No, I don’t mean when’s the last time you passed your kids in the playroom, buckled them into their car seats, bundled them off to school, fed them dinner, hurried them through their homework, or put them to bed. I mean when’s the last time you really noticed them? The first time we all really noticed our kids, of course, we remember like it was yesterday. In the delivery room, at the moment of their birth, our kids had our undivided attention. We registered every coo, cry, and gurgle; counted their fingers and toes; brushed their wispy hair with our fingers; and kissed them gently on their soft spots. At other momentous occasions, you probably paid pretty close attention, too. Her christening or his bris. The first day of preschool or kindergarten. The first steps they took or the first time balancing on a two-wheeler. But how long has it been since the last time you really noticed them?
All of us want to make the most of the time we have with our kids lest they grow up too fast and leave the nest before we’re ready for their childhoods to end. One of the keys to slowing down the years in the midst of the chaos of each day is to spend at least a few minutes each day noticing your kids. I call this the “Parenting Meditation.”
You intuitively know how important it is to be there for as many of your kids’ big events and small events as possible. But here’s a disturbing truth. Even if you are with your kids 24/7, which I certainly don’t recommend unless you want to drive yourself completely crazy, it won’t be enough to leave you without regrets about missed parenting opportunities someday soon when they leave for college. And college is sooner than you think, trust me! All the time you spend with your kids won’t be enough unless you are really paying attention.
As Far Eastern customs and culture have found their way to those of us in Western countries, meditation and mindfulness may have become familiar concepts to you. But even if you’ve heard the terminology, and even if you’ve tried the practice, you probably have never considered applying them to parenting. Today’s busy, multi-tasking parents require their own special form of mindfulness and meditation.
Here’s why. As your kids grow, and as you grow as a parent, you will hopefully learn to navigate family life and schedules well enough to salvage substantial time with your kids that otherwise would be lost in the everyday mayhem and madness. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you may be so overwhelmed with the responsibilities and complexities of parenthood that you toggle into automatic pilot, oblivious to the wonders you have created. If your mind is elsewhere during the precious moments you have worked so hard to preserve, you have lost your kids’ childhoods just as sure as if you hadn’t spent the time with them at all.
And it’s easy for that to happen. With your kids in the kitchen “helping” you make dinner, your mind is taking you back to this morning at the office, or pushing you ahead to tomorrow’s busy agenda. By the time you realize that you’ve zoned out, dinner is finished and the kids are upstairs doing homework. What did they say to you? What did you answer? What are they worried about? Did you comfort them? Your walk in the park with them on a weekend morning is serene and soothing—unless you’re still obsessing about the fight you had with your spouse, or about preparing your taxes, or paying your utility bill. When you get back, your kids dash off to play with friends and you’re not sure if you held hands with them on your walk, if you stopped at the playground, or even if you remembered to ask them about the bully who’s been bothering them at school. You rush from work to get to their soccer game but don’t notice them playing because you’re thinking about what you didn’t finish before you left. You film their birthday party but don’t even see what the video camera sees because you’re thinking you should be cutting the lawn, doing laundry, or fixing the car.
Sure, you can pat yourself on the back for involving the kids in dinnertime preparation, walking with them in the park, getting to their soccer practice, and being there for their birthday—but why bother? You missed those events even though you were there!
The traditional practice of mindful meditation teaches you to clear your head of the torrents of distracting thoughts that constantly interject themselves, or at least to acknowledge the distractions and dismiss them. It’s not easy. The most common approach is to focus on the involuntary act of breathing. By paying attention to something that usually requires no attention at all, despite occurring ten to twenty times every minute, the brain is given a focal point from which extraneous thoughts can be excluded. The goal is, in meditation jargon, “staying in the moment.” Staying in the moment means that what’s important is what is, right now, right here. The temptation to think back or project forward is great, but “now” is the focus of your attention during meditation. Locking in on your breathing, the most consistent and reliable manifestation of “now,” helps you stay in, and be mindful of, the moment. Ironically, kids are almost always much more “in the moment” than their parents—what matters to young kids is what’s happening this minute, not what happened yesterday or is scheduled for tomorrow.
So, how does mindful meditation apply to parenting? Taking a deep, settling breath during parenthood’s pandemonium is always a good idea, but when you are with your kids, you can’t simply tune everything out and focus on breathing while your kids are desperately asking for ice cream, advice, or the potty. But what you can do is the “Parenting Meditation” that requires a similar kind of focus. During the precious moments that you have protected to share with your kids, rather than focusing on your breathing, focus on seeing your kids, hearing them, understanding them, and being amazed by them. I mean really seeing every feature of them; really hearing every word they say and the tone they say it with; really understanding their hopes and wishes and concerns; and really being amazed by what you’ve created—living, breathing miracles of nature who are learning like sponges and growing like weeds. Stay in the moment when you have moments with your kids, just as they do. During those often too brief interludes, your kids should be all that’s happening and the only place it’s at.
For some of you, this will mean really noticing your kids for the first time in weeks or months, maybe even since that wondrous day you held them with awe in the delivery room. But how will you feel someday if the next time you really notice your child is at high school graduation, or on his wedding day? Stunned that it went by so quickly, puzzled by how you missed it even though you were there? Those are regrets; your job is to reach that day with no regrets. That requires paying attention to your kids for at least a few minutes every day, on all the days in between the big occasions. Noticing them when you’re driving them to school, when you read their bedtime story, while you’re running through a rainstorm with them or building a snowman. What are your kids thinking? What are they asking? How did they get so cute and so smart?
Here’s a trick I used to accomplish the “Parenting Meditation” : When our kids were doing something particularly cute or amazing, or sometimes even when they were just sitting quietly and reading, I paused and took a mental snapshot in my brain, froze the moment, and “channeled” the image to my dad who died before my kids were born, or to my grandparents who only knew my kids as babies. By “channeling” the moment, I experienced my kids more deeply and saw them more clearly. I really noticed them. Even now, with our kids grown, I channel special moments whenever we’re with them.
Be “mindful” of your kids, and be dazzled by them. “Meditate” on their loose teeth and their skinned knees. Marvel as they play baseball or the piano. Be overcome with wonder at their wisdom and innocence.
It is only by noticing your children that you will truly know your children.
Portions of this blog post excerpted from NO REGRETS PARENTING - Turning Long Days and Short Years into Cherished Moments with Your Kids by Harley Rotbart, M.D. with the permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing, copyright Harley Rotbart 2012.
Dr. Harley A. Rotbart has been a pediatric specialist for 30 years and is professor and vice chairman of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado. He is nationally recognized as a parenting expert, educator, speaker, and author. His latest book, No Regrets Parenting – Turning Long Days and Short Years into Cherished Moments with Your Kids (Andrews McMeel Publishing) has made the parenting bestseller lists on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. The New York Times called No Regrets Parenting “something special,” and the editor-in-chief of Parents magazine wrote, “Dr. Rotbart’s book turned my head around.” The book has been endorsed by presidents of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and by parenting experts around the country (all reviews and endorsements are at www.noregretsparenting.com.) Dr. Rotbart has been elected by his peers to Best Doctors in America every year since 1996, and serves as an advisor to Parents magazine and ABC News. He and his wife, Sara, have raised three young adult children on whom they continue to practice No Regrets Parenting.
Desperately trying to be cool and bridge the generational social media gap, Harley blogs about parenting at www.noregretsparenting.com; tweets (@NoRegretsParent); Pins (“Harley Rotbart”); is on Facebook; and is totally LinkedIn.