Written by Cody Rounds
Mindfulness. It’s the buzzword you’ve been hearing everywhere that claims to help with your health, happiness, and ex-partner drama. So what is it? Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally being aware of the present moment and not making judgments about it. This seemingly simple canon can be applied to virtually anything to make it a mindfulness exercise: mindful eating, mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful whatever. Mindful meditations ask you to keep your awareness trained on a specific subject in your experience here and now, with the favored focal points being your breath, mind, or body.
People of all ages who practice mindfulness say that they benefit from an increased resilience to stress, better concentration, a deeper understanding of their own needs, and a more optimistic outlook on life in general. Meditation practitioners often talk about befriending their emotions and fostering a sense of calmness, rather than letting mood swings carry them away. Mindfulness is offered by some psychologists as an alternative to antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, and there are even doctors who suggest it as a pain-management tool for chronic conditions.
The benefits of mindfulness are not just anecdotal, however; science has backed the claims of its advantages. Hundreds of studies have been conducted as researchers try to figure out what’s so magical about being mindful, and they’ve resulted in proof that the mind-body connection exists. One study found that just eight weeks of consistent meditation is capable of changing the expression of our genes, decreasing inflammation, and lowering blood pressure. Another showed that even novice meditators could benefit from nervous system and cardiovascular changes. MRI scans found that mindfulness exercises actually alter gray matter in the brain. The participants’ brains showed thicker areas associated with creativity and memory, while areas associated with stress became smaller.
So all you need to do is pay attention to what’s happening right now and nothing else. Easy peasy, right? Not really.
Try five minutes of mindful breathing, and see how quickly your concentration diverts from the rise and fall of your chest to your busy calendar or that thing your mom said that one time. Even harder is the body scan meditation, a mindfulness staple in which you hold your awareness on the sensations or lack of sensations that are currently present in different parts of your body: “Settle your awareness on the feeling of nothingness in your big toe for fifteen minutes.”
Mindfulness can be an arduous practice of hours-long meditation, but bite-sized meditations that are adapted for a busy lifestyle are much more accessible and just as beneficial. This can look like simply paying full attention to the act of brushing your teeth or becoming aware of your current breathing pattern a couple of times a day. Mindfulness is a practice, meaning that the goal is not to achieve a perfect end result of unwavering concentration but rather to engage consistently with the meditations. The results come from finding ways to weave the meditations into your life in a way that allows them to become a routine part of it.
To be mindful is to be aware.
Think of our awareness not as good (aware) or bad (unaware) but as a changeable quality that adapts to fit our needs. In our accomplishment-driven world, we need to multitask and be efficient. Our awareness has evolved to become shallow so that we can spread it out among several tasks at once. In order to get everything done, we usually give a task as little attention as is necessary. A shallow awareness can be a great asset, such as when you’re getting the kids fed, packed, and onto the bus. Other times it’s detrimental, such as when you’re almost at work and realize that you can’t remember whether or not you turned off the stove. We’re all guilty of finding that half-empty cup of coffee we don’t remember drinking.
Technology is the worst offender of shallow awareness training. You’re definitely not fully aware of what you’re doing if you’re thinking, “Hold on, let me just read this text.” With pop-up ads and constant push notifications, it’s almost impossible to avoid distraction from whatever we’re trying to focus on. It feels rude when someone you’re talking to pulls out a phone because it signals to you that he or she isn’t really listening. Do you remember a time when we didn’t have screens everywhere and it was easier to be in the moment? Well, our kids don’t.
Children naturally exist in a creative, exciting world of their own, full of chaos and spontaneous inspiration. Kids nowadays are growing up in a world of text beeps and snapchat buzzes saying, “Hey, stop what you’re doing and look at your phone right now!” Their awareness is trained to meet the needs of their environment, meaning that their focus shifts readily to accommodate the next notification (a.k.a. distraction.) Socially, it’s considered rude to let a message go unanswered for too long. Society pressures us to stop what we’re doing to answer a text, but it also says that it’s bad to be distracted. Hmm. Think about that next time you ask your child, “What took you so long to answer me?”
Children don’t have many reasons to turn their awareness inward and contemplate themselves. They’re way too busy exploring how they fit into the world around them to notice that they get frustrated when they skip nap time or go too long without a snack. Most kids haven’t learned to be self-aware yet. They don’t think about their emotions; they become their emotions. They aren’t fully in touch with their needs so they don’t know how to keep themselves functioning at optimal capacity. But when children begin to practice mindfulness, they start to tune into their mind and body in a way that even many adults haven’t mastered. They begin to develop self-awareness.
Mindfulness teaches kids to pause and check in with themselves: analyze first, act second. The meditations introduce them to their body, emotions, and thought processes from the standpoint of an observer. This distinction can be life-changing. When kids stop identifying as their thoughts and emotions and start identifying as someone whom those thoughts and emotions are happening to, they’re able to analyze them instead of letting impulse dictate their actions. They become aware that undesired results are caused by their emotional reactions, or that thoughts of inadequacy became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is when they begin to regulate themselves. I’ve gotten feedback from parents of my students claiming that the entire dynamic in the home changed once their child realized how his or her emotionally-charged reactions were contributing to arguments. Self-awareness makes kids responsible.
My favorite thing about mindfulness is how it empowers kids, especially those who are insecure or twice-exceptional. The online learning community I teach with, Royal Fireworks, identifies twice-exceptional students as “gifted people…who have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia; attentional or behavioral disorders, such as ADD or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; or physical disabilities, such as blindness.” Awareness of these students and their needs is growing, and they’re finally getting the attention they deserve. The validity of the one-size-fits-all school system is being questioned, and teachers are becoming more sensitive to students’ individualized learning differences, twice-exceptional or not. The growing awareness of these differences validates children by providing an explanation for their struggles, but it can also have a dark side.
What I’ve seen in and out of the classroom is a tendency for children to view their learning difference not as a hurtle but as a blockade. The following are real statements that I’ve heard from my students:
- “I want to warn you: my work isn’t going to be very good when I turn it in next week.”
- “I didn’t do any of my homework because of my prefrontal cortex issues.”
- “I wanted to take that class, but I figured I wouldn’t be able to pay attention.”
I know a child who refers to his Adderall prescription as his “focus medicine.” To him, ADHD = sick.
Somewhere along the line, these kids internalized the idea that their difference was a fault. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t fit them, and they think that makes them wrong. They identify as a dysfunctional person, like a machine missing a part. What they’re really saying is, “I can’t do this because I’m broken.”But these children aren’t broken; they’re disempowered. They have all the tools they need to improve in areas where they struggle; they just haven’t been taught how to use them.
After establishing their mindfulness practice, kids (and adults) begin to notice differences in how they respond to stress. They start to pause before yelling and choose a thoughtful response instead. Not only is their attention span longer, but they become better at realizing when they’ve gotten distracted and can refocus quicker. Once they start to see these changes, they realize that they have agency. Mindfulness shows them that they can improve areas that they struggle with, if they choose, and that they alone are responsible to make it happen. Just like that, the “I Can’t” mindset is forever disproven.
So how can you begin practicing mindfulness with your kids? A good start is to meet them where they are. For younger children, there are many books available that introduce mindfulness and self-awareness concepts in a fun, engaging way. Older kids and teens can enroll in a more in-depth course like the ones at Royal Fireworks. They can also take advantage of the wide variety of online videos that are available, or they can download user-friendly apps such as Headspace or Calm directly onto their phones for easily-accessible meditations. Lucky for us, mindfulness is contagious. The single best way to get mindful kids is by being a mindful parent.