teaching children to meditate

October 18th, 2012

This is the most-read post on my site. Why? Because we love our children. The love we have for our children may well be the portal to our own meditation practice, even though we don’t recognize that at first. Children lead us to do all kinds of things we never thought we’d do.

To begin, understand this: you are never going to teach your child a life skill that you don’t already have.
But I know. You’re not here for yourself. You’re here because you’re worried about your child.

How do you teach children to meditate?
I’m asked about this all the time. Please know that I speak only from my own perspective as a mother and a practitioner. Everyone has his or her own view. Here is mine.

Children don’t need to learn to meditate. Parents do. Children are immensely helped in all ways by living with one or more parents who practice meditation. One powerful way is that our children see us do it, regularly, like brushing our teeth and putting dirty clothes in the hamper. They learn by what they see. Parents who already meditate don’t need to find anybody else to teach their children meditation. They simply invite the kids to sit down with them, if they are interested, and breathe quietly.

This might sound like heresy coming from a Buddhist priest. After all, there are many well-meaning parents and programs that aim to teach children meditation. Young children are very curious and adaptable, and with clever instruction, they can be taught nearly anything. But my point is that children already practice single-minded attention and non-distracted awareness. You may not see it in their stillness, but in their activity:  games, art, or outdoor exploration. (Engaging with your children in any of these activities is a form of group meditation.) We all have this capacity for single-minded focus within us. As adults, we practice to return to this state – the state where we can lose ourselves in what we are doing, carefree and undisturbed.

My teacher sums it up quite clearly every time he reminds our sangha: “We don’t practice to cultivate our Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature is functioning perfectly. We practice because we are neurotic!” Not many children are yet neurotic, plagued by delusive thoughts, fears and feelings of alienation. This is what I mean when I wrote in Chapter 24 of Momma Zen: “Children are exemplars of the art of being.” The aim of all Buddhist practice is to return to our natural state of wide-eyed wonder and unselfconsciousness that we can observe in our young children many times a day.

But I can’t get my child to pay attention to me.

A lot of conflicts arise because children persist in doing what we don’t want them to do. It seems like it’s hard to redirect or distract them. Isn’t it funny that the fact that our children are undistractedly doing what we don’t want them to do absolutely drives us crazy?! They don’t yet have problems concentrating! We more often have trouble loving and accepting them as they are, trusting that they are changing and growing all the time, and usually doing what they need to. If you are afraid, by the way, that your children are exposed to too much electronic media, then you need to take care of that directly, by limiting their access. I completely support that kind of clear-eyed discipline. Making that change can be very difficult, but it is indisputably wise.

As for attention, I have seen with my own eyes that the best way to receive attention is to cultivate my own, and give it.

How do we teach compassion?

The virtues of compassion and forgiveness aren’t instilled by discussion or imposition, but rather, they are revealed as our innate wisdom by our practice. When we ourselves have our own regular at-home practice we might realize that our children are already naturally compassionate and forgiving. They care about the world, and they don’t hold grudges. They care about small things – insects, rocks, animals – and they care about big things – the oceans, the Earth and the universe. Usually, they care far more than we do! Compassion and wisdom are the natural characteristics of our own nature, the nature we as adults reveal to ourselves through our own sitting practice. When we reveal them to ourselves, our actions reinforce them in our children, and they learn from us by seeing how we live.

But I want to give my child life skills that my parents didn’t give me.

None of this means there isn’t a way to help our growing children deal with their fears and anxieties. There is. But we deal with it as it appears. We cannot inoculate our children from life’s hardships. We can only give them our nonjudgmental company through the bumps. If you have specific questions about the methods I’ve used, please ask and I’ll write about them. Suffice it to say, helping anyone focus on his or her own breathing in a quiet room is just about the only thing I teach. I have used this with my own daughter to handle her nighttime fears and anxieties, instructing her to place her hand on her stomach, lie quietly, and feel her belly inflate and deflate as she breathes. If you try it yourself you’ll see that it calms the mind and body.

What about teaching mindfulness in schools and to treat ADHD?

Recent research documents the extraordinary therapeutic benefits of meditation, or so-called “mindfulness” practice in treating ADHD and other behavioral issues in our families and schools, but I leave that to the doctors and therapists to expound. If you have to deal with those realities, and many families these days do, you will be best advised by the experts, counselors and social scientists. I’m confident that the benefits of meditation in any setting or situation, wherever the need and urgency arises, are profound. What I’d like you to do first is prove it to yourself, over and over. Then it will be a tool that you already have in hand, to use whenever necessary.

Shouldn’t I be giving my child a spiritual upbringing?

About the spiritual training of young, my view is a bit of the same. How you behave in your home is their spiritual upbringing. I think we have to be careful with all forms of ideological indoctrination, and that is what spiritual training is in children: the imposition of a set of abstract beliefs and ideals. Children will take these from of us, but I don’t think dogma serves anyone for long. After all, I was a very good Sunday School student, the star of my confirmation class, and yet I had my own spiritual crisis to resolve later in life. We all do.

I always remind myself that I’m not trying to raise a Buddhist child. I’m trying to raise a Buddhist mother, and it’s taking all my time! Not only my family, but also everyone everywhere will be served by my devoted discipline in my own training. Not because I’m self-important, but in recognition of the one true reality: no self. We are all interdependent, which means we are all one.

Do you ever worry that you’re not giving your child what she needs in the future?

Of course, all the time. When my daughter has her time of spiritual doubt and searching, I hope she remembers the warmhearted attention, quietude and acceptance of home. I can’t know for sure when that time might come, but that’s the best gift I can give her: a way home. As for when I will teach her to meditate, the answer is when she asks. The best way for you to share your practice with your children is the very way you share it with the world – by your steadfast, unconditional love and acceptance, and your selfless response to needs that arise. Simply put: by paying attention.

You might find these further tips and reminders helpful:

The Monastery of Mom & Dad
8 Ways to Raise a Mindful Child
10 Tips for a Mindful Home
15 Ways to Practice Compassion on the Way Home for Dinner

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