As parents, we experience stress at various times during the day—whether during a hectic morning routine, a hurried bedtime ritual, or a silent drive to school. But mindfulness can help in many ways, says psychologist Raelynn Maloney.
We all want to see our children happy. Not only do we want them to experience genuine happiness in their daily lives, it feels great knowing we’ve played a part in it. Unfortunately, our own struggle to experience happiness makes it tough to be a good guide to our children. It’s nearly impossible to pass on something to our child that we do not already possess ourselves.
The kind of happiness I am referring to here goes beyond the happy faces that inevitably surface during birthday parties or the gleeful grins we see at Christmas. Genuine, underlying happiness runs deeper than the excitement displayed when our child gets the latest gadget, or the name brand clothes. This excitement offers our child a taste of happiness. A temporary happy or state of being that can often feel so good that if he (or she) gets enough of it they start mistaking it for the real thing.
Well if genuine, lasting happiness is what you’d like to see instead, there is no better time than now to make a conscious effort on bringing this to your child’s life. Genuine happiness is something that a child not only feels, but can possess and carry with them into everything that they say and do. Of course, this doesn’t mean your child will always look “happy.” Genuine happiness is what allows your child to experience and express a range of emotions (sadness, anger, frustration, hurt, fear). But at the core the happy child experiences the world as a safe place, feels positively about himself (or herself) and has no doubt that he (or she) is worthy of being loved and cared for.
This kind of happiness, we will call it Carried Happiness, is one of the most valuable gifts you can give your child. Giving it to him (or her) is easier than you think! Carried happiness develops as your child experiences and interacts with others (including you). It is passed down in doses through the parent-child relationship. The seeds of happiness get planted and grow each time an interaction with others sends a clear message: “Regardless of your flaws, at the core, you are a good person and worthy of being treated well.” What seem like insignificant moments can leave a meaningful imprint that facilitates your child’s inner happiness.
Every parent, including you, has the ability to get this growing process started. Once we figure out how to make good use of daily moments—in the car, on the phone, during an argument, during story time, while doing laundry, as you are getting the groceries for the week—it becomes second nature.
Finding opportunities is not the problem, but taking the time to use these opportunities is. Until we learn to wake up and truly BE in the moment, this is a challenge. Instead, we are often distracted by our own stressors. We become caught up in our own emotions or emotional needs. We feel overwhelmed by the multiple demands on us. We parent on auto-pilot because it’s all we have the energy to do. And, perhaps, auto-pilot is how our parents parented us.
Distractions, demands and the unpredictability of children make it all but impossible to be a perfect parent. Our society even encourages us to be distracted parents by offering more and more things that distract us when we are supposed to be present to our children. Of course, no one is twisting our arm to continue this cycle. In fact, you can make a conscious effort to start attending to children in new ways, in more mindful ways. Making this conscious effort can have a ripple effect that reaches far beyond your child‘s happiness. As carried happiness grows within your child it becomes a gift he (or she) is then capable of passing on to others throughout his (or her) life.
Mindfulness is an amazing tool and one that all parents should be equipped with. It’s the only parenting tool that can help you create, attend to, and utilize daily moments in ways that give our child the experience of felt happiness. Mindful parenting gives you the ability to consciously provide your child his (or her) daily dose of happiness through affirming, validating, respectful, authentic, and compassionate interactions.
You may already be parenting mindfully, at least some of the time. Now it’s time to practice this more regularly, allowing mindfulness to become an integral part of your parent-child relationship. If you’re ready to invite mindfulness into your life, into your parenting, and into your relationship with your child you are in the right place. Learning a little about mindfulness is the first step toward helping your child develop and carry happiness. Let’s get started!
Step One: Learning A Few Things About Mindfulness
Mindfulness is quickly becoming a familiar and widely talked about concept. It seems to draw people in and tug at the parts in us that long for (and are struggling to find) a more simplified, slower life; a life that feels fulfilling rather than just “full.”
Today, you can find hundreds of books that incorporate the concept of mindfulness. There have even been a dozen or so written specifically on mindfulness and parenting. Let’s begin with learning a few facts about mindfulness.
- Mindfulness is a process that has been around for many, many years. Like prayer, fasting, solitude, meditation, and yoga, mindfulness is a contemplative practice. It has historical roots that are grounded in both Eastern and Western cultures. Several religious traditions—Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity—have incorporated the practice of mindfulness as they‘ve developed over the years. * Mindfulness allows you to live in the present moment. The truth is, the present (this moment right now) is really all any of us have. What is in front of you right now is all you have to work with when it comes to living and when it comes to parenting. Mindfulness reminds you that everything around you and inside of you is constantly changing.
- Gunaratana, a renowned author and educator, described mindfulness in this way: “Mindfulness is present-time awareness. It takes place in the here and now. If you are remembering your second grade teacher, this is a memory. When you become aware that you are remembering your second grade teacher, that is mindfulness.”
- Buddhist mindfulness practitioner, Thich Nhat Hahn, described mindfulness as “the energy that helps us to be there 100%. (It is) the energy of your true presence.”
- Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to what is important to you. With mindfulness you have influence over where you put your attention. You have the capacity to choose what you want to give attention to in any given moment. When something distracts you from what you are focusing on, you have the capacity to bring your attention back to whatever you find important to focus on in that moment.
- Mindfulness grows as you give it time, attention and practice. As you practice mindfulness your awareness will grow. You will become more aware of yourself, more aware of others and more aware of your environment. You begin to see things that have always been there, but you have never noticed before.
- Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and anytime. Mindfulness can be practiced in many forms. From learning how to sit in meditation to mindfully centering yourself by breathing to informally practicing being in the moment while doing everyday things like folding laundry or doing the dishes. Mindfulness is about learning to use Attention in a way that enriches an everyday situation.
- With daily practice mindfulness becomes a way of being. Mindfulness is a way of being more Aware (more attentive) and more engaged in life. It is a way of being more conscious of what is going on within and around you in any given moment. Author Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that “Mindfulness doesn’t give us ‘what’ to do, but it does give us ‘a way’.”…a way to listen, a way to pay close attention to what we believe is important, a way to expand our vision.” As mindfulness becomes part of your daily life, it changes the way you think, perceive, feel, communicate, and behave in your child’s presence. It changes the way you support, encourage, talk with, and discipline your child. It dramatically changes the way you and your child relate to one another.
- Mindfulness changes the way your child experiences and perceives himself (or herself). One of the most meaningful relationships in your child’s life is the one she shares with you. Through this relationship your child’s view of her or himself and the world begins to emerge. Through your interactions (the way you speak to each other, the way you behave toward one another) your child takes in information and feelings that eventually form an understanding of who he or she is, what his or her worth and value are, how the world is going to treat him or her, what he or she can expect from others, and how and if his or her emotional needs are going to be met. By being mindful in this relationship you are moving your child one step closer to experiencing genuine happiness and walking through life with a healthy view of herself.
- Mindfulness enriches your life. In addition to helping your child build a core sense of happiness, mindfulness can enrich your life. When we are mindful we can bring calmness to those busy days and nights we all experience as parents. Mindfulness can lessen the stress we feel during certain parts of the day as parents —a hectic morning routine, a hurried bedtime ritual, a silent drive to school. It can change the way you feel when you are trying to help with homework or chores but get rebuffed or get ignored when you are trying to set limits with your child. Mindfulness has been shown in many studies to alleviate a variety of physical and emotional ailments. It encourages emotional growth, facilitates movement toward finding your authentic self (the person you are at the core!).
Mindfulness can emerge in the form of attitudes, behaviors, thoughts, even rituals you decide to engage in. In reality mindfulness is not only something you can practice, but it is something you have, something you believe, and something that will begin to come naturally the more you practice. If mindfulness sounds complex to you let me assure you, it is more complex to explain it than it is to practice.
Knowing about mindfulness intellectually (in our heads) is not nearly as helpful as practicing it (living it). Only with practice will you be able to fully integrate mindfulness into your emotional, behavioral, physical, mental, and spiritual life. Through practice, you will tap into an “in-the-moment” way of living and learn to consciously create moments with your child that facilitate his (or her) healthy development. With mindfulness as a foundational aspect of your parenting you will have a far more positive impact on your child than when you parent on auto-pilot. Inviting mindfulness into your life and becoming a more mindful parent is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself, your child and the world. There is no better time than now to get started.
Raelynn Maloney, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in Littleton, Colorado.
© 2012 Foundation for a Mindful Society