Mindfulness with children: As parents, it seems that our task is to “teach our children well” as in the Crosby Stills Nash and Young lyric. The practice of mindfulness should ideally start in childhood since that is when the ground is the most fertile for planting such seeds. I didn’t embark upon the path of mindfulness until well into my 3o’s by which point, it was very difficult to learn. Imagine, if our parents and schools provided this practice during the more formative stages of development. What wonderful potential consequences this could reap upon our society as a whole.
So let me tell you a little story: Each night, my three youngest kids (ages 6, 8 and 9) and I meditate. I introduced them to the idea of meditation using the book, Peaceful Piggies Meditation, a wonderful child guide to meditation written by Kerry Lee Maclean, http://www.dharmacrafts.com/9FRG/2BKK017/peaceful-piggy-meditation.html?gclid=CKmgre_5pLUCFUid4AodDGMA5w which was purchased for them last Hanukkah. Following the initial excitement generated by the book, they maintained an ongoing interest in meditation which I never in my wildest dreams anticipated. That same Easter, they each received their own meditation pillows (zafu) which generated further excitement. Yes, we are a very ecumenical family.
On any given night, one of the kids are designated with the honor of being the “gong master” for that evenings meditation. That is actually a pretty big deal to them. The gong master gets to sit on a special white pillow (zabuton) which goes under their zafu. The gong master is bestowed with the responsibility of checking to see that all of the participants are ready, and then to commence the meditation by striking a Tibetan gong with a wooden striker. There is no particular order to whom is anointed gong master but it is roughly used as a reward for those who seem to be putting effort into meditation or other things during the day. I also try to distribute it so everyone gets a fairly equal turn.
On one particular evening, my 6 year old stepson, was upset that he didn’t get to be gong master. He gathered up his pillow and was starting to leave, as is his general custom when upset about something. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have stopped him since the children are never required to meditate, and are free t0 leave at any time. However, on this occasion, I calmly admonished him to stay. I then asked him to state what feelings he was experiencing, to which he responded with a “hurumph!” I said, “OK, but try and focus on where in your body these feelings are strongest”. Without hesitation and in rapid succession he first pointed to his stomach and then his head. It was so adorable. I then asked him to just focus on those places. After a few seconds I asked if he could now describe the feelings to which he responded, “I feel sad and a little bit angry”. I said, “Oh that is terrific, now just stay focused on those feelings in your head and stomach.” After a very few seconds, there was a dramatic and palpable shift in his demeanor and a big smile spread across his face. Even his sisters seemed rather struck by the sudden transformation. He resumed the meditation and completed the full twenty minutes. He was then made gong master for the next sitting.
So the main point I want to underscore through this little observation, is how readily kids can learn to become emotionally mindful. With little provocation, their attention can be directed to their emotions, even when those emotions are painful. And when this happens and emotions are consciously experienced, the emotions simply move on, resulting in a precipitous decline in “acting out” behavior. Acting out only occurs in the absence of mindful attention. Once we turn attention towards the emotional energy, that energy becomes dynamic and therefore is able to move. When we withdraw attention, the energy becomes fetid and stuck and therefore lingers. Now, I would not advise attempting this with a child in the midst of a tantrum or episode of major emotional upheaval. Any attempt to interfere would only serve to exacerbate the issue. Research indicates that when a child is acutely distressed, then best advice is to just ride it out. It is like a storm in the brain and it will just dissipate on its own.
As parents, we all need to try to be mindful of our own emotional responses to our children emotional reactions. It can be very aversive to experience our children’s anger, pain and upset, especially if our own childhood family histories were marked by punishment, shaming or non validation of emotional expression. Thus, we can, through a variety of subtle and not so subtle mechanisms attempt to dissuade the expression of emotional pain in our kids. What we need to do is help our kids to label and express their emotions. We will not always excel in this endeavor. That is OK. But we need to try as best as we can.
So as adults, as we endeavor to cultivate our own mindfulness, we can also be helping our children to do the same. It may be the most important thing we can ever provide them.
All are invited to offer their thoughts, experiences, disagreements and so on.