Almost two years ago, my maternal grandmother passed away. We called her “MomMom” because she didn’t like the title “Grandma.” She was one of the kindest and loving people I have ever known. Our greetings were always the same. She would place her hands on my cheeks, look into my eyes for a couple of seconds, and then ask how I was doing. She did this with all of her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We all knew that the question of how we were doing was unnecessary because she could tell as she looked into our eyes. There was no hiding anything from MomMom. She would then listen intently as we talked about the details of our lives, with her focus firmly fixed on each of us, one at a time. There were no distractions, no interruptions. We all knew she loved us individually because of the time and attention she gave each one.
I realize now that what she exhibited was a combination of many current buzzwords in today’s psychology literature – being present, living in the moment, reciprocal conversation, reflective listening. But what she demonstrated most of all was the ability to be mindful, intently focusing on the current moment, and making the most of it. Looking back, I find this quality among the most endearing of the many she possessed.
Mindfulness is defined in the psychology world as: “a technique in which one focuses one’s full attention only on the present, experiencing thoughts, feelings, and sensations but not judging them.” (Dictionary.com) The benefits of mindfulness include greater peace and contentment, lower levels of negative stress, and greater enjoyment of activities.
My topic in this article might be considered mindfulness with a twist. Traditional mindfulness focuses primarily on the self. But the principles of mindfulness can be applied outwardly as well, particularly with regard to those closest to us. Within families, mindfulness can strengthen relationships and increase feelings of closeness and appreciation for each other. This can happen as we “focus our full attention only on the present” interaction we’re having with a child or spouse. So what may prevent this from happening?
The many distractors from mindfulness include the usual suspects: television, video games, computers, binge-watching Netflix or Prime, or obsessive pursuit of any activity, just to name a few. But probably the biggest culprit in today’s society, often robbing us of meaningful interpersonal interactions, is in our pockets (or hands) right now. The smartphone, with all of its uses, has become a giant time and attention vacuum. The interruptions caused by its frequent alerts would be considered rude and intolerable if they came from another person. Yet we happily stop whatever we are saying or doing to check our little attention monger whenever it chirps. We might tell our child that it’s rude to interrupt one minute, and then interrupt our own conversation to check our phone the next. I’m using the words “we” and “our” here intentionally… guilty as charged.
So what can we do to increase mindfulness in ourselves and our children? And how can we use this practice to improve our relationships? Practices such as “mindfulness of breathing,” meditation, guided imagery, etc., can certainly be helpful, and I do not discourage them. However, for the purposes of this article, I chose to focus on those aspects of mindfulness, like “being present,” which are more likely to be helpful with family relationships.
Take Advantage of Opportunities
There are likely many chances for meaningful interaction with our children in the course of the typical day. But are we taking full advantage of these? Car rides, doing chores together, playing games, going on walks, waiting for the doctor or dentist to come into the room (hopefully not too long!), can all be prime opportunities to exhibit genuine interest in our children and focus our attention on them. How many car rides, for instance, are spent in silence or listening to the radio, when real and needed conversation could be taking place? This time can be spent doing much more than going from one place to another. For young children, the more speech they hear the better for verbal development. For teens, the car may be the only place we have them as a captive audience!
The family dinner table is another great time and place to practice being present with our children. In some families, schedules don’t allow for everyone to be together for dinner. But whenever possible, consistently eating dinner together allows for so much more than just eating. It’s a great chance to catch up on events of the day or week and to reconnect for a few minutes. This time can prove invaluable for busy families if the principles of mindfulness are employed.
Create New Opportunities
Barbara Howard, MD, one of the preeminent behavioral pediatricians in the country, is a big proponent of a practice she terms “Special Time.” It can also be called other things such as “Mommy Time” or “Daddy Time” and should be consistently called the same thing within your family. It involves setting aside 10-15 minutes per day, or longer if time allows, to devote exclusively to each child. There should be no distractions or interruptions. The child chooses the activity, and almost anything goes, except for watching screens. If this is done every day, according to Dr. Howard, it becomes a symbol of our unconditional love for our child. Therefore, it should never be taken away as a punishment. This practice is clearly more applicable to younger children, but the concept is the same as teenagers, although more creativity will likely be required.
Put Down the Phone
We are likely all sick of hearing this, but there is no question that our phones interfere with interpersonal interactions. Here’s one example: The majority of people in my office spend their wait time on their phones (or other screens). I usually enter to find that the only sound in the room is coming from the video playing on the phone. On occasion, I will enter the room to find a parent and teen intently conversing, or a parent reading to a younger child or playing “I Spy” or some other fun game. These latter cases are time better spent.
I recently started trying to keep my phone out of my pocket when I’m at home. By leaving it on the counter or in the bedroom, I’ve been able to focus more on my family. It surprised me how often I reached for my phone. But when it wasn’t there, I realized I didn’t really need it. Any habit can be broken with consistent effort. With regard to teenagers, how can they be expected to regulate their own smartphone use if they see us constantly using ours? What was the definition of hypocrisy again?
One of the most fundamental ways for people to connect with each other is through intentional eye contact. But within families, many become lazy or careless in the practice of this interpersonal necessity. It is courteous and respectful to make and maintain appropriate eye contact when conversing with someone. Yet how often do we extend this courtesy to our children? As parents, we will be better heard, understood, and appreciated if we make efforts to truly “see” our children by looking in their eyes as we address them. Some of us may even develop the special powers MomMom clearly possessed. This also serves as a form of modeling, helping our children learn important interpersonal skills from us, just as they should.
Expressions of Affection
If we are more present with and mindful of, our children, we will be more likely to express our love for them in both words and actions. When was the last time we looked at one of our children in the eye and meaningfully expressed love and gratitude for them? When was the most recent hug? When our children are younger, it’s often easier to do these things, and hopefully, good habits form. With teenagers, this can all be a little more difficult, for many reasons. However, their need for feelings of love and acceptance is at least as great as in the younger set. This can often break down walls and improve relationships in those who have grown apart. Mindfulness can help us as parents to take advantage of opportunities to tell and show our children how much they mean to us in ways that will not happen if we are too distracted or otherwise occupied.
In conclusion, it is my hope that this part of intentional parenting can benefit all of us as we raise our children in these challenging times. For some, like MomMom, these behaviors and practices come easily and seem natural. For others, I think most of us, a lot more work and effort may be required. Regardless of which group we find ourselves in, we can improve our ability to be mindful and present. Although the events and circumstances of life may not change dramatically, mindfulness increases satisfaction and meaning in everyday living, for ourselves and our children.
Richard Paxton, MD
Canyon View Pediatrics