Are you a new parent? Or maybe you’ve been raising a family for the better part of a decade and beyond. Whether you’ve just begun your parenting journey or you feel like you’ve got this parenting thing down pat, there’s always room for more mindfulness.
Mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “is paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
Supporting your child’s healthy development in a new environment such as a move to a new home, a new school or even a new country requires more than all the “doing” that happens during family transitions. Modeling how to “be” in transition is an equally valuable learning experience that you can share with your child.
Here’s the simple truth – paying mindful attention is a powerful way that you can support a healthy sense of security, bonding and even adventure in your child. In fact, paying attention in the way I’m about to describe to you may seem unusual if you’ve never tried it before. But, investing in these three practices can reward both you and your child with an increased sense of confidence and connection through the frequent changes that transition can bring.
Check your face
What does your neutral face look like? Head to a mirror and close your eyes. Create an expression that you feel is “neutral”. In other words, make a facial expression that you think will neither excite, nor worry your child. Now focus your attention inward and on the feeling that goes with the expression you’ve created. Calm, serene or relaxed are feelings that may come to mind. Then, open your eyes to see what your facial expression looks like. Observe how your eyes show the feeling that you believe will bring a sense of calm to your child. And voilà! This is your neutral facial expression.
It may take some practice at first, but being able to show a neutral facial expression is certainly worthwhile. Just take a moment to imagine all the situations that you have yet to face in your parenting journey in which you may want to show…non-judgment. It may seem counter-intuitive, that you would consciously practice showing a non-judgmental facial expression to your child. However, the art of displaying a neutral expression, at the right moment, to your child can be positively potent during challenging times.
Conveying neutrality has the potential to open doors, invite possibilities and deepen connection when you and your child need it most. You’re one of the most important people that will face your child with this expression over the course of their lifetime. Practice getting into the neutral zone once in a while to begin creating a comforting reference point for your child, one that needs no words.
Guide your body
Relax the muscles in your body and free your hands of any objects. Decide if you prefer to stand, sit on the floor or on a chair. Think of how you’d appear to your child when you’re relaxed. What does that look like from your child’s point of view? Try to recreate the relaxed body image that your child knows means “stress-free”. You may need to practice this frequently around your child if you’re not usually seen in a relaxed body state around your home.
It can be helpful to do a little bit of nothing to prepare your body to relax into a neutral state. By doing a little bit of nothing, I mean putting your phone down, turning off the television, closing your book and ending conversations and activities that are giving your mind a focus. Spending a couple of minutes to just sit comfortably and listen to the sounds around you may be just the right amount of “doing nothing” you need to get ready to practice mindful attending to your child. You’re now ready for the next step.
Act like a documentary filmmaker
Look for a time that your child is quietly and independently engaged in an activity. Perhaps he is reading a book or she is doodling on a page. Maybe Lego pieces are scattered around the room or an imaginary scenario is in progress. Television, films and electronic games don’t count. Screen activities often direct your child’s focus and thinking.
This works best when you have a moment to observe your child deeply immersed in a self-directed activity. If you have more than one child, it’s important to try to find times to observe each one independently engaged in something they enjoy. The point of the observation is to get to know each of your children as individuals with their own unique interests and skills.
Rather than talking to or interacting with your child, think of yourself as a master documentary filmmaker whose sole job is to record your child doing whatever they’re doing in this particular moment. Think about it. A documentary filmmaker doesn’t jump into the scene to interact with the people being filmed. The point is not to direct or dictate the action. The filmmaker doesn’t control the choices and outcomes for the person being filmed.
A documentary film is often just an observational film without judgments. The purpose might be to just “watch and see” in order to educate the audience (and the filmmaker) about the unique reality of another human being. The secret is non-judgmental observational presence. This is where your magic mix of facial expression, body language and gentle presence come in to play. As you observe, you become more conscious of the joys and interests that your child values. On another level, you are creating a bond with your child and a relaxing way to be truly present to him or her.
The Three Practices
To recap, here are the three practices for more mindful parenting to help get you started with this powerful way of observing:
- Calm your face – show a neutral expression that does not show strong emotions. Do not excite or worry your child with your facial expression. Both you and your child are experts in triggering emotions in one another. Don’t do it here.
- Position your relaxed body – quietly move your body to a distance that is non-intrusive to your child while they are immersed in their chosen activity. Again, you are knowledgeable about what distance is non-intrusive for you and your child. Respect it.
- Observe without judgment – Think of your eyes as the camera of a documentary filmmaker. It’s said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul”. Here is where you can practice your nonjudgmental observation abilities. Your child will let you know if you’re successful or not as he or she is highly attuned to your nonverbal cues and can read you like a book. Practice silent, neutral observation with gentleness for about ten minutes or so.
When used together, these three practices can bring more ease, kindness and insight into your parenting. Not just for you, but for your child too. As your child gets used to this kind of mindful attention and physical presence from you, a trustworthy parent-child connection will deepen and flourish in new ways. Over time, your child’s confidence and trust will increase as he or she occasionally experiences your peaceful observation through both successes (and failures) during play time and ideally, through their developmental journey through life.
How has the absence of judgment and the focus on attentive presence affected you and your child? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!