The Mindful Parent Evolution
By Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Mediation Practitioner
The article below was written at the end of 2019 but because of the Pandemic, it was never published. My hope is that despite the diversities brought about by this Pandemic life, perhaps the imposed change of pace and cleared off calendar space is helping parents to see the value in slowing down and cultivating the unstructured time when children can be thoroughly absorbed in play. In the coming months, as more activities open up for children, the impulse may be there to make up for lost time and enroll in as many activities as possible (old habits do die hard). But in your enthusiasm to get your children back out there please remember this: play is a language, it is a form of artistic expression, it is a relational experience and it is necessary for the optimal development and wellbeing of our children.
The Mindful Parent Evolution
The need for expressing the intrapsychic (internal) landscape is an essential part of being human, which is evidenced all the way back to 44,000 years ago with the earliest known cave paintings. This need for expression has nothing to do with skill and everything to do with the process of getting what’s on the inside out and into the physical world where it can be digested, adorned, and shared. We can observe this same need for creative expression in children. It presents in many forms such as imaginative play, singing, dancing, drawing, make-believe, creating with play dough, sand, Legos, blocks, and just about anything they can get their hands on. In their own very special and uninhibited way, children always find the means to project their intrapsychic landscape out into the physical world where it can be processed, appreciated, and shared. In modern society though, we have made the mistake of stripping down this inherent creativity in children and compartmentalizing it through skill-based, talent-based, performative activities authored by the adult world. We have forgotten just how very essential play and unadulterated creative expression are to the optimal development of our children.
Let’s reflect for a moment here and take inventory of how often throughout your parenting years you’ve had this conversation with yourself. Notice the trail of anxiety that inevitably follows these thoughts.
“That sounds like a great idea! Why haven’t we started music lessons with (Ronda) yet. Albeit she’s already taking dance, and swim, and soccer… but guitar! What a great idea. I don’t want her to miss out on developing her musical faculties… Always better to start early before it’s too late and she’s too far behind her peers to pick it up.”
We belong to the cultural milieu of the Over-Conscientious Parent. We want to expose our children to every opportunity, and for them to excel in as many categories as possible. We most certainly, do not want them to fall behind in anyway. We live in a time of the ultimate comparison. Whether it’s discussing your child’s repertoire of activities with other parents on the sidelines and in the waiting rooms or whether it’s the “home videos” broadcasted on face-book displaying the impressive performances of other children- we are constantly inundated with what everyone else is doing to drive their children toward success. And don’t forget, preparation for college, because colleges these days want to know about what your child is doing outside of the classroom as much as what they have accomplished inside the classroom. The stakes are high and this is the most important job of your life. You want to get this right. Yet, somewhere within that acknowledgment comes the dreaded feeling that you are not doing enough, you are not keeping up and your child will suffer as a result.
In my own observations as a parent, therapist, and mindfulness-practitioner I believe that we as adults are imposing our own frenetic pace onto our children. I think that it is so terribly difficult for adults to slow down, that the very thought of moving at a child’s pace is downright, existentially, terrifying. Because when we slow down, what happens? Is there the feeling that something more should be happening, that you should be accomplishing more, perhaps even some anxiety resides here, and the thoughts… the never-ending surge of thoughts that jam up the silence? If this sounds familiar, well then (join the club) and maybe it’s time to take a look at your own wound-up self. Instead of covering it up, or flushing it down with ever more distractions, business, and ameliorative vices maybe it’s time to address this pace of life.
I liken the young child to that of the Buddha. They are born into the present and this is where they exist. They get deeply entranced in what they are attending to at the moment and they are more interested in the process than the final result. Conversely, we as adults tend to focus more on what’s next, what’s the end game, or the final product. What’s the goal we seek to accomplish. We are in at least two places at once and juggling many tasks simultaneously. This type of fractured attention has many costs to our overall health and well-being. We are over-stimulated and stressed out and very far from present-minded experience. We are also burdening our children with this adult frenzied pace. In doing so, we are stripping them of their inherent-buddha-like- blissful attunement to the natural world.
My question to parents is, “are we giving our children enough unstructured time to play?” As the early-childhood curriculum has become more skill-based and structured, shouldn’t we as parents compensate for the loss of playtime in the classroom by allowing for more of it at home? Instead of carting our children around from one exhausting activity to the next, what if we just let them be. What would flow from that? Why are we scheduling all theirs (and our) time away- replacing the boundless, imaginative, peer-collaborative space of the “playroom” with more adult-supervised, adult-organized, goal-oriented, achievement-based extra-curricular activities?
Play, on the other hand, is a spontaneous, non-linear, child-led experience that unfolds moment-by-moment. It is an opportunity for children to dramatize their interior lives, making sense of theirs and others’ emotions and behaviors. It is a way for them to exercise control in ways that they ordinarily cannot. Play is an arena where children learn to negotiate as they determine the rules, the roles involved, and who will play which role. They learn valuable social skills such as the art of persuasion, the ability to listen and accommodate to another’s perspective, and feeling the pride and confidence when their own ideas are valued and expressed through group play. In play there is freedom, creativity, and a sense of agency over one’s internal and external experience. In her book, A Child’s Work, early childhood expert Vivian Gussin Paley argues that children need substantial time to craft their stories, assign roles, agree on plot and props, before actual play even starts to unfold. Haven’t you ever observed children on a play-date when it seems impossible for them to get along and then right as you’re about to leave they’ve finally figured it out. Play takes time because it is their work- their most important work.
I will never forget the time when my undergraduate child psychology professor (and later mentor) asked the most compelling question. She asked the students to recall their childhood playroom. This question had never been put to me before and I can still remember the immediate pleasure as I identified the magical play space of a fallen tree in the woods behind my friend, Hope’s house. This fallen log with all of its glorious decay was not just providing shelter and sanctuary to the insects that nibbled and took shelter here, but it was also a haven for our imaginations. We called it “store” and we lined the rotting ridges of bark with the many objects we collected from our expeditions through the woods (i.e., rocks, acorns, leaves and twigs); the usual child predilections of nature. Every afternoon when it was time to shut down “store” we adorned it with the vibrant green moss that we ever so carefully peeled back from the roots and bark of living trees. This was our way of hiding our treasures and the tree itself. It was our private space, one we never shared or told others about. It was where our imaginations soared, wildly uninhibited by the adult world. We were most always barefoot (in warm weather) and always completely free. Free to invent, free to explore, free to expand the boundaries of our universe. As I described this “playroom” to the person sitting next to me in child psych. I was immediately filled with ecstasy, reminiscing when the natural environment seemed limitless and we were like little fairies carefully crafting our art of fantasy.
If we as parents can slow down and match our children’s inherent pace, we can actually return to this state of bliss, momentarily at least. Children are absorbed by their present sensory experience. Let them take you to their place of present moment awareness. Go for a walk in the woods together or engage in a spontaneous activity with an unknown outcome. Let them lead you and leave the phone behind, forget the pictures, turn off the background noise and abandon your agenda. Remember, your child can sense when you are present and when you are tuned out. They are excellent observationalists. And the next time you feel that voice creeping in, you know the one, the one that compares your child to the Jones’ child, the one that says you are not doing enough, maybe try something that helps me. I like to imagine that instead of comparing our children- sizing them up against one another- we form a large circle, reaching out and holding hands, taking a few steps back together, (and a deep breath) while creating a sacred space inside the circle for our children to play, unobstructed by adult initiatives. It’s like the African proverb says: it takes a village… So, let’s make a village, a mindful one. Let’s work together to slow down the pace and create an atmosphere where children can really thrive as by design, they are intended to do; through the great wide web of their imaginations. In doing so, you may even tap in to your own creative and playful urges that- when followed- lead to a greater sense of joy, purpose, and state of clarity.