Surviving Without Elite Status: Introducing Mindfulness To Kids Accustomed to Materialism and Competition

I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the first three days of our vacation. My children bickered and battled for that damn elusive and short-lived nirvana —  Mom’s full attention. They reminded me of drowning people climbing on each other in order to keep their head on top. They griped about having to fly American instead of Delta, not getting to stand in the elite status line and being shut out of the frequent flyer clubroom. It was our first vacation without my (ex)husband and his elite flyer status.

Flying Solo

I already felt guilt and sadness about upending life as they knew it.  The divorce was not finalized yet and the turbulence was evident in their faces and demeanor.  And now I was asking them to fly like commoners.;)

I was nervous about navigating the airports with luggage and children who tend to wander off.  I prayed I had enough energy for action and activities to ensure the kids a good time.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit by each of them on the plane.  I wouldn’t be able to take them parasailing/jet-skiing because I couldn’t possibly be with all of them to keep them safe.  I was going to have to say No more than usual and I hoped they wouldn’t take it to heart.

I wanted desperately to prove how happiness does not come from expensive perks but from meaningful experiences. It seemed like I was not going to get a chance to even show them the possibilities. They were dead set on being pissy and dissatisfied.  It’s hard to like people when they are negative and close minded.  I needed emergency life-giving introvert space from them but instead I had to stay close and ON. There was no backup parent or caregiver.  Just me and my high hopes for camaraderie and inside-joke making memories. The only thing I had going for me was a bathroom to myself where I could scream into a towel and a happiness book by Goldie Hawn called 10 Mindful Minutes.

Goldie Hawn and Mindfulness

10 Mindful Minutes is about giving ourselves and our kids resources and skills to reduce social and emotional stress and anxiety.  The two main tools are mindful breathing and sense awareness. The book is packed with studies and research that point to the importance of teaching kids to calm themselves before their emotional (limbic) brain hijacks their ability to think clearly and make good decisions (activities of the pre-frontal cortex). 10 Mindful Minutes also places a huge emphasis on kindness and empathy for well-being.

Determined to create some kind of harmony in our rented condo, I turned to guidelines in the book. I asked my kids one morning if they would give me ten minutes of their time.  Cue moaning, groaning and Mom, none of that hippie stuff works.  Eventually, my oldest (12 year-old boy) and youngest (8 year-old girl) made their way to the impractical glass table.  My middle son abstained. I talked to them about mindful breathing and had them take a few breaths with their hand on their belly.  They thought it was unnatural to have their belly rise with the inhale.  I told them to do their best.  They breathed like asthmatic fish-out-of-water with mouths gaping and exaggerated wheezing. Giggles followed. I expected this. I then had them gently close their eyes and focus on their breath for three minutes (time suggested in the book).  I told them to notice their thoughts but then return to their breath.  After a minute they wanted to know how much time was left.  Just like a timed test when the teacher reminds you every minute of how little time you have left.  I told them to keep breathing with their eyes closed.  I would tell them when it had been three minutes.  They made it to the end.

Then I pulled out Hershey’s chocolate kisses.  Suddenly, my middle son was at my elbow.  He wanted to participate now. I had them each hold the kiss in their hand with the wrapper on.  I had them turn it over and notice every detail.  Then I had them unwrap it and do the same.  I asked them to smell the chocolate. Then I had them place the chocolate on their tongue but not eat it.  Finally, I let them taste and eat the candy… slowly.  I told them to savor the rich creamy chocolate. I told them this was mindful eating and sense awareness. I explained how breathing and awareness of the senses can help calm their brain before they react in negative ways.

Smooth Landing

I’d love to say everything was hunky-dory after that but there were still bumps and hurt feelings. We inched our way out of the agitated, hyper-vigilant, habituated cycle of reactivity.  Day four of our vacation seemed elongated and rhythmic; like our brain waves and time were stretched in a pleasing yogic manner. Our egos spread and dissipated under the warm sun and languid schedule. Being away from technology and our daily expectations allowed us to uncoil.  It just took a while.

We ended up spending hours at the beach jumping waves and flying kites. We met with friends and enjoyed their company and camaraderie.  We played tether ball like Napoleon Dynamite (weak kicks, mouth-breathing and use of the words Geez and ‘Fricken’) and by only using our feet. We ate from little boxes of frosted cereal in the morning and made hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls for dinner.  Food we never eat at home. At night we looked forward to crawling into the biggest bed and watching episodes of Friends.  The kids still fought over who got to be next to me but in general there was less competition and more cooperation.

Our condo was borderline dumpy.  Everything needed to be repainted, the kitchen sink leaked and the pullout couch was crummy.  But… the location was great and everything worked.  I learned to cook with one pan, a small skillet and no cookie sheets.  I used the quarter laundry machines down the hall.  This was no Ritz Carlton but it felt good enough.  It was not expensive but no one complained and we had no problem coming up with memories and inside jokes to write down in the travel journal on the way home.

How do you introduce calm and harmony into your environment?

How could the elimination of some luxuries change the way you live for the better?

Getting Back to Good: Surviving Pressure to Succeed

 I’ll let you in on a little secret.  It’s not all exotic trips, personal trainers and daydreaming at my house.  Yes, the home behind the blog is flawed.  Last week was especially trying.  The air was thick and suffocating, the floor was sprinkled with eggshells and the corners were piled with gunpowder awaiting the tiniest spark.  It was hard to breathe, create or live in this supercharged, stressed out atmosphere, but little, by little we got it back to good.

Work Stress

Last Friday our middle son, Josh, brought home his third grade spelling test with a score just below failing.   School is usually easy for him. 

Josh is a highly sensitive  kid.  He can only tolerate very soft materials for his clothing, bedding and bath towels.  If he is hungry nothing else matters.  His sense of smell is keen.  He doesn’t like milk from a carton because it smells and tastes different than milk from a plastic jug.  He internalizes everything.  So you can imagine his reaction to the low score on his spelling test.  His self esteem flagging, he raged at my husband and I when we had him study for and retake the test at home.  He didn’t want to do the work, which is why he was in this predicament in the first place.  He didn’t study before the school test either.   The teddy-bear kid who still holds my hand when crossing a parking lot, now hated everyone and everything.  He was ornery and overwhelmed and consequently so was the rest of the household. I was anything but calm.

At the same time Josh was stewing and spewing, I was feeling my own internal pressure.  I had put up a fan page on Facebook for space2live and now felt an intense need to be wise and witty with my status updates and weekly writing.  I created an audience and now I needed to perform…well.  Adding to the pressure, a couple of  writers that I respect (seasoned bloggers with published books) had contacted me regarding my own blog.  They were watching. 

It was difficult to focus on writing when my house was a powder keg next to a lit sparkler.  There was no flow state to fall into, just survival.  The turmoil manifested itself into insomnia.  I could fall asleep because I was mentally exhausted but then around 2A.M. my mind became a runaway train with me, the damsel in distress, dragging behind it.  There was no soothing mental exercise or gentlemen with a handlebar moustache to save me.  I just waited for the alarm on my nightstand to go off.  I got up and trudged through my day with a numbed brain and racing rabbit heart. 

Back to Calm

 According to Elaine Arons’ book The Highly Sensitive Child, one of the first things you have to do to live and love with a highly sensitive child is remain calm.  You have to be calm so that your child can be calm.  Like putting your oxygen mask on first and then your child’s when the plane is going down.  No one can process or learn anything if they are worked up and overwhelmed.

So this is what we did…

Josh was worried about the new spelling packet for the week, but my husband went over each word with him.  Josh and I sat down on our wooden steps and breathed deeply together.  I demonstrated belly breaths (expand the belly on the inhale, squeeze it towards the spine on exhale) but he just took big gulping, hyperventilating breaths instead.  Somehow that worked.  He relaxed.

Also to create a diversion from Josh’s schoolwork, I had him help me make dinner.  At first he viewed it as more work in his life, but then found it fun to snap asparagus spears and peel apples.  He reveled in being useful.  I made sure to point out his help at the dinner table that night.  He smiled and showed his beautiful dimples.

I slept better that night.

As for myself and my worries about being creative, prolific and perfect, well, I decided to restock my images, a favorite suggestion from Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way .  I know when I am feeling low on ideas I need to explore the world a little, leave behind the mundane and witness the meaningful.  For this expedition I didn’t even have to leave my house.  I allowed myself a day of freedom and tried not to feel guilty.  I chose Monday to slip into my artistic reverie.  The kids were at school and my husband was at work.  I watched a French film called The Chorus.  The story about misunderstood boys in a prison-like reformatory school pulled on my heartstrings, releasing them from their tight, desperate knot.  I saw Josh’s wounded spirit in the eyes of those boys.  The angelic singing in the movie brought me to that place where everyone is connected through beauty.  That higher level of living. 

I dusted my guitar off and played.  It felt good to pluck and strum.  Tension from my fingertips met the tension of six wires and transformed into music and ease. 

I read essays by E.B. White and poems by Mary Oliver.  I floated on their words rather than try to eek out my own.

By the end of the day, my shoulders felt lighter and my posture improved.  My eyes twinkled and I was looking forward to the kids coming home from school. 

Back to Work

By Wednesday I was ready to get back in the saddle.  I put my head down and wrote.  Over the previous few days ideas had flitted in and out of my consciousness.  My idea notebooks (scattered all over the house), were doing their job, holding bits of clarity and brain lint.  I only needed to pull something together out of the pieces.  Some of the pressure was off.

I spent 45 minutes on the elliptical machine in our basement on Friday morning.  I listened to a podcast on Internet Marketing for Smart People about transient success. It spoke of getting back to grounded once you’ve achieved.  It all came down to doing the work, keeping up your craft.  If you have an idea and get others to go along with it you have to be willing to pay the price of consistently committing to the work. 

I believe failure and success are opposite sides of the same coin.  If you falter, same thing, pick yourself up and carry on.  Get back to the craft, the work, but consider an element of ease, or space where you can breathe first. Something that soothes your spirit and creates an opening for inspiration.

Josh and I both had put stress on ourselves regarding our commitments.  What seemed to get us out of the boiler pot was breathing and returning to the work.   In his case, literal deep breaths calmed him down.  In my case, taking time to connect with film, music and poetry led to an openness where creativity could enter.  Both of us moved forward with our responsibilities.  He studied for the spelling test this week and did his daily reading.  I sat down with the laptop and tapped out strings of words and did my best to be a calm mom. 

 Success and failure are transient, but for today, we’re back to good.

How do you pick yourself up after a downfall?  How do you handle achievement? 

P.S. Josh did very well on this week’s spelling test.

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