Staying Focused and Connected: It’s the little moments that count the most

by Dr Angel Adams and Dr Patricia Papciak

The greatest gift you can give your child is your self.

-Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn

A wolf and her cub.

If you’ve been watching the Australian Open tennis matches in the past few weeks, you’ve seen each player working his way to the finals. The commentators say time after time, “Look how focused he is when he makes that shot.” Or “Focus is the name of the game.” It’s a constant discussion of directing attention to the one major goal at hand. Focus is such an important part of any athletic endeavour because it requires the mind and the body to work together towards the one performance goal.

Staying focused is necessary in whatever we are doing in order to do the best job we can do. We must prepare for any activity or project by focusing clearly in our minds and our bodies. Leaders in government and large organizations often have a very difficult time because they don’t have the luxury to focus only on one problem at a time. As parents, we have the same kind of problems on a smaller scale. We have many responsibilities to consider: our homes, our spouses, our children, our jobs, our bills, our health, our friends, etc. Because of our busy lives there are so many distractions that often we are only present in body, when our wish really is to be fully present with our whole self especially when spending time with our children and others who are important to us.

We all know intellectually that we must focus on ourselves first and reduce stress, as it will not be as effective to do anything for anyone else until we are settled and clear within. But how many of us busy parents do this? We say we don’t have the time or we can’t afford to hire a baby sitter or pay for a yoga class, but can we afford not to do it? What is the price we pay in the end if we don’t? In a previous article we talked about waking up early to “create your day” (click the link to read). When you create your day, you begin with planning the events in the day, visualize yourself being mindful during the day, and joy will follow in being able to focus and stay present in the moment to appreciate the day you are creating.

We must find ways to have some respite from the constant bombardment of distractions in on our life (TV, mobiles, internet, emails, door bells, children fighting, etc.). Parents need some quiet space each day, some time to reflect and contemplate, some time for solitude. What you do during this time — read, write, run, nap, knit, meditate, walk, sit in the garden, listen, even have a quiet conversation, play, study, build — isn’t as important as the simple fact of having that time of disconnection. We know that for many parents finding that balance is very hard. The bottom line is that all humans must find undistracted quiet time. Then, when you are spending focused time with your child or friend or relative or co-worker, it will be easier to stay present. When you are focused, clearly listening, and not interrupting, you show respect for the other person and this makes you a respectable person. When you are with your children you can build their self-esteem as you truly show through your eyes and your body language that they are listened to, and through your mindful communication, they will feel comforted, encouraged, understood, and safe with you.

Isn’t it interesting that when children misbehave they immediately get the attention of their parents? They want to connect. Parents often respond with exasperation, raise their voices and become angry. By giving your child small patches of quality focused time, he or she will be less likely to misbehave. Negative attention to a child feels far better than being ignored or cut off from their parent. Author Dr John Gottman states that “Children whose parents consistently thwart their bids for connection often suffer long-term consequences as a result of constantly experiencing more negative emotions and fewer positive emotions”. When parents are angry it takes a lot of discipline to refocus. Perhaps by disengaging temporarily and walking away to think clearly, a parent can return with compassion, patience, understanding and tolerance.

When we are really paying attention to our children we can see what they are feeling and explore what they may be thinking before we react. Sometimes parents and teachers jump to the conclusion that the child is being naughty, when in fact their behaviour might be an expression of creativity or a new learning experience or even something the child may not have control over depending on their age and their special needs. Often they have no awareness of what is expensive or valuable. This isn’t to say that you let a child destroy or damage things, but there can first be an acknowledgement about what it means to them. You can explain the problem to the child without anger, and hopefully after you have complimented him on his achievement. Then the child can be redirected and shown how to draw only on a paper or on a white board in stead of the wall for example. Here is a story from a person who is a wonderful respected teacher we know. His small child came and took him by the hand to show him where she had scrawled on the new expensive wood floor with a felt marker pen. He became cross with her. Later on he realised his daughter wanted her Daddy to be proud of her as the “scribble” turned out to be her first written alphabet letter A. He learned to be more mindful from this experience.

A child's 'scribble' of the letter 'A'

Often parents are so busy multi-tasking that they think that they are listening, but they are not really paying attention to their child’s feelings, thoughts and questions. Because of their busy lives, they are often thinking about the next task that they have to do, and cannot offer their 100% focused attention on what their child is saying to them. They end up ignoring their child’s attempts to communicate with them. Your child’s self-esteem is greatly affected by the quality of time you spend with him/her, not the amount of time that you spend. Children can deeply feel their parent’s impatience and distractedness. 15 minutes with your full attention is better then 15 hours of distracted time with your child.

Tips for focusing and maximizing the quality of your life and the life of your child.

  1. When you create your day in the morning, make time for your inner self.
  2. Strategically plan to carve out time for your child and tell them when that time will be, kind of like making an appointment that they can look forward to. “At 3:30, my sweet, I will give you my undivided attention, before I have to fix dinner.”
  3. Don’t allow anything to distract you from your private time or your private focused time with your child.
  4. If you feel very pressed for time, consider doing something with your child that includes them in which you can still connect, for example, walking the dog or doing an errand at a place you know your child likes.
  5. Be generous. It doesn’t hurt you to give magnanimously to the other person, especially your child, including giving the benefit of the doubt before you get frustrated or angry.
  6. Remember to focus on the strengths and the positive behaviours of your children, no matter how small.

A bear and her cub

We would like to end this article with an excerpt from Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn. We highly recommend this book for any parent who wants to improve their focus with their child.

  • Try to imagine the world from your child’s point of view, purposefully letting go of your own. Do this every day for at least a few moments to remind you of who this child is and what he or she faces in the world.
  • Imagine how you appear and sound from your child’s point of view, i.e., having you as a parent today, in this moment. How might this modify how you carry yourself in your body and in space, how you speak, and what you say? How do you want to relate to your child in this moment?
  • Be mindful of your expectations of your children and consider whether they are truly in your child’s best interest. Also, be aware of how you communicate those expectations and how they affect your children.
  • There are important times when we need to be clear and strong and unequivocal with children. Let this come as much as possible out of awareness, generosity, and discernment, rather than out of fear, self-righteousness, or the desire to control. Mindful parenting does not mean being overindulgent, neglectful, or weak; nor does it mean being rigid, domineering, and controlling.
  • This ongoing work can be furthered by making a time for quiet contemplation in whatever ways feel comfortable. This means that part of your work as a parent is to keep growing in self-knowledge and awareness. We only have right now. Let us use it to its best advantage, for our children’s sake, and for our own.(Copyright 1997 by Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jon Kabat-Zinn).

We also recommend the book The Power of Less by Leo Babauto.

If this article has been helpful to you, or if you wish to share your own tips on “Mindful Parenting”, please post a comment below:

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