Mindful Parenting: 5 Tools to Increase Your Attention Span
Let’s face it. Patience may be a virtue but it’s not a strong suit in our culture. We are constantly required to show results, aim for instant gratification and hold ourselves to unrealistic expectations. And in many cases, this could not be more true about the state of the family. We hold high standards for ourselves as parents, expecting ourselves to look like we have it all together with a perfectly organized home, an activity list that goes on for miles, and children who are always well-behaved. Our kids also feel the pressure as they are encouraged to be top of their class in school and excel in sports, music, and other activities. We are always on the go and we often shame ourselves into working too hard, unhappy with our current results.
With this kind of mindset, it’s easy to get caught up either replaying the past or worrying about the future. In fact, a recent Harvard study indicates that we spend nearly 50% of our waking hours thinking about something other than what we are doing. With all the hustle and bustle, we forget to live in and enjoy the present moment, the only moment available to us. We lose track of the beauty in front of us – your son’s laugh, your daughter’s smile, the color of their eyes in the sunlight, or how fast they are growing up. Every moment is impermanent and has something to offer that we may be missing.
Mindfulness is the art of becoming aware of and accepting the present moment. The practice of mindfulness naturally leads us to be patient with ourselves and others, becoming less triggered by stimuli that may have previously caused stress, guilt, fear, or anger. It’s not about doing less, but rather gaining more from the moments that are already available to us and rearranging neural pathways to react with ease as we take on future challenges.
The basic principles of mindfulness below have proven to be especially helpful in my own life and family, enabling me to take on challenges with a new mindset. These tools to live in the present moment have not only cultivated change in myself but also in the people around me. Children are especially receptive to our example as we learn to react with patience, kindness, observation, and grace.
Having a beginner’s mind means approaching each moment with curiosity. It is so easy for us to create a pre-conceived idea of what each moment will be like, but the truth is that each moment is unlike any other – new, unique and unrepeatable.
Learning to meet each moment with curiosity can help us face uncertainty. Sometimes acknowledging that we don’t know and that we aren’t in control can bring a great deal of peace while allowing us to experience the reality placed before us. By curiously observing each moment for what it is, we may even learn that unpleasant moments are passing, impermanent and valuable.
Taking in these moments with curiosity, try to observe the features of your children who are growing so fast. What does their voice sound like? What are they feeling in this moment? How can you, as the parent, relate to their emotions or approach their needs in a new way? Even as we are rushing from one activity to the next, we can make ourselves more available to our children simply by paying attention to the current moment.
Efficiency is not something to be overlooked. However, when it comes to our often judgmental minds, efficiency can sometimes prevent us from perceiving the moment accurately and cause us to develop unhealthy habits of thought.
In our fast-paced environment, it’s natural to make quick judgements about each moment, labeling events as “good” or “bad.” Often, the person we are quickest to judge is ourselves. These are very natural tendencies. The problem is that when we give into these thoughts they start to become a pattern and we let them control us.
As an alternative, when you find yourself with a judgmental thought about yourself, another person, or the present moment, try to come back to a state of observation and curiosity. Yes – we can even be curious about our own thoughts because, after all, our thoughts do not comprise who we are. We can separate ourselves from our thoughts by observing them as mental events and in this way become more aware of our natural tendencies.
Try to acknowledge your thoughts without judgement. What are they? Acknowledge and face the emotions you feel in this moment. What body sensations are tied with these thoughts and emotions? Do you feel the stress in your shoulders, your jaw, your chest, etc.?
Striving means trying to get somewhere or achieve a goal. There are some moments when striving is a very good thing and others moments when we place unneeded pressure on ourselves. When it comes to work, striving mode may be necessary. However, when it comes to family time, it’s all too common to let striving mode take away from the experiences we could be having with our children.
As you learn to become aware of the moment, try to differentiate opportunities for go-mode versus non-striving mode. If your mind is striving to get somewhere other than where you are, chances are that you are wasting energy and brining unnecessary stress on yourself and others.
Acknowledgment and Acceptance:
By observing the present moment, we are learning to acknowledge things for how they currently are. Don’t get me wrong – this doesn’t mean that you have to like things as they currently are or that you shouldn’t try to improve them for the future. However, it is important that we can accept our current state, at least as a starting place, instead of holding to an attachment of how we want our situation to be.
The irony is that the more we hold onto how we want it to be rather than accepting how it is, the greater suffering we create for ourselves. Learning to face the present moment for what it is can provide us with an accurate assessment of our situation and help us to work through it.
Whether we are struggling to be a better spouse/parent, avoiding an unpleasant life event, or wishing a better scenario for our children, try to acknowledge the present moment for what it is. Using the above suggestions of beginner’s mind, non-judging, and non-striving can really help us accept these difficult situations.
Growth takes time and repeated effort. There are going to be times when we succeed and times when we fail. Sometimes acknowledgement leads us to recognize how frequently we fail, which we may not have been aware of in the past. The trick is to approach these scenarios with kindness and gentleness.
It’s common to feel shame when we don’t live up to the standards we had set for ourselves, but shame is the enemy of growth and actually inhibits the mind from learning. Try to kindly bring yourself back to a non-judging mindset as you experience the waves of growth. Showing kindness to ourselves and others is a natural remedy for fear, anger, greed, and judgement.
Learning to live in the present moment can bring a great peace to the family. Each time we practice these mindfulness techniques we are sparking a change in neural pathways. This helps us break our old habits and makes it easier to approach situations differently in the future. These tools can also help us to cultivate patience for ourselves and others, enduring difficult moments with less reactivity and increasing our attention spans as we take note of the many amazing things happening all around us. Remember that the present moment is all the we ever have and it is worth experiencing.
Aly began working with Families of Character in 2017. Her and her husband have seen the value of intentionally growing in character in their own marriage. Now they are excited to pass on what they've learned with their expected son!