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Carla Naumburg on Mindful Parenting & Why It’s OK to Ignore Your Kid Sometimes

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Reading Kveller contributing editor Carla’s Naumburg’s essays and books about parenting is like talking to your wise but compassionate best friend, the one who completely understands your child-related issues and doesn’t judge you for them, but has lots of clever, accessible ideas about how to handle them. In her new book, “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family,” she uses this gentle approach to discuss how we can teach our kids to become more mindful. I recently chatted with Carla about why we should help our kids get grounded—and why, sometimes, we should simply ignore them.  

Can you start by giving a quick and dirty definition of mindfulness as you understand it, for those who haven’t read your previous book or other writing on the topic?

This is the one I’ve modified for kids: Noticing the present moment with kindness and curiosity so we can choose our next behavior. When we notice what we’re doing or thinking, we can make a choice about whether or not that particular activity or idea is worthy of further attention.

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You write that kids have a natural ability to be mindful. Why, then, is mindfulness something they need to be taught?

Children have an inherent ability to be mindful, but they don’t yet know how to be intentional about it. Part of it is teaching kids what to be mindful of at the appropriate time.

Another issue is, if we don’t tell kids what this is and why we do it and how to do it in a very explicit way, they’re going get swept up in what the human brain wants to do, which is stress out. So we can say to kids, “This is a thing you already do, and I want to help you understand why it’s so great and how you can continue to choose to do it when you want to.”

The third reason we need to teach our kids mindfulness is because we want them to be able to take a mindful approach to the challenges that come up in life that many kids, mine included, are still tempted to respond to with a tantrum. Teaching our kids how to be mindful and what it means is going to help them manage difficult situations more skillfully.

Mindfulness, as you say repeatedly, is all about noticing. But when my kids are being challenging, my instinct is often to ignore them. Is there a place for ignoring in your approach?

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I’m a huge fan of ignoring my kids! Many parents confuse mindful parenting with paying attention to your kids all the time. What it means is tuning into your own experience and your experience of your kids in a kind, accepting way and making a conscious decision about what to do.

If you can say to yourself, “I’m aware that things are escalating, and I know from experience that if I remove myself from the room, my child is more likely to calm down,” that’s a very mindful choice to make. You’re looking at what’s actually happening in front of you, and you’re saying this is the most skillful parenting intervention I have right now, which is not to intervene at all.

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Many of the strategies you suggest in the book are aimed at preventing meltdowns, but you acknowledge that doesn’t always happen. What then?

It can be helpful to figure out where a meltdown came from, so you can avoid it in the future. The biggest meltdown my daughter has is if I forget to give her a snack. That’s a pretty easy fix: I get food in her, and she’s better in a few minutes.

But our kids can also just have bad days, like adults. What do you want when you’re having a bad day? You want someone to just be there for you. When your kid is having a meltdown and there’s nothing you can do to help her, you ride out the storm. In that moment, our work isn’t about what we do to or for our kids; our work is about staying calm ourselves, which can be quite challenging when our kids are losing it.

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The book is targeted to parents of kids aged 3 to 10. Are there ways to adapt the techniques in your book for younger and older kids?

For parents of little kids, the real work is to practice our own mindfulness. Taking care of a child under 3 is absolutely exhausting. It can also be incredibly boring and confusing. If your 18-month-old wants to sit there and play with her food, can you be OK with that? That’s your mindfulness practice.

There’s also the practice of taking care of yourself, starting to notice when you’re overwhelmed and need a break, and accepting that, as opposed to beating yourself up for wanting to get away from your kid.

With older kids, a great way to get them interested in anything is with technology. While screen time is not mindfulness time, there are apps that have guided meditations—I list a bunch in the back of the book. Also, are there things they need to do on their own? Are they interested in yoga or music? What are they naturally inclined to that you can give them opportunities to practice?

What’s next for you?

I’m always thinking about ways to write about mindfulness and to get the word out there, because it’s such a useful and relevant practice in my life—I just want to tell everybody I know!

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Practicing mindfulness doesn’t mean that you’re mindful all the time, or that you’re a one-trick pony and mindfulness is your gig. All it means is you have a particular way of understanding your own experience, and a particular set of tools to use when you get off track.

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