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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mindfulness and Children: 6 Lessons for Teaching the Joy of the Moment

From The New Pursuit

By Bill Gerlach
June 26, 2010

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”
--Pema Chodron

While looking back on the post, Mindfulness: 33 Everyday Places Where You Can Practice Enjoying the Moment, I realized that it was very adult-centric. That’s not a bad thing. As a parent, there are times when learning something along with your children is fun and exciting. There are other times though, when having a bit of experience under your belt can make you a better teacher.

It is like the instructions you get before your plane takes off: You should always put your oxygen mask on first before helping your child with theirs. Teaching kids about mindfulness falls into that category for me.

It is my experience that kids are born knowing only the moment. There is no need for them to fret about yesterday or tomorrow. It’s all about what is in front of them at that point in time: The blocks; the balls; the picture they are drawing to express themselves; the silly made-up game they are playing that helps them develop their inner creativity and social skills.

It is only when the influence of others—parents, teachers, care givers, TV characters—begins to play a more prominent role in their thinking and being that the joys of the moment slowly slip away. Kids learn to be concerned about this or that by mimicking the behaviors they see in front of them. It is one of those elements of childhood innocence that so quickly falls victim to the woe and worry of modern adulthood.

As I’ve stated before, I am not an expert mindfulness teacher. But I have been applying what I have learned with our two oldest kids (7 and 5) for the last year as a way to open their young and malleable sense of being to the joy the present moment (and not lose what remnant of their innate ability that may be left). During the course of this, I have found that there are good ways and not-so-good ways for approaching the practice with kids.

Here are six lessons I have taken away so far:
  • Put it in their terms. While I am not opposed to using big words with kids, coming out of the gate and driving home the term ‘mindfulness’ can be counterproductive. Finding similar words that convey the same essence while being more familiar to their still-developing vocabulary has been better. Consider tee-ing it up as “enjoying what you are doing now” or “let’s focus on [insert activity of choice] right now” or “getting [this or that] done is most important right now”.
  • Reinforce the benefits. Explaining why s/he should focus on picking up his/her toys or enjoying dinner or even feeling the breath flow in and out is important. Simple life lessons can begin to be incorporated as the particular task or activity warrants. Again, remember to keep even the benefits on their level.
  • Find time to learn the fine art of mindful breathing. From time to time, I will invite the kids to sit and ‘relax’ (meditate) with me. No formal sitting positions here. Just some quiet moments where we can close our eyes and focus on breathing in and out. You may only hold their attention for a few minutes, but even with that, you are sowing very important seeds with them
  • Build a routine around it. We have a bedtime routine that my wife made up to help our oldest work through some separation anxiety he was having. It turns out to be a fantastic mindfulness practice in disguise. While the anxiety is gone, we still do it from time to time because the kids enjoy it so much. Turn the lights off and get the kids to lie on their backs with their arms by their sides. With a soft, supportive tone, ask them to take a few deep breaths to center themselves. Then ask them to relax their bodies – starting with the tops of their heads and moving down through their chest, arms, hands, bellies, legs and feet. Remind them to try and feel each body part – even the tips of their fingers and toes! Ask them to be aware of the feelings in their body and the thoughts in their mind – but not to dwell on them. Pause from time to time to point out the importance of breathing. We even throw in a “namaste” at the end to cap it off. Other ideas for routines include a weekly hike in the woods, going for a daily bike ride or helping to make dinner and set the table.
  • Teach by example. When you are practicing mindfulness, point it out to your kids as such. Again, they will mirror what they see in front of them. Start a conversation, finish that conversation. Begin a task, see it through to the end. Enjoy the only thing you are doing at that moment. Even when you are upset about something, maintaining a level head and cool demeanor can be used as an example later when your child is going through a similar situation.
  • It takes time. Children will not master mindfulness overnight (and neither will adults!). It is a practice of time, patience and commitment. It is a journey. Interestingly, you may reach the point (as I have) where the kids may be able to turn the tables and play the role of teacher. Situations may present themselves where in their own special way, your kids quietly show you the path to take. I love when that happens. It keeps me humble.

As the wave of change continues to make its way through society, teaching our children mindfulness from an early age can keep the momentum moving forward. The thought of how different the world might be if future generations understood and embraced this important practice is powerful motivation.

As parents, we can help manifest this future by taking time to not only learn mindfulness ourselves, but to then pass it on to our children in loving and nurturing ways.

For additional resources on mindfulness and children, you may want to check out:

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