Including two acts of engagement in our daily Mindful Parenting practice seems obvious, but I am always surprised how many days can slip by in our hectic lives without truly having connected with our kids. It is critical, both for our kids and for us, to find ways to create meaningful moments during the time we have together.
Time with our kids can often feel like it is slipping away. Everywhere we turn is a busy schedule, and depending on your own work commitments and their school and activities calendar, there may be as little as one or two hours a day for you to spend with them.
Instead of worrying about how much time you spend with your kids, think about the quality of the time you spend with them. Not every day is going to be perfect. We are going to make mistakes, be irritated, want to pull out our hair—but a few meaningful moments can go a long way. These moments become the moments our kids remember, the ways they will define us as parents, and the keys to maintaining a healthy relationship as our kids get older.
Intentionally create two opportunities every day for mindful engagement with your child. Try not to have an agenda for these times, rather allow your purpose to simply be present and fully engaged in the moment-to-moment experience. Here are a few ideas.
For Young Children:
- Schedule 15 minutes of snuggle time before bed (read books, sing songs, sit with them as they take a bath)
- Take a mindful walk around the block (listen for sounds of animals, try to see something you have never seen before, listen to what your child has to say—leave your phone at home!)
- Play with Legos - create something that is not in the directions
- Build a block tower - follow their lead and see what you can create together
- Dance and sing - put on some fun tunes and have a dance party
- Eat meals together - establish a ritual of eating meals together when your kids are young. This is one of the best ways to raise healthy, productive, happy kids!
- Play catch
- Play a board game like Apples to Apples or Yahtzee
- Walk to school or home from school together
- Leave your phone at home as you drive them to and from activities
- Star gaze for five minutes before bed
- Go out for ice cream or a smoothie after school
- Eat dinner as a family
For Tweens & Teens (Yes, this is still possible with Tweens and Teens):
- Eat dinner as a family (as much as possilble due to busier schedules!)
- Make a ritual of watching your favorite sports team play
- Play catch or shoot baskets (they are NOT too old)
- Notice times when they are open to talking and make yourself available (this may be late at night)
- Make them breakfast and eat with them before school
- Create a family sports pool that requires weekly interaction
- Go skiing, fishing, biking or to the museum together
Why Engagement Is So Important
We are all born with the latent potential in our brains to develop empathy, a keystone to building relationships as well as the ability to regulate our emotions. That latent potential, however, is not enough. We need the proper conditioning to develop and strengthen those neural pathways.
Human beings have evolved from living in larger, dense groups with high ratios of adults to children. In modern times we are increasingly isolated in our homes, in our jobs, and in front of screens. Our decreased opportunities for face time with other humans is leading to a form of what Bruce Perry calls “relational starvation.” Without that sociological immersion, our latent potential for empathic connections with other people isn’t being developed. We aren’t honing the same skills related to empathy that we used to. This is problematic for all sorts of reasons, chief among them that empathy leads to healthy relationships, and healthy relationships are our best natural defense against stress.
From an evolutionary standpoint, we are neurobiologically designed to feel safest when we belong to and are part of a group. In the brain, the stress response is lowered when we are around familiar people. Our heart beats more slowly and more regularly, and our breathing deepens and slows. Our digestive system is able to function properly because our body isn’t on high alert. Even if we don’t realize we are doing so, our brains are busy decoding and reflecting either calm and love or stress and tension when we encounter the behavior of others.
When we are around people who are calm, soothing, and happy these emotions are naturally invoked in our own brains, our mirror neurons fire in response to a soothing tone of voice, or to smiles and other pleasing facial expressions, and to slow, deliberate movements. When we aren’t around familiar people—our “tribe”—we are more naturally stressed as our brains try to determine if we are indeed safe in this strange group, or whether we are in danger. Our stress response kicks in, making us physiologically, emotionally, and cognitively vulnerable to stress. Every face-to-face encounter we have through a given day presents an opportunity either for our stress response to fire or the beneficial physiological effects of being part of a tribe to help keep us on an even keel, the latter further developing our empathic skills.
Modern society has presented a few more challenges to this development. Now, simply being in the same room, even doing the same activity, does not guarantee engagement with one another. That is why this exercise presented above, whereby we are creating our own opportunities to intentionally engage with our children is so vital to their brain development and our happiness.
For more of this 5 part series, please visit Part 1 where I introduced the concept of Generation Stress and explained the life changing benefits of practicing 5 Minutes of Mindful Breathing every day. In Part 2 we added the practice, 4 Roses, that helps us bring a more positive focus to our day-to-day lives. In Part 3 we added the profound practice of Gratitude and discussed simple ways to practice as a family.
Dr. Kristen Race is the author of "Mindful Parenting," and founder of Mindful Life. As the parent of two young children, Dr. Race is quite familiar with the hectic lives of what she calls "generation stress." Through her work, Kristen fuses the science of the brain with simple mindfulness strategies for families, schools and business, all designed to create resiliency towards stress. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and she is a regular blogger for The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and at her website, www.mindfullifetoday.com.