My son climbs quickly to the top of the tallest slide. This isn’t a first for him—he has inherited his father’s love of adventure and general sense of fearlessness. But then he gets to the top and stops.
He is too high for me to hold his hand. He sits there, looking. He doesn’t cry or reach out, he is still at the top of the slide. Another child, just a bit bigger than him, comes up behind him.
“You have to slide down or move over to let her slide!” I call out.
He doesn’t move. He doesn’t look scared, he isn’t “frozen by fear,” he just has a contemplative look of stillness on his face.
I call his name out again. But then I realize she isn’t asking him to move. He isn’t scared or worried. I am projecting my own anxiety about making other people wait. Projecting my own need to hurry, to speed up. I am projecting my own fear of him falling off the slide or being pushed by someone bigger. He is fine. He is clearly just in the moment, being on the edge of the slide. He is at peace at this moment, determining what to do next.
Just as I have this moment of insight he pushes off, giggling as he slides down the spinning slide to the bottom, where I run to meet him.
“Encore” my adorable bilingual little man declares, as I stay amazed as his presence, that moment is over, now it is time for now, and now means more time on a slide.
My young son has quickly become my favorite mindfulness teacher. No, we don’t sit around silently meditating. If he is still for more than five seconds outside of sleep it isn’t with me. But I have this creature who often lives for nothing but the moment, and I am doing my best to learn all I can from him, and help him hold on to this skill before life tries to drag it away.
Recently on a family walk, I stayed with my toddler as my husband went on ahead with our dog. They were soon across the park, as our stroll had taken us about 10 minutes to walk all of five steps.
He bent down to pick up rocks. He brought me a dandelion and put it to my nose to smell. I began to hurry him along; my husband and pup were waiting up ahead.
“Come on sweetie,” I urged.
I began pulling on his hand which he then pulled away, squatting down to look at another rock. I urged him to continue but then I stepped back. What was the rush? It was a Saturday, we had nowhere to be, yet my natural urge to hurry made me feel we had to get him to move.
We said we were going to the playground, so my mind was telling me we had to get to the playground. But why? He was happy picking up and examining rocks and I was happy watching him. There was no rush.
So I let him lead. And it made me realize how much I miss when my eyes are on a screen or a podcast in my ears with my mind a mile away. He is seeing everything that I’m missing.
My tiny little boy was teaching me, in that moment, that I also needed to be more present.
But like any good teacher, he’s constantly testing me. And there is no greater test of being present as a parent than a meltdown.
Meltdowns seem to come from nowhere, but there are almost always cues. If my son is hungry, tired or bored he is more likely to react to something he doesn’t like. When I am present to him, more aware that it has been a long time since lunch, or that he may be burning out at the park, I may be able to head off the storm. Yet even the most mindful mother (which I certainly am not) can’t predict every meltdown, and here, even more than ever, is when my mindfulness serves me.
It is tough to predict what will set my little guy off. Perhaps I gave him a piece of banana without the peel, or I won’t let him play with the stove, or it is time to leave the park. It doesn’t matter the cause, the reaction is the same: Screaming, tears, batting of arms and most frustrating a seeming inability for him to calm down and stop.
I remind myself that no meltdown lasts forever, and most last less than two minutes. I remind myself that this can be a teachable moment; I can be his mindfulness teacher, promoting resiliency.
I remind myself to breathe again. I remember what worked best last time. I take a big audible breath and encourage him to do the same. I find a fun distraction or a sip of water for him. Before long the meltdown is over, and I check in again with my own breath, remembering to exhale. And in true mindful fashion, what seemed like trauma just moments ago has already been forgotten as my little explorer moves on to his next task.
It’s not always like this. I’ve cried with him in the swimming pool locker room and our living room couch and I’ve lost my cool and yelled at him to calm down more than once. What I’ve noticed is the more balanced I am, the better I am able to respond to his meltdowns and meet his needs in a mindful way. When I am well fed, well rested and present with him I am more able to stay mindful through the challenges. I need to be mindful of my own wellbeing to stay mindful with him.
As an adult, I don’t always have the luxury to just sit at the end of the slide. There may be someone waiting for me, or I may get pushed off or left behind. Yet the more time I spend just being with my toddler the more I realize that often that push—the one that needs us to hurry—isn’t coming from anywhere but my own mind. And I often do have the choice to sit with him instead.