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Mindful Parenting: The Lessons of a Broken Shovel


It all started with a broken yellow shovel. I forgot to throw it away after the plastic handle cracked, so it came on to the lake on vacation with us. I was about to toss it when my four year old began to play with it. She walked out into the water and started throwing it out in front of her and wading after it. (She doesn’t yet swim.) As the morning progressed, she went out deeper and deeper, until the water was just over her shoulders.

At one point, a small wave came up and splashed her right in the face, almost knocking her over. Her father was right there, ready to grab her, but she stood up, smiled, and threw the shovel again. She spent much of our morning at the lake chasing that shovel, and then she did it again the next day, and then again today.

This from a child who has been terrified at her swim lessons.

Oddly enough, the key was the shovel—a broken piece of yellow plastic. It gave her something to focus on other than how much she can’t stand her swim lessons or her fears and anxieties about what might happen in the water.

That is what mindfulness is all about.

We—every single one of us—spend so much of our lives remembering or regretting the past, or worrying about or planning for the future. (I sent my husband out to play fetch with our daughter in the water because I was too anxious about her being so far out, even though I could certainly keep her safe. As a result, I wasn’t able to enjoy the shovel game with her.) Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not about finding the joy in every moment, and mindful parenting isn’t about being the perfect parent. It’s about learning to refocus our attention, time and again, even when waves might slap us in the face and knock us off our center.

When we learn to concentrate on whatever it is that truly matters to us—whether it’s our children or our breath—we begin to see clearly. Our perspective is no longer clouded by our own personal history or anxiety, which impacts our behavior and responses in ways we may not even realize. When that happens, we can make choices that reflect our strengths and desires, rather than our fears. My daughter wants to be a swimmer, she wants to take on and master new challenges, but she’s not unlike me—she carries a lot of anxiety about the world. The shovel gave her something to focus on.

Some may call it a distraction, and that may be one way to think about it. But I’ll take the distraction of the present moment over the unpredictable workings of my crazy mind any day of the week.

We went back to the lake today, and my daughter’s friends were having fun putting their heads underwater and popping back up again. Even though my little girl did stick her face in the water repeatedly, she was scared to dunk all the way under. I encouraged her, but it didn’t help. Actually, it made things worse. I knew I should stop bugging her about it, but in the back of my mind, I was worried about her keeping up with her friends. I was so proud of how well she had done chasing the shovel that I wanted her to keep making progress. Rather than paying attention to my daughter and the fun she was having, I was too busy trying to make her have even more fun, which resulted in less fun for everyone.

That’s the other thing about mindfulness. It’s not just about being aware of what’s going on, it’s about cultivating an attitude of acceptance. When I was “nudging” my daughter to go underwater, I definitely wasn’t accepting where she was in her process of getting comfortable in the lake. I pushed her, and as any parent can predict, she pushed right back.

When we can stay present in the current moment, and accept whatever is going on, it allows everyone to settle in, find their space, and then figure out what they want to do next. My daughter had none of that when I was bugging her; she only had space to react to me. When I finally got over myself and dropped it, she went back to playing with her friends and playing in the water. She didn’t go all the way under, but she got a whole lot closer.

Anything in our lives can provide an opportunity for mindfulness, for reconnecting with whatever happens to come our way, if we’re open to it. In my daughter’s case, it was a broken plastic shovel, and in my case, it was a little girl who wasn’t quite ready to dunk her head under the water.

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Mindful Parenting: The Lessons of a Broken Shovel

Carla Naumburg

Carla Naumburg, PhD, is writer, speaker, and clinical social worker. She is currently working on her third book, How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t at Your Kids (Workman, forthcoming). You can read more about her work at

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APA Reference
Naumburg, C. (2013). Mindful Parenting: The Lessons of a Broken Shovel. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Jul 2013
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