Mindfulness teacher Susan Kaiser Greenland has worked with kids for a long time, and Sharon Salzberg is one of the most sought-after dharma teachers in the world today. They join forces at the New York Insight Meditation Center on October 16th for an event that will perk up the ears of any parent: Developing Mindfulness with Children: A Workshop for Adults.
We caught up with Susan Kaiser Greenland last week and pestered her with a few questions, which she graciously answers below.
How were you inspired to teach mindfulness to children? A couple of things happened. When I began experimenting with mindfulness and children I had two young children myself, one in pre-kindergarten and another in first grade. It just made sense to me that if mindfulness was helpful for adults it would be helpful for children too, especially in the area of attention. Over time I came to learn that while mindfulness does support the development of attention in children, it also does much more, for instance, it also supports the development of kindness, empathy, and clarity. But the most subtle thing that happened to me shortly before I began practicing with my own children was sitting retreat with Ken Mcleod at Mt Baldy where I had an insight that changed the way I looked at practicing with my own children and freed me up to think it was even possible. It had to do with just ‘opening the door’ to the room in which I was already practicing every morning inviting them into my practice (especially inviting/integrating my son into my own practice) as opposed to the other way around.
At what age is it appropriate to begin mindfulness training for children? In many respects, our practice with our own children starts during pregnancy, while they are still inside us. Mindfulness with young children in many respects has more to do with how we are, with what we embody, than with mindful activities we teach them. But, for training children in mindfulness on their own, outside of the home environment, we’ve found preschool to be a good place to begin.
What are the advantages to having more mindful children? It’s not just about making our own lives easier, is it? Having more mindful children doesn’t necessarily make our lives easier, in the short run. Teach your kids about mindfulness and they’ll be the first ones to call you on it when you’re not embodying mindfulness yourself! But for me the greatest advantage of mindfulness and children is the development of greater emotional and intellectual clarity and life-skills that give children some tools to calm their minds and bodies. With clarity comes not only improved concentration but wisdom with respect to bringing kindness and compassion into their actions and relationships.
What if our kids don’t listen to us? How can we teach them mindfulness techniques? I hate to sound like a broken record but mindfulness with children begins and ends with our own practice, it’s all about embodiment. Kids learn by example so if you model a kind, compassionate, attuned and less reactive stance they’ll internalize that stance themselves in a way that’s, in many respects, more powerful than if we just talk to our kids about being mindful, kind, compassionate and attentive.
What is the hardest part of meditation for children? Teaching/practicing with children with an eye toward their developmental capabilities and scaffolding or sequencing the training so that skills in concentration, mindfulness and ethics build one upon another. Sometimes the mindfulness in everyday life work – whether in adults or with children – is taught willy-nilly without much regard to the sequence in which the skills are taught and/or scaffolding the training by taking into account the child’s level of development and allowing him or her to explore new applications and learn from his or her own mistakes.
Is meditation for children an alternative to medication? Maybe for meditation is an alternative to medication for some children, but I don’t think about it in those terms nor is there enough science on the subject yet to answer that question with confidence one way or the other. But what strikes me most about that question is the assumption that we really know what meditation for children actually is, and at least for the very young children, I’m not sure we do have a common definition of what is meditation. We’ve got a clear sense of what constitutes mindfulness in kids as young as four, but that’s different from meditation. That’s why it’s important to define our terms when it comes to meditation especially with kids. When practicing with children, and their parents or teachers who are new to meditation, I follow Minguyr Rinpoche’s wonderful instruction “short time, many times.” Which means if you’re sitting at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning doing homework, 30 seconds of listening to the raindrops tapping against the window can be a meaningful practice: Especially if you repeat that practice several times throughout the course of the morning.
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