Kate’s five-year-old daughter, Lilly, slept in her arms while the jovial paediatrician addressed her from across the desk. “When they’re like this, you just want to eat them, don’t you?” He grinned in anticipation of his punch line. “And when she’s awake, I bet you sometimes wish you had.” Aghast and tickled, Kate had to admit that it was often tough-going with Lilly. There were equal moments of sheer bliss and tear-your-hair-out frustration. She wanted more bliss. So, without hesitation, he suggested a mindfulness programme for Lilly.
Kate was on board with his idea because she and her husband had completed a mindfulness parenting course and they’d found it helpful. For many years, developmental and social psychologists have emphasized that child rearing is a two-way street. It’s often the way a parent reacts to a child’s challenging behavior that determines the quality of the interaction, and the child’s behavioral pattern. The mindfulness course encouraged Kate and her husband to be more attentive to their and Lilly’s emotions in the difficult moments. As a result, they became more aware of the importance of their emotional self-regulation when confronted by their young hothead. It would be great if Lilly learned similarly.
The hot new trend
Currently, mindfulness programmes are just about the coolest gigs for kids. They clearly have intuitive appeal, so it’s not surprising that their popularity is rapidly increasing. Type ‘child mindfulness’ into an Internet search engine and it reveals one article after another (of the 26,000 or so) proclaiming the benefits of child mindfulness, even for preschoolers. The search also reveals that the 2,000-year-old Eastern, Buddhist practice has been implemented in thousands of schools in its new home, the Western world.
There are almost as many different programmes for kids as there are Internet articles on the subject. But in one way or another, they all seem to encourage young people to focus their attention on the present moment; to ‘tune in’ to the mind-body experience by attending to unfolding emotions, thoughts and sensations. They also teach young people to remain emotionally neutral when they ‘tune out’ of the present, and into distracting thoughts about the future or the past. It’s often claimed that this sort of training in non-judgmental, sustained focus improves a child’s attention, memory, decision-making and emotional regulation, among other things – from curiosity to social relationships.
The mindful programme
Lilly’s particular course was conveniently offered at school, after school hours, and once a week for 16 weeks. Almost each week her qualified trainer reported that she was a mindfulness maestro. Kate agreed because when she picked her up, Lilly seemed more content.
Until that is, Lilly made an unsuccessful plea for something that she wanted. That’s all it took to throw her into the human mind’s default mode: ‘mindlessness’, as she played out an intense temper tantrum. And as she did, it dawned on Kate that this pattern of behavior occurred irrespective of the parent and child mindfulness programmes.
How effective is it?
Lilly’s not alone. There are abundant reports on the short-term advantages for children in mindfulness programmes, but, importantly, there’s very little research to show long-term positive effects.
Furthermore, while research outcomes on the short-term advantages are promising, it seems that little of the data are, in fact, valid or reliable. A number of academics point out that this is because much of the research is of poor quality. As an example, at the conclusion of Lilly’s course Kate completed a university-based research questionnaire in which she agreed that Lilly was calmer after the sessions. But then again, Kate strongly believed in the value of the programme from the start, and Lilly enjoyed the sessions. So, Kate’s response may have been based on the expectation that Lilly would benefit, rather than the reality. Her response is a well-established phenomenon in psychological and medical research. It’s known as the expectancy effect, and it biases the results.
Child mindfulness is a relatively new, growing phenomenon, so there’s a good chance that the quality of the research on it will improve with time. When it does, we’ll be in a better position to sift the effective programmes from the futile.
Mindfulness over matter?
There are certainly some early signs that those good programmes exist. Yet, while there’s room for cautious optimism, we can’t be sure. That’s because it appears that the research jury’s still out on the short and long-term effectiveness of mindfulness training for children. So, perhaps at this point we could say that the popularity of the programmes may be a case of, well, mindfulness over matter.
Names, locales, people and incidents are have been fictitiously created by the author. Any resemblance to actual people, places or individuals is completely coincidental.