The other day, I watched in amazement as my two daughters had a conversation with each other using the exact expressions my husband and I use when we're having a “serious talk.”
This got me thinking. As parents, we constantly wonder if we're making the right choices for our kids. Are they eating their vegetables? Getting enough sleep? Spending too much time in front of a screen?
Of course, all of these decisions are important. But it's our actions — not our words — that will actually have the most influence on our children’s development.
Kids are highly influenced by the behaviors of others, thanks to a mechanism in the brain known as mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a type of specialized cell that transmit impulses related to imitation. In other words, they help kids learn through observation, forming new neural pathways in children's brains when they observe an action.
Lately, I’ve been considering the ways I can harness this phenomenon in brain development to help my daughters become the happy, kind and confident people I hope they will always be. Here are six ways I use the power of mirror neurons for the benefit of my kids:
1. Handle challenges with grace.
I admit this has not always been my strong suit, but I'm working on it. My kids inevitably witness me face a number of challenges — from a traffic jam to a stressful situation at work. But through my actions, I aim to demonstrate that while challenges are normal in life, you can always take them in stride, staying calm and focused on solutions rather than crushed by problems.
2. Nurture your passion.
One of my greatest hopes for my children is that they will follow their passions and feel inspired throughout their lives. I know they notice when I’m excited about something, and when they see me feel this, they're learning how to do the same. Whether it’s my career, my side projects, my volunteer work, or getting out in nature, I aim to display how good it feels to do what you love.
3. Communicate feelings with love.
Even when I may not realize it, my kids are always listening. And whether I’m talking to their father, their teachers, or a customer service representative from the cable company, they're learning communication skills by observing me.
So I aim to model good listening habits, owning my own mistakes, speaking about my feelings, making fair compromises, and other conflict-resolution skills. I know this will help them greatly in life.
4. Find happiness in little moments.
Since I want my kids to be happy, it’s pretty important that I be happy myself. Easier said than done, but I am making it into an intentional practice for their benefit, as well as my own.
For example, I'm more deliberate these days about being lighthearted and fun — I sing in the shower, dance around the living room, joke, and generally try to be silly with the kids even when there’s work to be done. I try to remind myself that being a serious worry wart all the time doesn't do any of us any good.
5. Be kind to others, and to the world.
Of course every parent hopes their children will become good, compassionate people. But how do kids actually learn this? For me, it means doing my best to model kindness by showing empathy for others, helping those in need, and involving them in volunteer work.
I also try to be mindful in small ways that they pick up on, like collecting garbage from the beach, conserving water, and recycling. Kindness is contagious, and often can be passed on through something as simple as a smile. If I can teach my children only this, I will have done my job as a mom.
6. Practice self-love.
Parents are often guilty of being selfless — and not necessarily in a good way. I want my daughters to see me taking care of myself, so they learn that they need to take care of themselves, too. That means making sure I get enough sleep, healthy food, exercise, time with my friends and ample opportunities to recharge my batteries. If self-love is the greatest love of all, then I must practice it so they can master it.
Parenting is a wonderful opportunity to improve ourselves. Not only because self-improvement is worthwhile, but because it's through becoming the happiest, kindest and most confident people we can be that we will raise happy, kind and confident children.
This post originally appeared on mindbodygreen.
I invite you to check out my new book, The Joy Plan, a memoir about the neuroscience of joy and how to apply it to your own life. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “an energized and informative plan for transforming your life.” Find out more at TheJoyPlan.com.