What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is our inherent ability to pay attention to each moment, with curiosity and openness, and to allow each experience to be just as it is, without judgement. It is a life skill and a natural ability we all have – to be fully aware and engaged with life.
When we are present in that way, we can meet challenges with greater clarity and flexibility, we can experience joy and gratitude for all the good things in our life, and we can cultivate resilience as we learn to be patient with difficulties as they arise.
Why teach children to meditate?
Children are naturally curious, spontaneous, and they can be extremely attentive to what is happening in the moment. But like their parents, modern children are often too busy, with packed schedules at home and at school, leading them to do too much and have too little time to just be. They become tired, easily distracted and restless.
Never before have children faced so many distractions. Mobile phones and the ever-evolving digital technology bring endless temptations for minds to be elsewhere. Neural pathways can become scrambled and less effective, reinforcing the tendency to get distracted and disrupting learning.
Moments of sustained focus, silence and stillness have become rare in our children’s life. Some of them may even associate quiet moments with negative feelings such as boredom and disconnection.
Teaching children to meditate can allow them to develop powerful personal life-skills. It is a precious gift, a strong and stable personal foundation that they can continue to build upon over the course of their life.
The benefits of mindfulness to children
By practicing mindful presence and awareness, children lean to pause, catch their breath and get in touch with what they need in that moment. They learn to bring a friendly attention to everything that is happening inside them and around them, and develop qualities such as patience, trust, and acceptance.
A key benefit of the practice of mindfulness is to develop self-awareness, the ability to know what is going on inside. It helps children (and parents!) become aware of their various emotional states, and gradually shift from automatic unconscious reactions to more balanced, considered responses in any situation.
Through a regular meditation practice, children start to experience the pleasure of being quiet and calm, the reward of being able to remain focussed on important tasks, regulate their emotions and look after their own well-being. They develop their capacity to trust themselves and to remain centred and stable in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
By learning to be mindful, children also learn to interact with others with empathy and generosity.
How to introduce mindfulness to your children
It might be helpful for you to pause and reflect on your intentions for teaching mindfulness to your child. You might hope that this will make your child quieter or improve her behaviour. It is important to remember that mindfulness is not about getting our children to behave in any particular way. It is about offering them activities and instructions that help them RELATE to their own experience in a new way, and learn strategies that they can try when they are overwhelmed or upset.
As a parent your role is to learn to be patient and accept your child for who she is in this moment: we teach mindfulness in the same way we practice it, without an attachment to outcomes. Your child might take some time to learn the practices, or he might apply them immediately, either way is ok. The learning will happen on your child’s unique schedule.
Mindfulness for children can begin very gently, simply by creating opportunities to pause and notice. Mindful rituals can become part of the day. Children can begin to discover the pleasure of slowing down, taking time to do nothing, and creating quiet spaces, to shift from doing to being, from thinking to sensing and feeling, and from busyness to stillness.
It is best to start practicing when your child is calm and keen to engage with you. These are the best conditions to learn. We practice when we are calm, so that we know what to do when we encounter a stressful situation. It is not something that can be forced upon children. As much as possible, make it fun and see it as an opportunity to connect with your child, to play, to learn, to laugh, and to understand each other better.
It starts with you!
Mindfulness is a skill that can help you be a better parent. Studies have found that when parents practice mindfulness – even if they don’t teach it to their children –their relationship with their child becomes stronger and richer, and their child’s behaviour even improves as a result.
The best way for you to teach mindfulness to your child is to model it yourself: when you take a moment to pause before responding, when you tell your children how you are feeling without blaming them for it, when you listen to them with compassionate attention, or when you share something that you are grateful for with them, you are teaching them mindfulness.
Being a mindful parent means being fully present in our interactions with our children and accepting them for who they are in each moment. We pay attention, we stay open and curious, we check in with our emotions, we pause before responding, and notice our thoughts and judgments. Those are the skills that we learn to cultivate with a regular mindfulness meditation practice.
Parents often ask: “Do I really need to sit down and meditate? Isn’t it enough if I just do things mindfully during my day?”
In my experience, we need a formal practice in order to learn to be more mindful. Each time we sit down to meditate, we are strengthening the neural pathways in our brain that are responsible for paying attention.
If you are new to mindfulness, my invitation is to start with just five minutes a day of sitting and paying attention to your breath. Find the time of day that works best for you, maybe first thing in the morning, or during your lunch break, or on the train during your commute, or right before bed. You can even practice in your car while waiting at school pick-up. There are lots of great meditation Apps you can use for guidance, such as Headspace, Calm, 10% Happier, Insight Timer.
You can also join a meditation group or enrol for individual meditation sessions to deepen your practice, talk about your experience and keep motivated.
By establishing simple mindfulness practices in your home, you can bring positive outcomes, supporting happy, resilient children and a harmonious family life.
Sitting like a frog – Mindfulness exercises for children and parents by Eline Snell and Jon Kabat Zinn
A head-heart start for life – Creative mindful discoveries for young children by Janet Etty-Leal
Meditation capsules – A mindfulness program for children by Janet Etty-Leal
Mindfulness for children by Sarah Rudell Beach
Planting seeds – Practicing mindfulness with children by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community