Op-Ed: Teaching mindfulness to our children

by Monisha Vasa, M.D.

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 chocolaty scent. All before taking a single bit. When they started to eat, they would savor each mouthful, But 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 children often already have the inherent knowledge of how to live mindfully—it’s what they do without knowing any differently. They linger on their walks, observe the flowers, turn over rocks, run when their bodies feel like accelerate, and spin 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 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. And so on and so forth until I spin into the catastrophic implications for the next day, rather than being present for the walk that we are on now.

Of course we have to balance our mindfulness practices with the logistical needs of day-to-day life. I realize I start to fall into a pattern of hurrying them when hurrying isn’t necessary, rushing 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’s 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.

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. Kids will do what they see us do, more than they will listen to what we say.
  3.  Ask lots of 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 be open to short meditation practices, while others are not. It is ok to be brief, or to let it go if they are not receptive in a given moment. We are just planting seeds.
  5. Discover opportunities for compassion and kindness 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 the process of “teaching” kids mindfulness, is that it is a journey for child and parent alike. 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.

Monisha Vasa, M.D. is a board certified General and Addiction Psychiatrist in private practice in Orange County, Calif. She is a Cum Laude graduate of Northwestern University, completed medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, and her Psychiatry residency, Chief Residency, and Addiction Psychiatry fellowship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She is the author of the new non-fiction children’s book, “My Dearest One.” For more information, please visit www.mindful-healing.com.