Recently, my 5-year-old son had a disagreement with someone in his summer class. He was quite upset when I picked him up, but by the time we got home — a 10-minute walk at most — he had already forgotten about it and was playing with his toys.
When I have an argument or even a normal conversation, I repeat it in my head — what could I have said that would’ve been more effective? Why doesn’t that person seem to like me? I waste time spinning words in my head when it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m sure I’m not alone among adults for this.
I envy my son sometimes, because he’s not focusing on what he can’t change. And he’s not worried about what might happen. While I and other adults try to figure out how to master mindfulness with the use of apps and workshops, I realized that kids already show this ability. That says to me that mindfulness is not something we should have to learn — it’s already in us. We’re born mindful.
If we look at nine qualities of mindfulness from Psychology Today, I’d say my son ticks off many of the boxes without even trying. But here are a few ways in particular that my son has shown mindfulness in his young life…
Living in The Moment
When I take my son to the park, he makes a beeline for the first kids he sees. Within moments, he is talking to them and engaging in play. He isn’t distracted by anything — he’s fully immersed in the joy of the moment, happily playing like he’s known these strangers for years.
Even if there’s a moment where he’s not getting along with another kid, he gets over it quickly. He doesn’t confuse a bad moment with a bad person. Within minutes he’s back playing with the other childlike nothing happened.
My son never tosses and turns in his bed worrying about starting a new school year the next day, or about an exchange he had earlier that made him sad. He’s only interested in what’s happening at that moment, which is falling asleep. (Well, this process isn’t always easy, but that’s probably for another post.)
That’s not to say he doesn’t look forward to things, like a birthday party. He giggles to himself as he visualizes himself being there for a few moments, and then snaps back to playing with his Lego.
Being Open to New Experiences
Almost every fun activity I suggest to my son, he agrees to do it without hesitation. A walk to a street festival? A flight to Washington DC? Sure. He’s up for it. I think it’s because he doesn’t have any preconceived notions about these new experiences, so he has no reason to doubt they’ll be fun.
When we get older, we make the mistake of thinking we know how things will go based on our experiences. However, in the process, we probably deny ourselves some potentially amazing experiences.
The truth is we don’t actually know how any experience will be. Kids inherently recognize this, and give new opportunities the benefit of the doubt. Even when my son goes to a party and doesn’t like it, he doesn’t shut out all possibility of going to another. He sees it as a completely different experience and a new chance to enjoy himself.
Image by iStockPhoto.com
Having a Strong Sense of Wonder
Children also have this innate ability to see the magic in everything. A tall tree makes them stop and stare. A plane flying overhead is cool. Fireworks are about the best thing that ever happened. A bug isn’t something to swat away, it’s something to look at more closely.
Our childhood sense of wonder is an element of mindfulness. We don’t appreciate amazing things the way we should in adulthood. This is one of the reasons I took up street photography — it’s a way of seeing beauty in everyday life. But as soon as I’m done taking photos, my mind returns to what responsibilities I need to take care of in the coming day.
But my kid doesn’t need to take a photo. He admires something and then moves on to the next thing, his brain overflowing with appreciation for everything around him.
Practicing Mindful Eating
This is one aspect of mindfulness that isn’t often on a list of “mindfulness qualities,” but rather has become a movement all of its own.
Mindful eating, in a nutshell, is not eating too fast, not eating more if you’re full, not having guilt about the foods you eat, and truly appreciating the food you’re eating (it’s more involved than that, but I’m keeping it simple for this article.)
My wife and I learned early on that structured eating times (that is, the three meals a day invented by humans) don’t always work the best for our son. He eats only as much as he wants to when he wants to. He does eat something at breakfast and lunch, but we’re no longer getting stressed out if he doesn’t clean his plate or suddenly doesn’t like carrots.
Then there’s the order of food: we are taught that “dessert” comes after the meal as a sort of reward. But we often serve our kid a treat with his chicken strips, and he’ll eat that first — and then the chicken. Sometimes, he’ll eat one chicken strip, play for a bit, and then eat some more. And really, what difference does it make?
As we get older, we tend to classify foods as “good” and “evil” because of societal ideals. But food is food, and it doesn’t need to become a lifelong struggle that takes the enjoyment out of it.
Watch a kid eat a meal. They are fixated on it, enjoying every bite, and they don’t give a crap about calories. (My son could stand to slow down when he’s eating a cookie, though.)
What Robs Us of Our Mindfulness?
I’m not a professor or a psychologist, but I can offer a couple of theories about why we lose our sense of mindfulness as we grow out of childhood.
Growing up means the inevitable responsibilities of life are thrust upon us. We are expected to follow a schedule created by someone else, achieve certain milestones expected by others, constantly keep up to date with social media (although apparently, that can be a mindful experience), and worry about our appearance to the outside world.
All of those things make it very hard for the mind to remain in the moment.
I think it comes down to our culture. We are not taught early on that enjoying experiences is important. We learn that having things is our measure of success, and that means always thinking of ways to get our next dollar.
We collectively see taking time to enjoy the moment as a waste of time and counterproductive to that goal.
There’s also the rise of “hustle culture,” which basically is the antithesis to mindfulness in my opinion. Hustle culture doesn’t make room for living in the moment. It measures your worth by how busy you are. There’s not a lot of room for personal reflection.
Let Go of Judgment
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that mindfulness is about not thinking. My son has so many thoughts that they sometimes cancel each other out. But he doesn’t judge his thoughts as they happen, which is another trait of mindfulness.
Life throws a lot at us, and it wants us to be two steps ahead of everything. It makes us engage our autopilot — our subconscious mind makes decisions based on habit.
But by slowing down a bit — breathing, observing, not letting judgment cloud your future experiences — perhaps we can reconnect with our inner child, the one that was born mindful. The one that wants us to have a joyful life.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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