As a parent, I try to practice what I preach. If I'm going to insist on my kids eating their greens, I'll have a big ol’ plate of broccoli myself. The best way to advocate an active lifestyle is to walk/run/swim/cycle as much as they do. I don't have my smart phone at the dinner table if theirs are banned. So as I try to become a more mindful person, I've realized that my kids can benefit from a meditation practice too.
We've been using the Headspace for Kids pack for over a month now. At the start, I wrote down what I hoped to achieve. The first goal didn't require much deliberation: picture the word "sleep" underlined several times and circled for good measure. My children (a 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter) are not big fans of sleep. Or at least not during the hours kids their age are expected to be in dreamland. Both are nocturnal creatures (this may be genetic) and my daughter makes it all the more fun by impersonating a cranky student when the morning alarm goes off. Her big brother is less relaxed. He's always first awake, regardless of what time he falls asleep. He's a more sensitive child, and as he's matured, his anxieties have grown. So my second objective is to help him manage his emotions and find ways to cope with what he finds stressful.
Headspace for Kids consists of five sections: Calm, Focus, Kindness, Sleep, and Wake Up. There is three age ranges to choose from: 5 and under, 6-8, and 9-12, with sessions ranging from three to nine minutes. As I have a child in two of the age ranges, I started with a Sleep meditation session in the 6-8 age range for my daughter, before my son came to bed (they share a room). I opted for the 9-minute session—nothing like throwing your kid in at the deep end. From the get-go, I sensed I had my work cut out for me. My daughter was excited that we had a screen in the bed with us—precisely the response I was trying to avoid. After I made it clear that the only interaction she'd be having with this particular screen involved only listening and no furious swiping, she settled into bed and we got started. For the next nine minutes, she squirmed, giggled and chatted over the gentle-voiced Andy, who has the sizeable job of introducing children to meditation. I decided to opt for the 3-minute session the next day.
Over the next few nights, I'm seriously questioning my decision to let my kids share a bedroom as I listen to the Sleep session first with my daughter, then 30 minutes later with my son. Finally, I ditch the first one and we all listen to the age 9-12 session together. It's interesting to see the different ways they react to it. My son definitely gets more out of it than my daughter, but even she has stopped talking and listens quietly (or at least appears to). After a few days, my son begins reminding me to "do our mindfulness," and while it doesn't result in an instant nod-off, bedtime is a lot calmer than it used to be.
My son worries about everything. Politics. Night-time noises inaudible to anyone in the house besides him. What may or may not (ever) happen at school the next day. If six times nine equals 53 or 54. During one particularly stressful homework situation, I could sense he was on the edge, his shoulders tense, his fingers tight around his pencil. I closed his workbook, grabbed my phone and played a Calm session. As my son concentrated on relaxing his body, his mind seemingly calmed down too. We managed to get to the end of homework without further panic. Over the next week, we have a short Calm session together whenever he just needs to chill the hell out. It works. Meanwhile, a Sleep session becomes part of our bedtime routine. I switch between the 3-, 6- and 9-minute sessions depending on how tired the kids are. Sometimes, my daughter is asleep before Andy's final words.
After one of our nightly 6-minute sessions, I stroked my son’s cheek and asked him if he thought the Sleep sessions were working for him. "Yes," he replied. "In what way?" I asked. He shrugged. "I'm not sure." Fair enough. If he thinks it's working, I shouldn't have to press him any further. But before I could say anything else, he volunteered, "I do it myself sometimes." "What do you mean?" “After we're done, after you say goodnight, I do it myself, in my head," he explained. "It helps me sleep.I do it at Daddy's house too." “That’s great!” I said. “Shall I ask Daddy to download the app?” My boy shrugged again. “Sure. But I’m pretty good at doing it myself now.”
I spoke to clinical therapist Cara Maksimow LCSW about how mindfulness can benefit kids in a big way. "So much our daily habits, beliefs, and values come from what we learned as children," Maksimow said. “Two of the biggest obstacles that I see come up for adults who are just learning to meditate are time and frustration that they are not ‘doing it right.’ As a culture ... we have this belief that we don’t have time to dedicate to a mindfulness practice. We have responsibilities, work, home and other commitments that seem to be more important. Kids don’t have that same conflict. Nor do they have that negative ‘not doing it right’ mentality. They are open to new ideas and not caught up in the rigidity of getting it perfect. Teaching self-regulation through modeling behaviors like practicing mindfulness together is an excellent way to give your children an invaluable skill that can become a lifelong habit.”
Even when we try our hardest to be mindful, sometimes life just gets in the way. One night, I ferried the kids into bed with a promise to go back and tuck them in in half an hour, after I'd grabbed a very late dinner and dealt with some pressing emails. Forty minutes later, I was still chained to my laptop when my son padded downstairs and stuck his head into the living room. "We haven't done our meditation," he said. He'd gotten out of bed not to beg for something to eat or moan about his sister's snoring, but to gently remind me that I'd forgotten to meditate with him. I mean, he's 9. This is huge. In introducing him to meditation, he reminded me to practice it myself.