By Mary Ann Christie Burnside, Ed.D.
Since becoming a first-time parent in my forties, I’ve been marveling at the changes in my life. A related miracle is my mindfulness practice, which I began the year before my first daughter was born. Since then, I’ve been immersed in mindfulness and in parenthood at pretty much the same time. And I think the two couldn’t be more complementary. In this post, I share a brief introduction to mindfulness and why I think it benefits families. First let me reassure you: Mindfulness is not about becoming a perfect parent. Since we’re not perfect to begin with, we pretty much have nothing to lose. Nothing, that is, except the stress and frustration we add when we’re not practicing mindfulness, which is to say, much of the time.
Here’s an example. This morning as I was showering, I heard my 4-yr old daughter crying and my husband raising his voice. I later learned that she wanted to use the upstairs potty (where I was) and he wanted her to use the downstairs one. By not accepting that she was unable to see the logic in his request, and by continually trying to get her to do what he wanted, my poor husband created more stress for both of them. Some version of this happens to people every day, and to parents many times a day. We come up against something that doesn’t go our way or is not what we expect or want, and we get caught in our thoughts or feelings, even stuck there. This is the way our brains work when we’re unaware. We’re wired to react to stress by resisting it, often through futile efforts to control or change things.
Mindfulness, which is often described as non-judgmental moment-to-moment awareness, matters a great deal because it interrupts automatic reactions, keeps us from getting stuck and adding more stress, and allows us to choose an intentional response. Mindful awareness, which we all have the capacity for, helps us co-exist peacefully with all thoughts, emotions, experiences, and people in our lives – with whatever and whoever is present – whether we like it or not. It’s a way of learning that we can’t control our minds any more than we can control our children (or spouses). But we can observe them. And we can learn to do that with kindness, rather than criticism. When we allow what’s already there to be there, we’re not adding to our frustration by struggling against thoughts or feelings about what’s happening. We’re able to see more clearly what we want or need to do. We’re able to see what wise action would look like for us right now.
Now back to my husband and youngest daughter. Had he been able to accept her position (which was very 4-yr old like) and his own feelings, he’d have been more likely to find a peaceable solution (I can picture him inviting her to play the Flying Unicorn Game as he carried her to the downstairs bathroom. Wheeee!). By the way, to accept something, you need to have awareness of it first. That’s why mindfulness is so powerful. It makes room for us to see and then choose a response that’s kinder and more loving to everyone involved. Rather than react from a place of feeling stuck, mindfulness teaches us to connect to the whole of our experience, including all the thoughts and feelings we have about it. With awareness, we can do all kinds of things. Things we otherwise would never have thought of.
Mindfulness is one of the most important practices we parents can cultivate because what we do matters, in this moment and in all the moments to come. Our children learn how to be in relationships by watching and listening to us. So it’s in everyone’s best interest to speak and act with mindful awareness as often as we can manage. It only takes a moment to become aware in the midst of a difficultly, yet the effects last more than a lifetime.
Look for the next entry in my “Mindfulness Matters for Families” series during the third week in October.
Dr. Burnside is a mindfulness educator, developmental psychologist, and founder and executive director of Hearts and Minds, based in Lexington MA. She teaches groups of adults and children about mindful awareness practices and skills, has a private coaching practice for individuals and families, and enjoys writing about well-being and mindful relationships, especially between parents and children. To learn more or to sign up for “A Simple Thing”, a free monthly publication, visit www.withheartsandminds.com