Can we actually teach our children how to be mindful? Or are we just trying to preserve the inherent consciousness that they already seem to have? In other words -- is mindfulness truly taught, or is it just "unlearned" over time?
I remember watching my children eat when they were four or five years old. If given a cookie, they would turn the cookie delicately over and over in their hands. They would study the texture and composition with their eyes. They might inhale the chocolatey scent. All before taking a single bite. And when they started to eat, they would savor each mouthful, thoroughly enjoying themselves. And the most amazing thing--when their tummies were full, they would put the cookie down and move on, not feeling compelled to continue eating if they were no longer hungry.
I find that young children often already have the inherent knowledge of how to live mindfully--its often simply what they do without knowing any differently. They linger on their walks, observing the flowers, turning over rocks, running when their bodies feel like moving, spinning around when their hearts feel like turning.
But these days, when I take them on walks, I am aware of the homework that needs to be completed, or bedtime looming. I urge them to hurry. I start to accelerate in my head. If we don't get back home in time, we won't finish dinner and homework in time. If dinner and homework don't get done, bedtime will be delayed. If we miss our window of opportunity for bedtime, they won't fall asleep. If they don't fall asleep, they won't wake up in time for school. If we are late for school, I will be late for work.
And so on and so forth until I am spinning into the catastrophic implications for the next day, rather than being present for the walk that we are on in the here and now. With the tension in my body and my rushed voice, I put a screeching halt to searching for roly-polys and blowing the dandelions.
Of course we have to balance our mindfulness practices with the logistical needs of day to day life. But I realize I often hurry them when hurrying isn't necessary, rush them when we have time. Part of this frantic pace is because our kids are often over-scheduled or over-committed. Part of this rushing comes from feeling frazzled ourselves, and projecting that onto our kids.
So these days, my goal isn't necessarily to teach my kids how to be mindful. It is to get myself out of their way. I try to allow them time to play. To explore. To rest. To breathe. To just be.
It is not easy as they get older, and they are pulled in multiple directions, as are we. It often feels like we are juggling a million balls in the air at once and they are all about to come crashing down. But we try our best to honor the time and space for them to just be who they are, because that is when we find their most centered selves emerging. Or perhaps that is when we are most able to notice.
Here are five tips for preserving mindfulness in our children:
1. Allow for plenty of unscheduled down time: Kids may complain of getting bored, or you may see them get restless. It is important for children to become aware of these emotional states and see them through on their own. Consider refraining from stepping in with solutions or ideas. This process helps them to learn that they can sit with all sorts of emotions, and that emotional states come and go. Often periods of intense creativity arise from boredom and quiet.
2. Model mindfulness: Make time for your own mindfulness practice. Whether you have a formal sitting practice or try to implement conscious awareness throughout your day, make it a priority. Try to minimize multi-tasking, and similarly encourage your kids to do the same. Kids will do what they see us do, more than they will listen to what we say. Use your practice as a springboard to discuss setting intentions, or cultivating gratitude for the small and big blessings of our lives: "I am grateful for the fact that we are all able to sit down together for dinner today."
3. Ask lots of questions: Ask questions that encourage children to connect to their senses. "What does the air after today's storm smell like to you?" or, "What do you see in the clouds today?" Using our senses or awareness of our breathing is a way to connect immediately to the present moment. We can also ask our kids questions to consider other people's feelings, or their impact on others. For example, "There was a new boy in class today? What do you think that was like for him?"
4. Manage your expectations: Kids may not always be in the mood to discuss big picture ideas like gratitude and compassion. Use kid friendly language and consider bringing up such topics in casual passing, or at night before bed when they are relaxed. Some kids may even be open to short meditation practices, like focusing on breath or the flame of a candle. Some kids may not be. It is okay to be brief, or to let it go if they are not receptive. We are just planting seeds. Even the introduction of mindfulness to their developing minds can be helpful.
5. Discover opportunities for compassion: Mindfulness ultimately is one tool to recognize our interdependence, and find ways to relate to one another with an open heart. Discover opportunities for kindness and compassion within your family, and in the larger community. This could mean involving children in a simple service project, or making it a point to use positive, kind language with those we come across.
The amazing thing about "teaching" kids mindfulness, is that it is a journey for child and parent alike. Teacher becomes student becomes teacher. Together we deepen the process of occupying our bodies and living our lives as they unfold before us. There are no mistakes, no right ways or wrong ways, just the ways that work for each family. Let us encourage our children, just as they encourage us, to cultivate a more curious and fully lived life. The process itself is a gift and a blessing for all of us.