6 Simple Ways to Be a More Present Parent

I decided that it was time to put down my phone and pay attention to my kids. Here's how I did it.

mother daughter rubbing noses
Photo: Priscilla Gragg

They told me it was coming—all of those elderly grandparents standing behind me in the checkout line at the supermarket when my three little girls had been whining for me to buy them candy. They would smile, tilt their heads wistfully, and say the exact same thing: "Enjoy it. It goes by so fast." Every time, I would stare at them as if they'd spontaneously sprouted horns and think, "If I make it out of here without screaming, I'll call it a parenting win."

But then, all of a sudden, my oldest turned 13, and I panicked. How did that happen so fast? She was almost in high school! So I decided to make a resolution: I would stop focusing on when difficult phases of child rearing would end and be more mindful instead. I'd pay attention on purpose, try to focus more on what was happening at the moment, and be more "present."

"Being mindful isn't something you do one time, and you're done," says Michelle Gale, author of Mindful Parenting in a Messy World. "You have to practice in order to get good at it." So I stopped googling "weeklong silent retreats in Tibet with monks" and did exactly what Gale suggested: practiced being mindful, one baby step at a time.

If you're looking for ways to connect with your kids, here are six ideas to be a more present parent.

dad lifting son over head
Kim Myers Robertson/Trunk Archive

Step 1: Notice When You’re Already Being Mindful

One day last fall, first-grader Camille and I walked to the bus stop at 6:50 a.m. The Georgia sun was peeking over the trees. Camille skipped in front of me, and I smiled, watching her little bum wiggle back and forth under her giant backpack. "Hold on!" I shouted in my head. "I'm not thinking about anything but bum wiggling!" I was so excited that I told my husband, Thad, about it later. "I was present today!"

"Acknowledging even fleeting moments of being fully present can help you feel successful at being more mindful," says family therapist Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting With Presence. So instead of thinking, "I'm really bad at being mindful," you start by recognizing that, yes, you can do this.

Step 2: Announce When You’re Not Being Mindful

As in, say it out loud.

"Naming the fact that you're having difficulty being mindful puts you back in the moment," says Stiffelman. In other words, just admitting you're not being mindful in a situation actually makes you mindful of the situation.

My sixth-grader, Drew, came home from school and launched into a story about a funny cafeteria conversation that she'd had with a friend. My eyes glazed over after the ninth or tenth "And then she said ... and then I said ..." I looked at the clock to see if it was time to take her sister to her piano lesson, then wondered if I'd responded to the email a client had sent that morning. But when I finally remembered to be mindful (see Step 1), I said to Drew, "I'm not paying attention very well." And just like that, I was paying attention again.

Step 3: Hide Your Phone

I didn't need all the research studies out there to prove that our phones and tablets are distracting us from basically everything. But here's what I didn't know: Just being around an electronic device can be detrimental, says Kristen Race, Ph.D., founder of Mindful Life, an organization that trains parents, schools, and businesses to practice mindfulness. "Even hearing a phone vibrate makes your brain go someplace else," she explains.

I issued a decree for my husband and myself: Henceforth, we shall not pick up our phones after 6 p.m.! But we weren't able to make it through even one evening. Dr. Race suggests starting small:

  • Put your phone in a drawer during meals.
  • Stick it in the glove box for short car trips.
  • Leave it at home when you all walk the dog.

Instead of listening for your phone, you could suggest listening for five different sounds along the way, pointing out five different things that are blue, or checking out the cloud formations. Dr. Race says, "You need to look for ways to carve out airplane mode for your family."

mother daughter front seat of truck
Priscilla Gragg

Step 4: Help Yourself Stick To It

"The hardest part about mindfulness is remembering to be mindful," half-jokes Gale. And she is so, so right. The moment my alarm goes off in the morning, my brain starts revving: "Got to get up, make coffee, I hope we have coffee, I need to buy coffee, I need to go to Costco, we need toilet paper—is there any toilet paper?—the kids never flush the toilet; I need to teach them to flush it ..."

As Gale says, "Mindfulness won't happen unless you teach yourself how to remember it."

She uses a simple reminder: little stickers. You can put one on the face of your alarm clock, your phone, the center of your car's steering wheel, your ATM card, your toothbrush, or your computer. "That way, each time you open your computer, you'll remember to do a mini mindfulness practice that puts you in the present," says Gale.

That practice can be quick and basic, like breathing in deeply through your nose and blowing the air out of your mouth, as if you're making a birthday wish on a candle. If you get so accustomed to seeing those same stickers and start forgetting to be mindful again, you can replace them with new stickers.

Step 5: Try Some PBR

There's value in being mindful during moments you'd rather not savor, particularly when you may need a little help keeping your cool. Dr. Race suggests trying the PBR practice she does dozens of times daily: "Pause, breathe, respond with intention."

Studies show that mindfulness reduces your own stress level, but research at the University of Melbourne has found that the more mindful a parent is, the less stressed their kid is too.

"Stop yourself, take a breath or two, and choose a response that will be more measured and thoughtful," says Dr. Race. "It will help keep you both calm." Again, she advises starting small: Think of a few moments a day that often trigger you—homework drama or dirty dishes left in the sink—and prep yourself to try PBR during one of them.

Step 6: Pass It On

The further I moved through my mindfulness steps, the more I thought, "I've got to get my kids on this train." However, when my kids felt upset or flustered, and I suggested that they try PBR, it didn't go over very well.

I followed Dr. Race's advice to verbalize the mindful techniques I was doing around the kids: "I'm going to take a few deep breaths so I can relax," and "I'm going to put my phone in my purse so that we can have a conversation without being interrupted." I figured they'd catch on eventually.

I also tried a few other mindful tricks that worked better: asking everyone at the dinner table to share three good things that happened that day. During bedtime, we took deep, cleansing breaths in and out.

Another great tip from Dr. Race ended up working like magic. My daughter started crying about a birthday party that had been canceled, and she couldn't calm down. Instead of telling her to take three deep breaths, I gave her a hug, and then I took three deep breaths myself, knowing she could feel them. She started to breathe with me. And there we were, both of us, in the moment.

daughters blowing bubbles with mom
Priscilla Gragg

Get Your Mindful On

Here are a few quick and easy exercises you can try anytime, anywhere, to be present.

  • Pause and take one breath.
  • Rub your hands together until you feel tingling and warmth.
  • Tense and release the muscles in your feet and legs.
  • Observe everything you can see in front of you at a particular moment.
  • Find your pulse and count 20 heartbeats.

Quiet yourself for 60 seconds, and notice whatever sounds you hear.

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