I should have spent the day with my family.
Instead I tried and failed to work all day long.
Lord, I should have spent the day with my family.
On days like this, they alone, make me want to carry on.
— Avett Brothers
If 2020 taught me anything, it was to slow… down….
At first, the sudden shift to chaos and confinement was frightening, yes. But it was also exhilarating. No more school drop-offs, no commuting, no in-person church, no one asking to get together, a lot more time at home, and so much more quality time with my kids.
But then, gradually, the stress and isolation started to wear on me. And on my kids. On all of us, I think.
It was hard enough to balance parenting with the rest of life under “normal”, pre-pandemic circumstances. But this…this was another level. Work calls, home school, constantly changing mask mandates, statistics that make you want to board your windows, lost business, all sorts of unprecedented changes to whatever business was left, screen time, and NO. BREAKS. No breaks from the worry, or the isolation, or the always being “on”.
I distinctly remember one day in late summer. It started with 5 am conference calls with people in 5 time zones. My then-2 year old superhuman child was up promptly at 6 am, followed closely by the 4 year old, who woke up so severely on the other side of the bed that I sincerely wondered who replaced her overnight. Chocolate pancakes and smoothies didn’t help. Neither did the 7 am conference call, though thankfully that one ended early because there were so many unknowns with COVID that it wasn’t even worth pretending to plan. Then something happened at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, which took over Twitter and then the news. We attempted home preschool, but that quickly descended into a homegrown version of the Portland “autonomous zone”. Then it was quesadillas, which no one ate, and Target, where thankfully no one died from extreme shopping cart acrobatics. And back home to make dinner, which I hadn’t completely, fully, entirely, even started planning yet.
But thank the heavens, it was Friday afternoon, which is always Movie Day. So we put away the groceries, picked a movie, settled down, and snuggled up next to each other on the couch.
It was the first moment of stillness we’d had all day.
As I sat there sort of just soaking in it, I had a stinging realization as it dawned on me what I’d been overlooking the whole day: my girls.
2020 was harsh and cruel, but it did have at least one virtue. It stripped away everything else I used to clutter my life with until I realized what mattered most. And it wasn’t work, or to do lists, or Instagram, or the news. It was time with my family. And that time was slipping away.
That night as I was going to bed, I had a little Come to Jesus moment. Thankfully, that was a rare sort of day. But, it gave me the clarity to see how important those little moments of stillness really are.
It was in the aftermath of that day that I stumbled upon the concept of Mindful Parenting.
Simply put, Mindful Parenting is the practice of “introducing more space, silence, and stillness into [our] homes” (The Power of Stillness, p. 174). It’s about being more present with your kids—more attentive and compassionate toward their own emotions, as well as your own.
When our beautiful child comes up to us and smiles, we are completely there for her.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
As I’ve struggled to put this into practice with my kids, the best ideas have been the ones that involve slight, simple adjustments to our routine, and cause small but powerful shifts.
Here are just a few to try.
With the Kids
- One-on-one Time: At the end of the day, spend 5 minutes alone with each kid—in your bed, in their bed, in the hallway, on your lap, wherever gives them some sense of space away from everything else. You can talk about your day, or cuddle, or read a story, but that quiet, together time can be powerful.
Our full attention may be the greatest gift we can give our children.
- Ask questions: At bedtime or during alone time, ask your child something like, “Anything you want to talk about tonight?” Wait, and see if anything comes up. If nothing does, don’t rush off. It can sometimes take a few minutes for kids to open up after the events of the day. It may also take a few tries and a pattern of asking before they’re ready to share.
- Thorns and Roses: At the end of the day, ask your kids to name their favorite and least favorite parts of the day. We’ve tried various versions of this game: “Thorns and Roses”, “Peach and Pit”, “Rainbow and Cloud”. Let your kids come up with a name for this if they want.
- Play the “Right now” Game: You and your kid take turns coming up with sentences that start with “Right now…”. Like: “Right now the sun is shining.” “Right now, there’s music playing.” “Right now, I’m feeling mad.” “Right now, I’m holding you.” “Right now, you’re crying.” This is great for car rides, or times of frustration.
- Help your kids practice “Unicorn Breathing”: Take 3 deep breaths. With each breath in, imagine breathing in a rainbow, one color at a time. When you breathe out, imagine breathing out unicorn dust. How slowly can you breathe out the unicorn dust? How far can you blow it out?
- Practice “Five Fingered Breathing”: Hold out your hand in front of you, with the fingers separated, and help your kids follow along with their own hands. With your other pointer finger, start at the base of your thumb and trace up to the tip of your finger while breathing in. Trace back down the opposite side of your thumb while breathing out slowly. Do the same with each finger, all the way to your pinky.
- Breathe Before: Before family dinner, or family prayer, or family movie time, take three deep breaths all together.
- Dinner Togetherness: Reframe dinner time as less of a task to complete and more of a time to be still and together.
- Tea Time: Hold a “tea time” (or snuggle time, or snack time, or talk time) after school each day with your kids. Focus on slowing down and reconnecting.
- Put the phone away: Actively choose to not let your phone interrupt time with your kids, even if that means occasionally stepping into the bathroom to check a notification.
Leave the children alone when you must and then really be with them when you can . . . instead of half paying attention to them all the time (cough smart-phone cough).
— Catherine Newman
- Be bored: Practice teaching your kids — and reminding yourself—that it’s ok to be bored. This can prove especially helpful on the edges of screen time limits…
- Set up a “Calm Down Spot”, somewhere in your home. Fill this special space with soft pillows, blankets, and soothing objects. Ask your kids to help you decorate it and make it their own. Help them use it as a place to retreat and process when emotions get a little too big.
- Gratitude Circle: Sit with your kids in a circle (or side-by-side if it’s one-on-one time). Take turns saying one thing you’re grateful for, going around the circle three times.
- Reconsider chores: Practice using each of the chores during your day as moments of mindfulness. This might mean taking three deep breaths before doing dishes, or saying a little prayer before laundry, or just pausing to feel gratitude before wiping the table.
- Invite perspective: During a moment of calm, meditate on and invite a sense of perspective about your child’s life — all the memories of where they’ve been already, and the days and years ahead of them. Strangely, reflecting on the bigger picture actually helps ground us in the present.
Bringing deeper awareness to parenting also helps remind us that everything comes and goes, including sickness, messes, demands, and sleepiness.
- Do Not Disturb: Pick a “Do Not Disturb” time during your day when you can commit to turning on Do Not Disturb on your phone and engaging with your kids 100%. Even 15 minutes can make a powerful difference.
- Presence vs. Control: Meditate on the difference between being fully in control, and fully present. Make a conscious choice to stay fully present, even if that means giving up some control over the moment.
- Pause Before: Before getting home from work, or before the kids get back from school, or before going to pick them up, take a few moments to pause, breathe, and invite gratitude and stillness.
- Self-Interview: Occasionally throughout your day, pause to check in with your own emotions. Take note of where and when you feel stressed, annoyed, angry, “hangry”, happy, lighthearted, amused, grateful, etc.
Mindfully observing the tensions or irritations that arise as parents with our children provides an opportunity for deeper, broader reflection and growth. Noticing our internal reactions to discipline problems with more compassion and space also allows us to be wiser and more empathetic in our responses.
It’s certainly not always easy to invite more space, silence, and stillness into our day. It’s hard enough just to do this on our own, let alone with maniac munchkins or terrifying teenagers orbiting around us. But starting with slight adjustments can yield powerful changes in the ways we connect with our kids.
This time we have with them can’t ever be re-spooled. Let each moment feel as precious as it really is.
This world continues turning.
What has happened will never be undone.
But tomorrow I think
I’ll just try to keep the day wide open,
And as much as they will have me
Be with people that I love.
— Avett Brothers