Mindfulness is the capacity to be present in the moment, as it is happening. It is about awareness and acceptance of what is occurring, and not allowing your mind to try to change it.
Mindfulness has become something of a buzzword recently, but that does not necessarily make it less important.
Mindful parenting is the concept of being present, in the moment, with your children. Your attention may well be the greatest gift you can ever give your children, and mindful parenting is a way to help you to do that.
Children, especially small children, live quite naturally in the moment.
They have very little thought for the past, and usually none at all for the future. They are, in fact, fully mindful, although not necessarily aware of that. Sensations are immediate: pain, discomfort, happiness, hunger.
But as parents, we have moved away from that world. We are often guilty of focusing on the future, either short or long term. We plan what we will cook, buy, eat, wear, and do, when we need to leave the house, when we will return. We tell ourselves that we need to do this to manage, which may well be true.
At the same time, though, it means that our attention is not with our children, in the moment.
It can be very hard to stop and give your full and mindful attention to your children. There is always something else to do, whether it is to check your emails, make a call, put dinner in the oven, or feed the dog.
But which, really, is likely to be more important in the overall scheme of things?
If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them, and half as much money.
Abigail van Buren
You cannot be emotionally aware of your children if you are not aware of them more generally. Awareness and responding to emotions, in other words empathy, is key to personal relationships and to bringing up rounded, happy children.
Attention and Awareness
Mindfulness is all about attention and awareness. It requires a non-judgemental approach, which in turn leads to acceptance.
The idea is that most of our feelings—unhappiness, fear, anger, or embarrassment, for example—are not actually real, but constructs made by our minds, based on our past experiences.
By becoming aware of how you feel, at the time that you feel it, you can examine the feeling more closely, and it becomes much more ‘all in your head’, and not ‘real’. You can then take control of the feeling, instead of it controlling you.
Nobody is saying that you will manage to be completely non-judgemental, or not be frightened and try to take control of what is happening. The idea, though, is that when you feel yourself start to react in this way, you should be aware of that, and hold back, just asking yourself ‘How does this feel?’
Moving Towards Mindfulness
Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, co-authors of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, draw a distinction between reacting and responding.
- Reacting is mindless, and usually an emotional response driven by your hopes and attachments, for example, to being able to sit down quietly and work or eat in peace;
- Responding is mindful, and may require you to take a moment to be aware of your reaction, and why it has happened, to enable you to form an appropriate response.
The first step towards mindfulness, therefore, is becoming more aware of your reactions, and catching them before responding.
You may find our pages on Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation helpful.
The STOP Discipline
Before you say or do anything in response to something, just STOP.
S – Stop. Just stop. Pause to be aware of what is happening to you and of your reaction.
T – Take a deep breath.
O – Observe. Notice your breathing, and notice how taking a breath makes you feel. Then take another, and look around and notice what is going on.
P – Proceed. Now that you are aware of yourself, you can move to a more appropriate response.
The idea of just noticing your breathing may be a bit ‘hippyish’ for some, but it is grounded in physiology.
Adrenalin, which is released as part of the body’s natural response to stress, causes you to take shallower breaths to get more oxygen into your blood, to enable you to run away from the stressor. If you override that by taking deep breaths, you will naturally feel calmer.
Focusing on your breathing also helps to calm your emotional response, and enable you to regain control. You can then respond appropriately to your child, fully aware of what you are doing.
Not only is this better for you, and for your relationship with your child, it is also a valuable lesson to your child in how to respond appropriately.
Fundamentally, in order to be able to accept, you need to be able to feel compassion, both for yourself and for others.
Compassion is not judgemental, it is simply being able to ‘feel with’ someone else. Some people call it kindness.
Cultivating compassion will enable you to forgive yourself when you fall short of your ideal as a parent, which all of us do from time to time.
It will also enable you to accept your children for who they are, not who or what you would like them to be.
Mindfulness is Not About Meditation
Mindfulness is not about retreating from the world and taking time for ourselves and our thoughts. Far from it, in fact. Instead, it is about being genuinely present and aware of life.
Remember, awareness is not for anything, it simply is. It is an end in itself.
Once you are aware, then you can accept, but awareness does not give you that acceptance. We often hear ‘Don’t wish your life away’, and ‘Enjoy this, it will soon be gone’. Mindfulness helps you to achieve both of those things, and genuinely enjoy and accept what is happening right here, right now.