By Mack Oliver, Groove Contributor
It was the last dance class before the parent showcase, and Brianna (barely 3) would not execute one single step of her dance. Opting for a gentle approach, I squatted in front of her and said that it was her job to copy what my body was doing, and that I would always be in the front of the room if she forgot. Brianna beamed and nodded, and we started the piece again.
As all of her peers did their best to mirror my marches, Brianna hopped on one foot. I bounced, she spun. I reached, she posed. “Brianna, no thank you! It is time to copy Miss Mack!” I said, more harshly than intended in my own flash of frustration and desire for her class (and her) to be successful. Eyes glued on me, Brianna defiantly demonstrated her unique boogie again.
I paused for a moment trying to gather how I could bend this unruly bambino to my will. Then it occurred to me that Brianna’s mother was a native Italian speaker.
And her nanny was Russian.
And she went to a Mandarin immersion preschool.
Plus she was one of those wonderful preschoolers who had maintained that fluffy magic of toddlerhood: nonstop wonder and a personal language of squeaks and grunts.
“Brianna,” I asked, “do you know what ‘copy’ means?” She shook her curls.
The way mindfulness is discussed in contemporary America can make it feel unactionable: taking stock of your feelings and surroundings without evaluating them is a lovely practice, but is there a way we can put all of the information we gather during this process to use?
In Brianna’s case, rather than continue being reactive toward what I perceived as bad behavior, I:
- Took stock of my own feelings (frustration, bewilderment)
- Observed what Brianna was doing without evaluation (improvising, acknowledging that she heard me, participating but not how directed)
- Considered the information I had that was unique to Brianna (a complex relationship with language, a desire to please me)
- And finally changed my behavior based on my observations (defining “copy”, offering an alternative cue)
Rather than a mindfulness practice that is entirely passive, consider mindfulness a gentle means of gathering information and then (if necessary) implementing it. Sweet Brianna gave us an example of redirecting undesired behavior, but mindfulness practiced with children can be positive or neutral as well. And its real-world applications are endless.
While out walking with your child, for example, bring attention to something (“my feet are warm in these boots,” “I notice some leaves are red and some are yellow”). Nearly all children will contribute an additional detail about what you noticed or point out something they notice as well.
Avoid descriptors that add value (like, love, beautiful, gross), and continue this activity as long as your child is interested, gathering as much information about your surroundings as possible. That’s it. That’s the whole activity.
But here we are interested in the why. Perhaps this functions as a bonding experience. Meaning, although you were the one who initiated the activity, the child’s observations are no more or less important than the adult’s. How rare it is to be on equal footing!
Simply noticing is also a matter of safety. Meaning, teaching awareness of surroundings without expanding on the dangers of the world is the gentlest of ways to prepare a child to be aware during an emergency.
Or maybe it’s an uncoached exercise in gratitude. Meaning, you have a chance to stop and look at that squirrel, hear the waves, and know what envelops us. All because you pointed out the easily missed.
Brianna did not know that mindfulness is what allowed me to see her need. But calm information gathering without judgement and with an action step is what got us both what we needed. Oh, you should have seen her dance.