grateful for.
- 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. As a parent you are guiding the team but not controlling outcome. Prioritize joy and celebrate learning. This will allow the experience to feel easier for the entire family.