A few weeks ago our refrigerator went temporarily and inexplicably on the brink, upending our afternoon plans as we made a mad dash to cook or save all the goods in our fridge. The next day, with the fridge fixed, my son and I gathered our reusable grocery bags and headed out to the car for our twice monthly trip to Whole Foods to pick up essentials like his favorite hemp milk and cereal. Elijah was chattering away in the backseat when I realized, heart sinking, that the car’s battery was dead. For Elijah, this disruption was akin to learning someone was going to take away his favorite toy, and a meltdown turned him from a happy little guy into a tear-streaked mess who refused to get out of his car seat, despite the summer heat. Less than an hour later, after having had the car jumped, we were in Whole Foods, giggling and chomping away on summer’s sweet blueberries. This crazy swing of events got me thinking: When was the last time I appreciated the fact that my car generally started and ran? Or was thankful that I had a refrigerator so that I could have cold water on one of these increasingly frequent sweltering summer days? It seems like it’s only when something goes wrong that I appreciate that it ever went right. This, of course, got me thinking more: How can I teach my child to appreciate things as they happen and to show them they can learn from both the good and the bad?
It’s natural to want to protect our children from certain bumps in the road: avoiding trips to the hospital, heartache, or even your garden variety, ate-too-much-pizza stomachaches. But sometimes these little setbacks are helpful, and not just in making parents more mindful and grateful for what we have. A kid who never experiences any stress, disappointment, or frustration will have a much harder time dealing with those situations when he or she is older: ask any parent who indulged their two-year-old every time he asked for something. Ever seen a spoiled six-year-old having a full-blown temper tantrum over not getting an ice cream cone? Not so pretty.
Parents often complain that their children are ungrateful and that their kids want endless video games, toys, and treats. We have to remember that most kids aren’t born with a deep sense of gratitude and that it has to be taught. Having lived and traveled in several countries where extreme poverty is the norm, I often wonder how (aside from traveling with them to experience this firsthand) I can realistically explain to my children how lucky and fortunate we are to live the life we do.
One of the best ways I can think of to instill a sense of mindfulness is to show how much I appreciate things, how I can pause and experience whatever we are doing when we are in the act of doing it. This can be as simple as partaking in a game of Candy Land (even when there are clothes to be folded and dishes to do) or by pointing out birds and squirrels on our morning walk. Teaching mindfulness to our kids is easier than it might appear-they are already experts at living in the moment and enjoying experiences with no thought to what lies ahead.
Over the past year, I have tried to follow the parenting advice to “catch my child doing something good.” Basically, instead of focusing always on what he did wrong or didn’t do, I praise my child for doing something, however small or common the deed was: “I had so much fun playing trains with you. You were so sweet to share the engines with me.” Or “You were really helpful at the grocery store when the line was moving slowly.” Amazingly, my son has started parroting praise and appreciation back to me, telling me, “We are having a great time sharing at the pool today” and has actually started saying “thank you” without any prompting. It’s not exactly a revolutionary concept to appreciate the present and comment on it, but it’s sorely underused as a technique in the real world. When was the last time your boss patted you on the back for coming in and doing your job? The praise might not be expected or required for you to keep working, but anyone would benefit from a boost like that.
Another way we have tried to up the appreciation ante is at dinner. We had trouble remembering to say our thanks since dinnertime at our house generally begins with a ravenous toddler reaching for his food before he has even been strapped into his booster seat. So we took a paper plate, decorated it with stickers, deemed it the “grace plate” and stuck it on our table as a visual reminder to say a quick, succinct “thank you.” Saying grace doesn’t have to be religious in nature: we chose “Thank you for this food and the energy it gives us” because we thought it was easy enough for a toddler to understand and repeat. I have also heard many stories of families who play “high/low” or “rose/thorn”, a game where everyone at the table says one good thing and one bad thing that happened to them during the course of the day. For families with schedules that don’t allow communal dinnertime, try saying thanks or playing this game at bedtime, breakfast, or even once a week at a less-busy time.
And as for those bumps in the road that will inevitably occur, we can try and handle them as gracefully as possible and teach our children to do the same. Taking deep breaths helps, as does trying to remember two or three things we are grateful for. Even very young children can learn about deep breathing techniques or basic yoga postures to use when they are upset or overwhelmed (such as child’s pose or rag-doll pose).
As kids get older, events that take us out of the daily grind, even bad ones, can turn into much more important learning opportunities. Without scaring them or trying to make them feel guilty, parents can teach their children about the hardships and struggles that occur around the world. A tween who complains about the annoyance of having to go to school can learn about the sacrifices that girls in Afghanistan make to simply have the opportunity to learn how to read and write. A child who becomes upset when his favorite snack isn’t available at Grandma’s can be told how some children eat only a small amount of porridge or rice once a day. Children who are exposed to the often difficult lifestyles of most other cultures around the world will learn empathy, compassion, and will hopefully cultivate a desire to actively reach out and help others.
Trying to be more mindful and appreciative of our days isn’t totally natural for us yet, and it isn’t always easy either. But I am already seeing the positive effects on our family. When we are all together, instead of complaining (as I used to do, more often than I would like to admit) about Elijah’s refusal to wear anything but a Thomas the Train shirt or the battle to brush his teeth, I choose to remember how nicely he transitioned from the pool when I told him it was time to come out and tell my husband about that part of our day. Kids love getting recognition for choosing to behave well; by recognizing their good choices, we increase the likelihood that they will happen again. For my husband and I, there is also a positive effect in being more appreciative and mindful on a regular basis: we remember the day for its high points instead of for its frustrations or disappointments and our evening begins on a positive note.
One of the most challenging yet liberating lessons that we learn as parents is impermanence: just when we think we have our child’s nap routine or meal preferences down, something or someone changes. By learning to accept these changes, to focus on the positive within them, and to calmly handle the unexpected challenges that are thrown our way, we head down a path toward becoming more present and satisfied with our daily lives and toward hopefully guiding our children along that same path.
Lead image © flickr user Jessebezz