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.
They told me it was coming—all of those elderly women standing behind me in the checkout line at the supermarket, when my three little girls had been whining and/or crying and/or begging me to buy them candy. The women 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 into my reusable grocery bag, I’ll call it a parenting win.”
Then last year, my oldest daughter, Blair, turned 13. 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 things would end (the day, the math homework, the battle over which girl got to use which color plastic cup at dinner) and be more mindful instead. I’d pay attention on purpose, try to focus more on what was happening in the moment, be more “present” with Blair, 11-year-old Drew, and 7-year-old Camille. I’d “be here now,” dammit.
The problem was, I didn’t exactly know how. No matter how many deep breaths I took, my mind wouldn’t stop worrying and to-do listing and “Just wait until”-ing. “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.
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 just 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 actually told my husband, Thad, about it later. “I was present today!” (He misunderstood and thought I’d bought him a present, but I digress.)
“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 starting out thinking, “I’m really bad at being mindful,” you start out by recognizing that, yes, you actually 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 in 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. Drew, for what it’s worth, is not known for brevity. 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 stated 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 and, instead, 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.”
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 the toilet ...” As Gale says, “Mindfulness won’t happen unless you teach yourself how to remember it.”
She uses a simple reminder: little stickers. (Mine may or may not be tiny, sparkly unicorns.) You can put one on the face of your alarm clock, on your phone, on the center of the steering wheel of your car, on your ATM card, on your toothbrush, on 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 find you get so accustomed to seeing those sparkly unicorns and start forgetting to be mindful again, then you can just replace them with new stickers. Or bigger ones. Or ones that smell like shame and failure. (Kidding!)
Step 5: Try some PBR.
No, not Pabst Blue Ribbon, though that might be what you think you need in a stressful, about-to-lose-it moment with your kids. 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 a day: “Pause, breathe, respond with intention.” Studies suggest 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 her 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—a kid’s schoolwork snafu or dirty dishes left in the sink—and prep yourself to try PBR during one of them.
Strangely, my first PBR moment came when I least expected it. While I was in the middle of cooking dinner, Camille asked me to come look at the LEGO house she had made. “Just a sec,” I said. A few minutes later, she asked me again, a little annoyed. “Just a sec,” I replied, a little annoyed as well. When she came back a third time, I almost snapped but, instead, PBR-ed and chose my words more carefully. “Hey,” I said, “I know that you’re really excited to show me your house, but I can’t leave the stove right now. As soon as I’m finished cooking, I’ll come to the playroom.” Camille didn’t cry or whine. She said, “Okay.” And when I finally did check out her LEGO house, I was able to truly “be here now.”
Step 6: Pass it on.
The further I moved through my mindfulness steps, the more I caught myself thinking, “I’ve got to get my kids on this train.” However, when my girls felt upset or flustered and I suggested that they try PBR, it didn’t go over very well. (“I did breathe, Mom. It doesn’t work,” they’d say, or, “That’s weird.”) So I backed off and just 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,” “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 and convincing the girls at bedtime to take a deep, cleansing breath in and blow it out, except I named it a “Jersey Breath” after our dog.
But one of Dr. Race’s suggestions ended up working like magic. Or at least, it felt that way. Camille 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.
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.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2020 issue as “Simple Ways to Be a More Present Parent.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here