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April 2011

Practicing Being Present

Why Mindfulness Matters

By Linda Feldman and Annie Mahon

Eight-year-old Sophie and her mom, Erin, have been taking a family yoga class together for two years. Mindfully listening to the meditation bell at the start of class calms Sophie down. Now Sophie uses a bell at home whenever she feels stressed.

“Instead of worrying about homework,” Sophie says, “I just focus on the work itself.” For her part, Erin notices how much more accepting she herself is now toward others. “I’m not the kind of person who lived in the moment for most of my life,” she says, “but finding mindfulness has freed me up to do so.” Now Erin regularly pauses to take a moment and get in touch with what she’s thinking and feeling, enabling her to be more understanding and compassionate with others.

What Is Mindfulness?

Until recently, few people outside the yoga and meditation community had heard the term “mindfulness,” let alone knew what the concept meant. These days, there are apps to promote mindfulness on your iPhone. But what exactly is mindfulness, and why is it so important for children?

As the word suggests, mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and actions, as well as what you observe happening in the world around you. Anyone who has ever observed dust motes floating in sunlight and marveled at their beauty has experienced a moment of mindfulness and knows how blissful that moment can be. By slowing down and paying attention to whatever is happening in the present moment, the mind and body naturally open up, relax and become more accepting of the situation at hand.

Children seem to naturally gravitate toward mindfulness. They instinctively understand the concept and often practice it unconsciously whenever they play games, practice a sport, taste a snowflake or let sand pour through their fingers. However, as children start to face the same demands on their time as adults, their opportunities for such free, unstructured interactions with the world quickly wane. Over time, they can forget how to just be.

Focus on the Present Moment

This is where a conscious practice of mindfulness can help. By learning to slow down and focus on the present moment, children learn what makes them happy, what makes them anxious or sad and why. They can use the practice of mindfulness to turn their attention back to their breathing or to the activity they are engaged in, which naturally eases any anxiety they may be feeling. Mindfulness does not help children avoid suffering, but it does help them keep it in its rightful place, where they can deal with it, rather than trying to escape from feelings they don’t understand through drugs, alcohol, eating disorders or other harmful behaviors.

Mindfulness has been a part of sisters Eva and Joey’s lives ever since they can remember. Ten-year-old Joey uses specific mindfulness practices and yoga poses to calm herself. “Whenever I’m nervous, I tell myself to just be in the moment, don’t be in the future,” she says. “That way, I can see my anxiety clearly and also see that I’m safe, in the moment.”

Mindfulness has also taught Joey to be present in her body—to notice what she’s feeling physically and emotionally. At school, if she gets stressed or nervous, she physically grounds herself, placing her hands firmly on her desk and squarely planting her feet on the ground. This helps her feel solid, focused and present.

A mindfulness practice also helps children create a larger picture of who they are as a person and how they feel about themselves, their family and their friends. It helps kids focus on what they are doing and on who they are apart from what they do and what others think of them. This is helpful not only for children suffering from low self-esteem, but also for well-adjusted and popular kids, who may unconsciously experience a kind of low-grade anxiety and welcome a break from having to work so hard behind the scenes to maintain their seemingly perfect facade. During a mindful yoga class or camp, these children often welcome the opportunity to relax and relinquish their customary leadership role for a change.

Expressing Feelings

Joey’s 13-year-old sister Eva believes that being mindful helps her express her feelings to friends and family more clearly in a nonconfrontational way and enables her to be open to what others have to say. “Practicing mindfulness,” Eva says, “means you are present in your everyday interactions with people and situations, which may be happy, stressful or both. Being mindful helps me react in ways that feel healthy and comfortable. I use mindfulness in so many different situations and ways that I really feel like I am living it. It’s challenging to be mindful, but I work hard at it.”

Mindfulness can also help children focus on their other extracurricular activities, such as sports. “When I’m pitching during softball,” says Eva, “I focus on my breathing and mentally let go of each pitch, good or bad, after it’s thrown.” Because Eva is so focused, her coach once asked what she thinks about when playing. Eva replied, “I only think about one thing: one pitch and where I have to get it to go. That keeps me from getting distracted.”

The Bigger Picture

Eight-year-old Maria uses this practice when playing team sports and while rehearsing for her school play. “Mindfulness helps me focus,” she says. “When my mind starts to wander, I tell myself that I can think about other stuff later on.”

Maria’s mom Alix says the mindfulness practice she and Maria share in class has become part of their routine at home, as well. When Alix and her husband resolve a disagreement and hug, Maria usually comes over and joins in. This reminds Alix and Maria to let go of the disagreement and just enjoy the family moment.

Mindfulness teaches children about the bigger picture. They gain a deeper appreciation for things they might otherwise take for granted in life, such as the food they eat, the water they drink and the activity going on around them. They also gain a deeper understanding of how their actions have an impact on the world and vice versa. They see how discarding an empty soda can or candy wrapper on the street will probably make them feel bad, whereas consciously taking the time to pick up and dispose of someone else’s litter makes the world a better place for everyone.


Ways to Practice Mindfulness with Your Family

  • Use a bell or chime to ring one time, then listen with your child. Remember the sound whenever you get upset with her for something she said or did, and take a breath before you react. It may make the difference between lashing out in anger, and offering a more constructive response.
  • Take a minute during your family dinner, even once a week, to eat a bite of food mindfully. You may all relish the opportunity to settle down and sit quietly for a moment together.
  • When you ask your child a question, be sure to do so when you’re really available to listen to the answer.
  • When your child asks you to play with her, rather than thinking about what you should be doing instead, remind yourself how precious, joyful and fleeting this time with your child is. Often, children only want your unfocused attention for a few minutes, and you may be surprised how much you enjoy not only the time with your child, but the game as well!
  • When your child comes to you with a concern or problem, don’t just ask what happened and prescribe a solution; ask her how she feels about the situation. This often enables her to come to her own conclusions and helps her feel empowered to act in her own best interest.

Linda Feldman is the director of Budding Yogis. Annie Mahon is the founder of both Budding Yogis and its sister adult program, Circle Yoga, in Northwest D.C. Some names have been changed.