Engage With Your Kids (Excerpt from the forthcoming book “The Mindful Day” – National Geographic)
My daughter plays soccer on a team made up of some of my favorite people—and I’m not talking about the kids. I mean the parents. The soccer team has played together for 11 seasons and the parents are now a band of friends in their own right. We lead busy lives and it’s fun to reunite on Saturdays at the games. But we often miss the magical moments on the field, because we’re caught up in catching up.
One cost of missing such moments is the sheer joy we adults could be getting in savoring them. But the cost to our children from our lack of engagement can be even greater. Over the years, myriad studies and articles have evaluated quality versus quantity time in parenting, with quantity generally losing out. A groundbreaking study from the University of Toronto, published in 2015, found that the quantity of time that parents, and moms in particular, spend with their kids from ages three through adolescence has virtually no relationship to how they turn out – not in math and reading scores; not in emotional well-being; and not in behavior. The exception, the researchers discovered, is that spending more time with teenagers in busy and hectic urban environments can keep them out of trouble. And it is interesting to note that the researchers found that time spent with sleep deprived and stressed out parents can even be harmful. Yet, with all the research, few studies have addressed the subtler idea of how truly engaging with your children during the time you spend with them can positively affect you both. This is where mindfulness can be a game changer.
The good news is that if you have kids in your life (yours or someone else’s,) schedules these days are full of activities — a Little League game or swim meet, a ballet performance or school play—that are ripe for mindful adult-child engagement. When you are truly present, you remember what’s most important, and the value of being there for it. You are there to witness the skillful goal, the exquisite pirouette, the surprising choral solo.
On the surface, this idea of engagement — of truly focusing on your child — may seem simple. But in reality, there are internal and external distractions to navigate. When you get sidetracked, which can happen in any mindfulness activity, the task is to gently notice and bring your attention back to the child whom you treasure. But, as we’ve learned, being mindful is about more than paying attention. In an oft-cited mindfulness paper from 2005, social psychology researcher and author Shauna Shapiro framed mindfulness as having three elements: intention, attention and attitude. In addition to being attentive to your child on the field, for example, you can also use mindful awareness to notice your own attitude. Try observing how you are relating to your child during his or her performance. Do you have a mindset of open, nonjudgmental awareness, and ultimately compassion?
As always, you can get clues to your mindset by tuning in to your body’s signals. Do you notice clenched fists? An anxious or excited heartbeat? What emotions underlie these sensations? Could you be over-identifying with your child’s ability? If the child is doing well, what thoughts are you having? If the child is watching birds fly overhead and missing key plays, what’s happening in your mind?
Mindfulness can help you let go of judging your child and yourself, and help you cultivate acceptance and compassion instead. Remember that curious self-inquiry is a counter-mindset to judgment. When you notice that you’re having thoughts like She is just not coordinated or He is not making an effort or I dropped the ball as a parent—I don’t support him enough in practicing, take a mindful pause.
The same mindfulness precepts carry into play with your kids. Children of all ages will readily pick up the energy and quality of your attention. They know if you’re engaged or not. Are you distracted when reading a book to them? Are you tuned out while at the playground because you’re constantly checking your text and email? Even the presence of a mobile phone on a dinner table reduces engagement.
The question to keep asking yourself is how emotionally connected and present you are when you’re with your kids. This approach goes beyond quantity and quality evaluations—and with mindfulness, the answer and the solution will become clear.