“Mindfulness is not hitting someone in the mouth.”
Those were the words of an 11-year-old boy who had just completed a five-week mindfulness-training program at his school, as reported by The New York Times. It’s a simple statement, but it speaks to several of the emotional and psychological benefits of mindfulness training, including increased patience and frustration tolerance, and the ability to stay calm in the midst of challenging situations and intense emotions.
What parent doesn’t want our child to use her words instead of throw a tantrum or take a deep breath instead of smash a toy? The reality is that our children will get better at these skills, but it’s a life-long learning process. (I started meditating at age 35 because I wanted to yell less!) The good news is that we can start to teach our children these skills now - as evidenced by the words of that 11 year-old boy - and there is a lot of research and information about how to do it.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. To quote Brené Brown, we can’t give our children what we don’t have. If we aren’t practicing mindfulness, we can’t teach it to our children. This doesn’t mean they have to see us meditating every day, but it does mean that we need personal experience with the challenges and benefits of a mindfulness discipline before we can teach it to others.
2. Our children will benefit directly from our practice, even if we don’t teach them mindfulness. In her book, Raising Happiness, Dr. Christine Carter described a research study looking at the effects of mindful parenting. Not surprisingly, the parents who practiced mindfulness enjoyed parenting more. More interestingly, though, was the finding that their children were better behaved and less aggressive even though they hadn’t been taught mindfulness skills themselves.
3. When you get ready to teach specific mindfulness skills, choose an activity that will resonate with your child. The whole idea is to get them to slow down and pay attention in a way that makes sense to them. My daughter is incredibly picky about food, and doesn’t enjoy much taste or flavor, so this simple raisin meditation probably wouldn’t be a good choice for her. She is very visual, however, so we use a glitter wand (you can also make a glitter jar at home). We shake it up and then just watch the glitter fall to the bottom. My younger daughter loves music and sound, so a good option for her is to ring a bell and then listen until the sound fades completely away.
4. Older children will likely be able to do breathing meditations without too much help, but younger kids might need something more concrete to help them focus on their breath. You can either have them lie on their backs with a stuffed animal on their tummies and breathe the toy up and down, or you can try the flower/bubble breathing that my daughter loves. Have them hold up their hands in front of their mouths as though they are holding a flower and a bubble wand. They can inhale the scent of the flower, and then blow out a bubble. (Of course, you can always get real flowers and bubbles - those are great for mindfulness - but this activity works well in a pinch!)
5. Don’t force it. The reality is that you can’t force someone to pay attention, and even if you could, mindfulness should never be a punishment. If your children are into it, that’s great. If not, maybe they will be later. All you can do is continue your practice, and keep becoming the person you hope they will be someday.