Mindful Parenting: What Mindfulness Means to Modern Moms - Interview with Dr. Kristen Race
Dr. Kristen Race, a self-professed Type A perfectionist and the president and founder of Mindful Life, which provides brain-based solutions for businesses, schools and families to become more resilient to modern day stressors, is the first to admit that she 'experiences child-meltdowns and does not always handle situations perfectly.'
Her work with children and families and now with workplaces is well grounded in research as well as her personal experience as someone who earned her doctorate in Child, Family and School Psychology while pregnant with her first child and starting her own business shortly after.
In my own personal interest in being more mindful and living more intentionally rather than reactively, I was so excited to speak with Dr. Race about what it means to be mindful in today's hectic world. Having read her book Mindful Parenting: Simple and powerful solutions to raise creative, engaged and happy kids in today’s hectic world, I was curious to hear more about her own journey and challenges to being where she is today both as a mother and a business owner and some practical tips for the modern moms (and their kiddos).
It is Dr. Race's genuine passion to help people better cope with their stress so that they can be the best versions of themselves in their daily lives that makes me so happy to share her story and her relevant and practical advice below.
1. You said “We are a society of stressed-out adults raising a generation of stressed-out kids.” - Why do you think this is?
Today, we no longer work 9-5. In fact, we have work coming into our devices. The devices afford us convenience but also accessibility so the constant pings and dings from the devices are fragmenting our attention. As parents, we are dealing with a whole different generation experiencing more stress triggers than any generations before us. Statistically speaking, we see more kids being diagnosed with depression and teens who commit suicide.
But the good news is that compared to when I started with this work 10 years ago, the pendulum seems to be swinging back. Ten years ago, I was working in a high powered independent school (Kindergarten to 12th grade) and back then it was all about how much homework they could give these kids. Since then, people are starting to realize (and more research on this subject has come out) how much detrimental it actually is to load the kids with homework and how it has no positive impact on how the kids learn.
Parents are also starting to realize that kids don’t have to do everything. It is ok to choose 1 or 2 activities a season and and to have days off from school so that they can just play. What a concept! But it is happening in some geographical locations more than others. It is really a welcome change compared to when I started, where the trend was, that if you did not sign your kids up for every single activity then you might as well cross college off their list!
We see schools starting to recognize the stress in their students and they are beginning to do something about it, like teaching them stress-resiliency skills and mindfulness practice. When I look at the kids I have been working with for a while in building their mindfulness skills in their school system, I can see that they have picked it up like they learn a language. They are very receptive to these skills when they are young, and they pick them up so much more easily than when they are adults. I wish I learned mindfulness like them when I was 5!
2. What are some of the mindfulness skills that you teach little kids?
Mindfulness starts with breathing and awareness of their breath. We teach kids what's called the finger breathing. First you match all of your fingers from both hands to form a hollow ball. As you breath in, you expand the hollow ball you made with your fingers and you squeeze the air out of the finger ball as you breathe out. This trick teaches kids to bring an awareness to their breath. Another thing we teach very early is mindful listening. So, you have the kids sit down and close their eyes. With their eyes closed, bring a tone or a chime that they can listen closely while bringing awareness to the sound around them. When we do that, we activate a part of their brain called ‘ reticular activating system’ which helps them filter all sorts of incoming information to determine what is the most important thing to focus on at this time. So, as they practice that and strengthen that system, they will be able to filter noises from outside, i.e., classmates talking, white noise from the air conditioning, cars outside, etc., that they are processing through senses. As a result, they are able to better identify and focus on the most crucial information at any given time.
Mindful breathing does a lot of the same thing in terms of calming the stress response, stimulating the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex that helps the kids be receptive to learning. Another thing we teach kids early on is how the stress response in their brain works. I do this by showing them a model of the brain and first teach them about the prefrontal cortex - the smart part of the brain that helps us with problem solving, paying attention, making good choices, making friends, etc. And then I teach them about the alarm part of the brain that is stronger than the smart part of the brain and gets triggered when we have strong feelings. When we are stressed, which triggers this part of the brain, the smart part of the brain does not work very well. So, I then teach the kids how to put out the fire in the alarm part of the brain by using simple breathing exercises, so that the smart part of the brain can start functioning again. We teach them different breathing exercises through indirect methods like games and play. We definitely teach mindfulness differently to kids than adults.
At ‘school’ (Pre-K or Kindergarten included) teachers find it really helpful to start the day with 2-4 min of mindfulness practice such as active listening and breathing. You don’t know what kind of mornings the kids had before they come into school. For example, they might have had a fight with their sibling or they forgot their lunch or maybe their parents had an argument. So, investing a couple of minutes to calm the stress responses in the brain and to bring the awareness to the prefrontal cortex so that everybody can be more engaged and ready for learning is so worth it. The teachers not only find that it helps them move the materials much more quickly but they also have fewer behavioral issues, and the kids are there to be present.
3. Why mindfulness? What does it really mean and why can we benefit from being mindful as moms?
I define mindfulness as 'paying attention to present moment with kindness'. We practice mindfulness in different ways - both formally and informally. Practicing mindfulness formally means sitting down to meditate or practicing mindful breathing - something intentional that you do every day to bring awareness to the present moment. But we can also practice mindfulness informally. Practicing mindfulness informally can be something like having a gratitude practice, or noticing and appreciating good things that happen in your day. It could also mean going for a walk with your dog and really paying attention to your surroundings. It could be intentionally leaving your phone when picking up the kids so that you can be present and engaged in that conversation on the way home.
Let me share with you one simple thing in my morning routine that anyone can do. When I wake up in the morning, first thing I do is to turn on my coffee maker. While my coffee is brewing for 3-5 min, I sit on a chair to bring attention to my breathing. This makes a profound difference in my day. I find that I am a nicer and more patient parent, efficient worker, kinder spouse, etc.
Your practice does not have to mean a major life transformation. It can mean these little things that make a big difference.
What I notice personally when my own practice is strong, it allows me to respond to situations thoughtfully, rather than reacting impulsively. As a mom, you have so many demands on your attention and time. You feel like you are being pulled in all different directions, from your kids, husband and your work, that a simple mindfulness practice can help you be the best version of yourself in all of these situations. It grounds you to respond to situations in a way that is aligned with your core values and goals.
4. Can a mindfulness practice be incorporated into what you do already in your day such as exercise?
Yes! I actually just wrote a blog post about how to incorporate mindfulness practices into your exercise routine. For example, on your morning run, set a timer for 5 minutes to listen to the sound you hear, like birds, woodpecker, wind, etc. What it does is it allows your brain a little break from a constant dialogue that is your thoughts, which is often anxiety provoking. When your life gets busy and you feel overwhelmed, I really find combining mindfulness practice into exercise efficient, because while you are giving your body a workout, you are also giving your brain a workout.
4. Share your journey with us. How did you get to where you are today as a professional and a parent? How does your profession influence who you are as a parent and vice versa?
In my profession I am always reading and learning about new research, methods and strategies and because of that, for good or bad, I am routinely practicing things on my own children. Sometimes my kids are the subjects of unknown intervention but they are all good things! In talking with parents, one of the things I try to get across first is that I am human. My house gets crazy. I experience child meltdowns and I don’t always handle situation perfectly. It is important to understand that we are all in this together. I may have read more books and have more strategies I could try when these things come up, but I am constantly growing as a parent and I know how hard it is firsthand!
5. Who do you think are more stressed - dads or moms?
I read a study recently that moms are statistically more stressed out than dads. This makes sense, because working moms still tend to carry the majority of the loads when it comes to managing household and children-related tasks and they play the role of the organizer, nurturer, and manager even if they are working full time.
I think men do a better job of letting go of stuff. If they go golfing or fishing or whatever they want to do just for themselves, they are better at letting go of everything else while they are doing these activities. Women tend to feel more guilty about it. We see that typically when women are overwhelmed, they still take care of their jobs, they take care of their kids and family but they tend to let go of their friends leading to isolation. They no longer say ‘yes’ to girls night out, birthday lunches, etc., when things like is what you often need in these difficult or stressful times. We too often prioritize ourselves last but we need to start changing that. We have to take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others. That is hard to remember though.
6. What is the most common misunderstanding about mindfulness?
There are a few things.
A Clear Mind: One myth is that we need to clear our mind to practice mindfulness. This is simply not true and impossible. Mindfulness practice is focusing your attention on an object - breathing, sound, etc., and watching what your mind does and practicing bringing your mind back but not 'clearing your mind' completely.
You Need the Right Props: It is completely false that you can only practice mindfulness sitting on a cushion in a lotus pose. As I shared with you earlier, there are so many ways to incorporate your mindfulness practice into your day and doing it in an informal way that can be incredibly beneficial.
Have Too Busy Of A Mind: People often say 'I can never do that, my mind is too busy', when it comes to starting a mindfulness practice. What I say to these people is 'Congratulations! That is a perfectly normal part of a human condition. You are not special and we all have a busy mind.' The people who think they are too busy are the ones who can most benefit from a mindfulness practice.
7. Are there any particular advices that you offer but you find it difficult to implement yourself at home?
I think the biggest thing I have struggled with and continue to struggle with is self-compassion. I am a type A personality and a perfectionist at heart and I tend to beat myself up when things don’t go as ideally as they should. I definitely get negative thoughts about myself. When I practice mindfulness, they don't go away necessarily but I notice them more. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post about self-compassion, taking care of yourself. I am good about judgement towards others and I know there are things that are going on in their lives that I may not know about but I have a hard time with judgement of myself.
8. What are some of the practical steps that moms (or parents) can take everyday towards achieving mindfulness?
There are two main things.
1. How You Start Your Day: Think about how you start your day. How you start our day sets the tone for the rest of the day! It can be as simple as taking the time to think of 3 things you are grateful for at that moment. You can also wake up before the kids and do breathing exercises. I highly encourage people to start their days a little more easier than just grabbing their phones and going through their emails. There is a gentler way to start your day for your brain.
2. Rose, Bud, Thorn - This is a little game that we practice around the dinner table or as a part of our bedtime routine. Each of us shares a ‘Rose’ - a simple thing they experienced today that was good, like ‘I got a hug from so and so’ or ‘dog was happy to see me’, etc. Then we share a ‘Thorn’ - a mistake that you learned from today. Sharing mistakes openly helps us grow self-compassion and viewing mistakes as growing opportunities rather than failures. It is also good for the kids to hear that parents make mistakes, too! I find that this practice in particular helps those perfectionist kids to take risks. The last thing is sharing a ‘Bud’ - this has to do with active kindness you witnesses or you initiated. Our kids actually look for opportunities to act on kindness because they can talk about it at dinner table! Playing this game only takes 5-10 mins but it helps shift our minds towards positive things and feel grateful.
10. What does a brand like Mitera mean to you?
I feel like a Mitera client is already a mindful mama. She is someone who is making a conscious choice about the company that they want to purchase things from and they value the connection and community that Mitera is creating. They value self-care and just like the simplicity of the clothing, - they want a stress-free decision making. It makes one aspect of of your life - what you wear - a little bit easier and being able to feel confident in whatever shape your body is at that moment. It is so powerful and such a value to a woman to have a brand like Mitera where she can feel understood, supported and celebrated.
I think Mitera is a brand that values connection and not judgement and to me it is all about the 'Whole' of Motherhood, not just what motherhood seems and what you see from the outside. Mitera really does what it says it does - it celebrates and supports modern women throughout their motherhood journeys.
Just for Fun!
- What would you do if you had one more hour in your day? I would take my dog for a long walk. One thing I feel like I don’t have enough time to do.
- I don’t leave home without.... A sweater. Live in Colorado. Weather changes every 15 min.
- People think I am ..... Infallible because I wrote a book about parenting as a mom but I am really..... Learning about parenting and growing as a parent everyday!
- I am currently reading ..... A book called Upside of Stress.
- I wish I had time for ...... Reading for pleasure.