A few weeks ago, I was in the bathroom while my four-month old napped, and my three-year old, who was watching Dora, chided me for putting on "the wrong show." The toddler's protests grew loud enough to wake the infant, who started up with an ear-splitting wail. I heard the toddler pad over to her sister's room, then heard her voice: "It's okay, baby – just breathe! Breathe in and out … in and out … you can do it!"
I realized she was taking the mindfulness lessons I had taught her and was adorably attempting to use them with her sister. It was in that moment that I realized practising mindfulness with children – even as young as 2 or 3 – can be utterly beneficial.
Mindfulness – the practice of purposeful attention to the present – comes from the Buddhist practice of meditation and was popularized in the West by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. Common mindfulness activities include yoga, breathing exercises or meditation, helping participants to focus on the here and now. The benefits are numerous, ranging from decreased stress to improved cardiovascular health – and while many of us adults battle with divorcing ourselves from our harried, fast-paced lives in exchange for some quiet moments of mindfulness, it seems that kids are soaking up the practice like the little sponges they are.
While research on mindfulness in children is still a relatively new field, a number of studies have shown benefits of mindfulness for kids as young as five. A 2016 study in Colorado looked at the results of incorporating a 10-week mindfulness practice at an elementary school, and found that teachers reported greater prosocial behaviours, emotion regulation, and academic performance among their students.
Some schools have begun to actively incorporate mindfulness into their curriculum, including Robert W. Coleman Elementary in Baltimore which famously noted its zero-suspension status since beginning mindfulness practices for students.
I'm all in, and practise mindfulness personally and with my daughter. While technology often takes me away from the exercise (the beep of e-mail alerts, the constant pull to check my social media feeds), it's also the easiest way for me to practice mindfulness – through the use of apps. We tried the free version of the Calm app first, and while the guided meditations didn't quite work for me, their Sleep Stories were fabulous for getting both me and my toddler to bed. I tried the Headspace app next, and found that I stuck with my daily mindfulness exercises and also revisited them during stressful moments later in the day. My daughter is soaking the lessons up, too (they have a number of guided meditations for kids).
Now, something as simple as encouraging her to breathe when she's on the verge of a tantrum has been game changing. Instead of a full-out behavioural explosion, she is aware enough to inhale, exhale, and focus in the moment – if she still needs to cry, she can cry, but she feels better (and so do I) at the end of it all.
Mindfulness exercises have also helped improve her focus when we're doing learning activities, so it's been extremely useful in the life of a mom juggling an explosively energetic toddler and a fresh-out-the-womb infant.
Perhaps the uptake of mindfulness is similar to language acquisition for children – easy to absorb in their youth, and more likely to stick with them as they age. If so, this next generation of mindful minis may be better off than those of us struggling to relax and concentrate now, and that hope makes it all worthwhile to me. My little one starts school this September – and while I hope that mindfulness is one of the tools in the toolbox there, its benefits means it will always remain in our arsenal at home.