Raising children can change the ways we pay attention, in multiple ways. At the most basic level, our brains become hyper-aware, as the brain’s limbic system, controlling “fight or flight,” reacts to dangers in children’s environments. Whether a child has a severe allergy or just a tendency to run into the street, we can start feeling as though we’re on constant alert.
However, there’s a positive side to this: kids, from the earliest ages, start paying incredible attention to the smallest details, because they’re new. In a way, they are the ultimate mindfulness practitioners, stopping to look at every fallen leaf or bug on the ground. When we watch children, we’re learning a whole different way of paying attention, a far cry from the multi-tasking world of iPads and iPhones.
As recent research from Stanford shows, multitasking actually makes us less efficient at getting anything done quickly. Furthermore, in the Stanford study, those adults who thought they were better at multitasking, and who did it more frequently, were actually worse. Thus, while it’s tempting to fix dinner while writing emails, or correct homework while on the phone, we’re actually doing a disservice to both our kids and ourselves. Rather, we need to think innovatively about the times when multi-tasking works—when we can shift our attention flexibly from one task to the next—and when a singular focus on one activity makes more sense.
As the mother of a four-year-old daughter, I certainly don’t have “attentive parenting” down. Whether my child is buried in a mess of toys in the playroom, or leaping without fear across the monkey bars, it can be hard at times to know what to focus on. But, as I’ve learned, sometimes we don’t need to attend harder. Rather, we need to attend more selectively. The following strategies can help to make a start.
Strategies to improve our attention as parents:
- Use tools of “micro-mindfulness” as a way of shifting attention
It might not be possible to take even 10 or 20 minutes to meditate, at least not in the middle of the day. Instead, whether on the playground or in the midst of a playdate, stop and attend to whatever your child is attending to. Notice it—whether it’s a leaf or a new toy—as if it’s new again. What does it look like? How would you describe it to a visitor from another planet? What is it that makes it so interesting?
- Look back, then away
Often, when you feel exhausted, it’s as a result of spending too much time on a single task without breaks. When you’re at the computer, it’s important to look away from the screen—ideally at something outside—for 30 seconds at least, every 10 minutes or so. We can apply this strategy to parenting too. When stuck in a parenting “rut,” as when a child keeps saying “No” when asked to get dressed, diffuse the situation by looking away and attending carefully to something else momentarily. Then look back and try to see the situation with fresh eyes.
- Give yourself a mental “what’s important?” check
In the midst of parenting craziness, it’s easy to try to fix everything and feel overwhelmed. But instead, try closing your eyes and thinking for a moment, “What is the most important thing that needs to be changed here? What can I live without?” Maybe it’s the fact that a child can’t wear flip-flops in winter, or the fact that a tall pile of toys is about to tip. Whatever it is, having one goal only for that moment will help focus your attention, and the child’s, on what needs to be changed.