Tag Archives: mindfulness

Expectations

 

Your biggest problem is your expectations.

When you go out and you discover a flat tire on your car so you can’t go to see grandma and AAA won’t make it there for two hours and your husband isn’t answering his phone and the kids are crying, it feels miserable. And it is definitely not your optimal outcome for any particular day, but there is nothing wrong or inherently bad about the situation.

Your husband shouldn’t have had the phone on.

You shouldn’t always have access to help.

Your kids shouldn’t be happy about the situation.

Your tire shouldn’t be full of air.

All of these things can be in any state without anything being wrong, even all at once.

You’ve just drawn a line in the sand about how your day should go, and when it wasn’t that way, you decided that there was something wrong with the world.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

This isn’t about being a boyscout. You’ll be fine if you run out of a good. You can run to the store, call to someone to get it, or order it on Prime if you have a day or two. Some situations are of course far more inconvenient if you don’t have a particular thing on hand—but this isn’t our real problem.

Very few of our real our problems, our big problems, our Pareto principle problems, actually come from whether or not we have immediate access to a piece of fruit or even a diaper. It may suck to clean up poopy pants or a poopy car seat, but it isn’t going to kill you.

What is going to make today worse, and all of your days worse, is if you expect to not have to deal with problems like this, and you end up having to.

The Real Enemy

Expectations are the real enemy.

Not just in every day nuisances like lacking an ingredient you thought you had, but in your relationship with your child.

And your partner.

And yourself.

In believing that you or your son or your daughter or your partner should be something other than they are, you create an unwinnable.

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you lose the chance to the admire the beauty in its swim.

“Age-Appropriate” Expectations

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There was a popular infographic going around talking about the cognitive capacities of children, when it becomes appropriate to expect things from them. I think that the effort of this infographic was noble—reducing the frustration that parents feel with their children when they have unreasonable expectations. But I feel that it also had two implicit messages that I have a harder time supporting:

  1. Expecting it: If you have an idea that someone “should” be able to do something, you will get annoyed with the fact that they aren’t doing it. If it is backed by “science”, the backlash is even worse. Parents feel not only put out by their child’s behavior, but might begin to believe there is something wrong with them.

    Milestone-mania is already rampant, and there is no need to double down on that sneaking sense of paranoia in an attempt to allay anger.

  2. Reducing Agency: One thing that happens when we decide what people “should” and “shouldn’t” be able to do is stop attempting to get them to grasp concepts or build the tools to head in that direction. This is called the tyranny of low expectations. It is essentially writing someone off and letting them pay the consequences.

More useful than developing suitable expectations is having none, but to give your children the support and skills that they need to develop and strengthen their capacities.

It’s not as if, on their fourth birthday, all or even more kids have impulse control. It’s not as if most adults have even worked that muscle particularly hard.

What is happening is a slow progression to have more emotional control—a completely unpredictable path that will move backwards and forwards more time than anyone could possibly count. A path that your child will continue to walk through toddlerhood, teenagerdom, and well into adulthood. Skills and abilities that you thought they had will seemingly fade overnight, and that they should be able to do these things—according to science!–isn’t going to help you or your child get anywhere.

Try This Instead

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Let’s go back to that day in the car.

You have a lot of other options, outside of disappointment. Give yourself five minutes to feel those feelings, then move on.

Check what your options are to carry out your original plan: Consider an Uber, see if grandma can come over, or someone can pick you up.

Or just go inside, tell grandma sorry, and have a different day from the one you were planning.

If you didn’t have that plan, how would the day have gone? How would you feel if those things didn’t happen on a day you didn’t mean for them to happen?

We can’t always have such peace and clarity, but working on lassoing in our expectations bit by bit, we can stop trying to handle disappointment, and instead just go about with our days.

Metta

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Mindfulness meditation is a big focus of this blog because it gives you a lot of benefits that are well-studied.

But mindfulness meditation is not the only kind of meditation available. Today, I want to talk about one of the other types that I find useful.

This meditation is about filling you with loving-kindness. It is called metta. It is a meditation that is used to cultivate compassion. Compassion is a very important part of leadership; it is one of the best way to relate to children—better then empathy. We use compassion so that we can feel for people, instead of feeling with them.

It is one of the easiest meditations to do without being guided.

You can use some variation of these words:

“May I be happy, may I be free. May I be comfortable, and at peace.”

Traditionally, you expand outward from there. To a loved one, you send the thoughts:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

I usually just set a ten minute timer, but any meditation app will have loving kindness meditations, and there are tons on Youtube.

Then you move outward from there. To an acquaintance, you say in your head:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

You keep expanding your circle outwards, even to those with whom you have conflict. You say:

“May you be happy, may you be free. May you be comfortable, and at peace.”

All the while, you are still practicing mindfulness. How does it feel, in your body, to wish yourself peace? How does it feel to wish your enemy peace?

You can become all-inclusive. Picture the whole world. Everyone you’ve ever loved, hated, or seen; and of course, your self.

“May we be happy, may we be free. May we be comfortable and at peace.”

Metta is most important to me on my hardest days.

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If ever I am having a hard time with my partner, I use metta to make sure I don’t let feelings go sour. Sometimes we can accidentally let occasional thoughts become habitual thought-patterns. This is one way to protect against that.

If ever I am feeling frustrated around my child’s sleep, I use metta to make sure I remember that he isn’t giving me a hard time, he is having a hard time.

Oftentimes, I don’t move past the first one. Loving kindness’ biggest advantage is for my feelings towards myself.

I sometimes feel like a bad mom. And when I do, I skip my mindfulness meditation. I skip most of the metta meditation. I just focus on feeling good towards myself. More than anything, I need to Love Myself Like My Life Depended On It, because if I’m not at my best, I can’t be at my best for my child.

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Practicing radical self-acceptance is tough. It might be tough to accept it is a good idea. You might think that practicing self-acceptance gives you some kind of pass to not improve. But it is the opposite. When you don’t think your self-worth is attached to your performance, you are more likely to identify your faults and try to improve yourself. You aren’t locked in by your self-identification as smart, or strong, or whatever it is that it is a label you feel necessary to uphold. It’s the growth mindset.

Just as for our children, acceptance does not mean accepting all behavior, it means accepting emotions.

Set up a routine for metta. Put it into your rotation, or just call upon it when you need it most.

Bids for Attention

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We took our evening walk at the park next to my house. There had just been a storm, so there were worms all over the ground. They were laying on the walkways, almost all of them dead from being stepped on. There was one survivor.

The boy was about 9 years old. He saw the one worm wiggling there, and it stirred some kind of emotion in him. He did not want to touch the worm, but he absolutely had to save it. He used his hands like two scoops and tried to quickly flick it back into the grass, hoping that the briefer the contact, the more limited was your exposure to worm germs.

It was a sweet. I’m not sure that it was helpful, but it came from a good enough place. After completing his mission, the boy ran up to his family to tell him the story of his heroic effort and success.

First, he tried his older sister. “Sarah,” he said, “I just saved a worm! He was on the street and I got him in the grass.”

She doesn’t even look at him.

He jogs up a bit further to tell his parents. He has added texture to the story in that short time. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I just tried to tell Sarah that there was a worm in the street. He was going to die, and I saved him.”

They don’t even look at him.

I hear him try for a third time. They nod in his direction.

Our paths diverged at this point, but I could see a flash of the future. All four of them get in the minivan. David—I’ve now named him—is trying to get people to acknowledge his story. To listen to a cool thing he accomplished today. Something he maybe was only interested in doing because he wanted his parents to be proud of him.

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He says (again!), ”When we were at the park, I saved a worm! I took my hands and…”

“Enough, David! We’ve heard enough about the worm, okay? Just be quiet!” his Mom snaps.

This is a common story. Parents refuse to acknowledge that their kids are speaking, and then they get annoyed that their children say the same things over and over again.

This is the exact opposite of mindfulness. You are not paying attention to where you are and being with who you’re with. Unsurprisingly, your child is disappointed that his bed for connection is ignored.

With a younger child, this won’t be just repeating the story. It will be ever-escalating attempts to get your attention. A good example of this is babies and breastfeeding. One of the ways you can have a baby that cries less is by acknowledging the early signs of hunger. This includes rooting and sucking on their hands. If you are mindful of these more subtle cues, then your baby will, not cry out of hunger, because you will feed him before he gets too hungry.

If you do not pay attention to the clues baby is sending though, you should not be surprised that after he has asked several times, he feels the need to scream and cry to get what he wants.

What would you do if you asked your partner several times to pass the mustard and he just looked at you, and then looked away? Never passing you the mustard.

Maybe you wouldn’t scream and cry. But what if it was a problem you couldn’t solve yourself? What if you kept asking your partner to help you by putting laundry in the basket instead of on the floor when they get undressed, and they never do it? This might turn into screaming.

When our early attempts at getting understanding and acknowledgment fail, we escalate until we are heard. Not just babies, not just children—all of us!

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Bids for connection are extremely important in maintaining a healthy relationship. It is useful to reflect on this as an important tool not just in romantic relationships, but all of them. This may be a joke, a touch, a story, or any other gesture designed to communicate the desire for connection.

Poor David just wanted someone to look at him and tell him it was a nice thing he did. If they disagreed with him touching the worm, they could have said they appreciate his effort to be a caring person but that there are other considerations. They just have to acknowledge it.

I’m not saying your kid won’t tell you the same story three times. I just mean it won’t be five times. In a row.

If you get down and face them, listen, and acknowledge what they’re saying, you’re less likely to have a situation that is escalated to the point of a tantrum. But you have to truly listen, not just say the words as if you’re listening.

You’ll maybe hear the same story later that night instead of two minutes later. You will be building a stronger relationship with your child because they trust you to respond sensitively to them. You’ll be practicing your mindfulness.

As a parent, it is difficult to acknowledge but important to remember that your kids will grow up and decide whether or not they want to visit you and talk to you regularly. Build a strong, good relationship so that when that time comes, you’re a person whose bids for attention they turn towards.

Who Are You Trying to Raise?

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You are living by certain values regardless of whether or not you know it. You can live by your own or you can live unwittingly at the whims of other people’s. If you are feeling tossed and turned about by different people’s opinions on parenting, it means that you have not clearly laid out what it is that you value.

You have to get clear on your values. Real clear. You have to figure out what you want, exactly, for yourself and your child, and then you can decide who is worth listening to.

If you feel like you have conflicted values because you want a free-spirited child but you also want a child who will, please, just listen, then you are thinking in the wrong terms.

Start thinking about what you want out of a person. You want a pro-social, cooperative person, who is capable of expressing themselves. If you met someone like this, you would not be shocked by their seemingly contradictory traits. Because there is nothing contradictory about them.

In fact, being assertive and being pro-social are linked together, as long as they’re coupled with the ability to read social cues. This is for adults and children.

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Once you understand what it is that you want to encourage in your children—likely, those traits that you value in other people—and realize that there is nothing contradictory about them, it is much easier to come up with methods of discipline and rules for your family. It’s easier to be the parent you want to be because you’re standing on solid ground.

Relationships are what humans are, because it is what we do. More than anything else, more than even tool-makers, we are the relationship-makers.

Together, you and your child are building an image in his mind of what relationships should look like.

How do you want your child to view relationships?

In the future, do you want your child to be baffled by the fact that they don’t win every argument, that their pouting doesn’t get them what they want, that other people’s feelings have to come into the equation? Do you want your child to see relationships as one way streets?

In the future, do you want your child to think that hearing a “no” means that they aren’t loved?

Do you want them to be scared of other people’s emotions?

No.

You want them to consider others. You want them to understand that other people’s emotional experiences are valid—even if they don’t feel the same way, even if they don’t understand it.

That all starts now.

Showing your children your emotions, calmly, and discussing them with them, is showing them that others have feelings that they must consider.

It is showing them that emotions are nothing to be afraid of.

It is modeling emotional regulation for them.

It is allowing them to reflect on how they influence the world.

When you hide your emotions, you are showing your child that they don’t have an effect on the world. That others emotions don’t come into the equation when navigating a situation.

That doesn’t mean you should lose your cool. It only means that from the beginning, you can teach your children that it takes two. It takes two people’s desires and wants and opinions and effort to make a healthful relationship.

Or three people.

Or four.

However big your family is.

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We don’t want our children to be sociopaths. We want them to be loving, caring people who understand that compromise is often necessary and that conflict does not always mean getting our way—even though sometimes, it does!

We want them to understand that other people have different boundaries than they do, and that they must be respectful of them.

Once we get clear on our values—that we want our children to be emotionally healthy and cooperative and that sometimes means not being happy in the moment—it is easy to see how limit setting and emotional validation are not mutually exclusive, but mutually supportive.

Teaching our children these basic values—cooperation and reciprocation—is one of the best gifts we can give them because they’re universally appreciated and useful in every area of life. Teaching our children this important value—that we don’t cave on our boundaries because someone else has big emotions, is a tremendous benefit that will carry them through many difficult times. Be the adult you want them to be.

Making Mindfulness Easier

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Meditation practice is not just about clearing your head for five minutes. It is meant to improve your ability to be mindful. All the times. About all the things. It strengthens the decision-brain. It makes choices and paying attention simpler.

While the goal is to always be more mindful and centered, we aren’t monks. We’re lay-people. Our job is to operate in the modern world, which means we cannot completely eschew being judgmental. We can’t always focus on our breath. We have to make decisions very often, and often very quickly. We don’t sit in a monastery and meditate non-stop. We will likely never have the strength of mindfulness of the Buddha.

Instead of pretending we can accomplish in 10-minutes-a-day what monks take 20 years to accomplish, what we can do is make it easier to be mindful. Easier to feel focused. Easier to remain calm. Easier to feel present, in the moment, with the people you’re with in the place that you are.

In light of this, below are 5 tips on how to make being mindful easier.

1) Early Rising: First thing in the morning, get the things done that you absolutely know will bug you all day if you don’t. People, in general, are creative in the morning. They’re also likely to get better grades, and be in better moods. This includes your children. They’re likely best able to entertain themselves in the morning. Take advantage of these natural tendencies and complete things when you wake up, so that you aren’t thinking all day about the letters you have to send.

2) Always Be Done: Break down different tasks into manageable bite-sized pieces so that you will feel that they are accomplished. This can be done by allocating a specific portion of a project that you have to do or by allocating a specific amount of time that you have to do things. Leaving things unfinished is hard and distracting. There are many things that take way too much time to finish, especially in the framework of a busy household and children’s whose needs you cannot schedule.

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I set aside 15 minutes to write every day. For many people, also setting a time period during the day to do it is helpful—say 9 a.m.–with the flexibility requisite for a parent. You know your family, so no one else can tell you what this time frame should be.

If I wanted to break it down by portion-blocks, I might write 1,000 words every day.
Shoot for a minimum. If you end up getting more time, feel free to either allocate another block or just go until you feel like quitting.

If you cannot get five minutes alone, I suggest that you start working towards that goal. You can look to Janet Lansbury on how to encourage independent play in children.

3) Declutter: This will create a more mindful space for your children and yourself. There is enough research showing that cluttered desks leads to poor cognitive performance to know that this is a good trick for being more mindful.

This will also help your children with their five minutes alone. You probably have too many toys. You should get rid of them. The less toys your child has, the less likely they are to make a mess with them, the easier they are to clean, the easier it is for them to focus on what they’re doing. Get rid of some toys. Try toy rotation.

Declutter doesn’t always mean being a minimalist. Not everyone agrees with keeping everything beige. In an interesting episode of Primal Happiness, host Lian Brook-Tyler and guest Maggie Minor talk about different ways to make rooms suited to how you would like to feel in them, which can be colorful and can include as many things as you absolutely love.

The sentiment expressed in this episode is echoed by productivity experts who say that you should design rooms based around how you want to function in them. Make your bedroom for sleeping and your office for working.

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4) Routine: Routines are not only for children. They don’t just help children feel calmed. As I’ve mentioned before, adults are not fundamentally different creatures than children; we’re just more developed. We still have strong feelings, and we still have a hard time with transitions.

Routines are not the same as schedules. They mean that after we do this, we do that.

This doesn’t mean getting rid of spontaneity in your life. In this episode of Achieve Your Goals, IMPROV experts discuss how routines can lead to more spontaneity. Since everyone is centered and knows what needs to be done, it is easy to know if you can repriortizie. It is easy to get back on track afterwards.

5) Note taking: Offload your cognitive burden. Don’t keep saying in your head “Pick the kids up at 5 o’clock.” all day long. Just put it in the calendar (two, if you’re worried; schedule a friend to call you if you’re very worried), and forget it until if needs to be known.

Get rid of the notion that you can remember a lot. That’s great. The point is you don’t need to.

If you take these steps, then you won’t need to work so hard to be mindful in every moment. Getting rid of distractions, both physical and mental, is the best way to be where you are, and be with who you’re with.

Compassion, Not Empathy

In The Yes Brain, Daniel Siegel uses the acronym B.R.I.E. to stand for Balance, Resiliency, Insight, and Empathy. He says these are the skills that we need in order to thrive. His passion for empathy is echoed by other thought leaders in the parenting landscape.

While we often group sympathy, empathy, compassion, and sometimes even pity into one category, they are different emotions that behave differently in the brain.

When we talk about empathy, we are talking about the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is the mirror in the brain. When we empathize, we feel someone else’s emotions. When they do MRI scans of people who are trained and asked to empathize, they see the people processing pain. Regions of the brain associated with negative experience light up. This is empathy. We feel with the person.

When we are feeling compassionate, we are seeing people’s emotions, not feeling them. In MRI scans of people who were asked and trained to practice compassion, they see the person experiencing maternal love and decision making. Regions of the brain associated with positive experience light up. This is compassion. We feel for the person.

(You can read more about these studies from the original meditator who inspired them here.)

The part of our brain associated with decision making is the part that studies suggest gets more robust through mindfulness meditation.

In Buddhism, compassion is called karuna. The Buddha warned that there is such a thing as too much empathy (sentimental compassion), but not too much compassion (great compassion).

With empathy, we burn out easily. Participants in the studies mentioned above felt exhausted after empathizing. Feeling others emotions compels us to eventually shut down. We need to regenerate and we do it by cutting off connection with others.

In compassion, we do not burn out. We feel regenerated by the experience because we are feeling positive emotions towards the person instead of negative ones with the person.

Empathy is draining and calls us to do nothing. Compassion is uplifting, pro-social, and compels us to action.

Ajahn Brahm, an excellent public speaker who I highly recommend and from whom I have gained a large chunk of my insights on Buddhism, has an excellent metaphor for how we need to react to aiding others and meeting them in their emotions.

We are dustbins. All of the tough things that our children feel get swept into us. The anger, hurt, anxiety, grief. Our children need our help processing these emotions.

As they get older, they will be able to manage more of them themselves, and will need us less. As newborns, we take all of their emotions and help them to cope. As they get older, they can may suckle their hand in an effort to soothe themselves in certain situations. Older still, they’ll learn how to handle situations with tantrums to get all of their big feelings out. Soon after, they’ll only whine. Eventually, they will know how to talk out or write out their feelings and barely need you at all.

But for now, we are dustbins.

We need to be dustbins with a big hole in the bottom. This will allow us to help others, to be dumped into and onto, without filling ourselves up. We need clear minds to help them solve the problems; not ones cluttered with their emotions and our own.

If we focus on compassion instead of empathy then we will be more effective leaders. In the book, The Mind of a Leader, Hougaard and Carter compile research which shows that leaders who practice empathy get burn out and make decisions that work for the short term in order to relieve themselves, while leaders who practice compassion are able to keep their heads on straight and focus on what need to be done in the long-term.

Focusing on the long term means focusing on our children’s needs, not on their wants. That is what true compassion and true leadership are.

How To Teach Children Gratitude

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You imagine your well-mannered child saying “please” when they ask if they can use a ball. He says “thank you” whenever anybody gives him a present. His manners are peak and it reflects so well on you.

But what if these words are meaningless when he says them?

What is your goal with having your child say thank you? Do you want him to develop a deep appreciation for the things in the world and deep gratitude for the people who are kind to them, or to say words that you’ve taught him to say?

Think of all the things that honest gratitude takes. What does it take to feel appreciation towards someone for doing you a favor or giving you a gift?

There has to be an other. This rules out very young children.

Then you have to have a theory of mind: the ability to understand that people feel differently than you (age 3) and think differently than you (age 4 or 5). You have to be able to tease out intention. Why did this person get you this thing?

In Should One Return the Favor? researchers found that around the age of 11, children begin to understand returning a favor as a moral value. Age 7-10, children believe you should return a favor to avoid judgment or because it is what everyone does. Before 7, most children don’t understand you are supposed to return a favor at all.

In adult gratitude, there is an expectation of reciprocity. Doing things for each other is what holds us together as communities, and we don’t want our children to be takers. This is part of the reason we feel so attached to them saying “Thank you.” We want them not only to express this in words, but to feel it deep down and reciprocate. To be productive and valued members of their community.

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Having token words that we use does not teach a child any of these skills. You can say thank you a million times and not mean it once, and you certainly don’t need to have followed through on any action to pay the person back. So what is the purpose of saying “Thank you”?

I think the answer is to calm the anxiety in the parent and the benefactor. Which isn’t wrong. But it isn’t what our stated intentions are. It isn’t working towards the goal that we say we are.

Will you kids learn to be grateful by themselves, though?

No. This is a skill that can be developed by the parents by fostering the abilities that it actually takes to show gratitude.

This means, of course, modeling. Modeling is always important. Not just when you think children are looking.

But we can do more than that. Modeling doesn’t work for all skills. Dweck’s research on growth mindset has shown this. We sometimes need to actively encourage modes of thinking in our children, as well as avoid inundating them with the wrong kinds of thinking.

On the Your Parenting Mojo podcast—which is exceptional and I cannot rate highly enough; host Jen Lumenlan comes from an RIE perspective and each episode is packed tightly with research about child development and parenting—there was recently a guest, Dr. Jonathon Tudge, who discussed his work on developing gratitude in children and adolescence.

Here were a few of his key points:

Do not say thank you for the thing but instead thank the person. Gratitude is about relationships, not materialism.

Encourage mindfulness: When somebody gives our child a present, ask them how it feels to be given a nice thing that they want.

Encourage empathy: Ask your child to think about why people give them presents, even when they don’t like them. What was the person trying to accomplish?

Encourage recall and reciprocity: Whenever giving a gift to someone, try to help them remember a time that person did a nice thing for them.

Other studies have shown that mothers who talk about internal states help children develop theory of mind, which is necessary for the practice of gratitude.

I highly recommend you listen to that episode here.

Teaching your children to say thank you is fine. It isn’t destructive. In fact, if you are going to do nothing at all or do that, go ahead and teach them to say that.

But there are better tools at your disposal.

Please share this post, because more people need effective tools to teach their children this very important skill.

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