Being there isn’t enough — a good dad is a present dad. That means savoring every moment with your child, putting away your smartphone, and living mindfully. Alas, like anything worthwhile, it takes practice. Lots of practice. “Presence is focusing on right now, rather than having your awareness on something in the future, or worrying about the past,” says marriage and family therapist David Klow. “It’s training our minds to focus on the depth of the moment rather than fleeing to go somewhere else.”
“I hear many parents talk about missing out on the moment. They describe it feeling like their children grow up in the blink of an eye,” Klow says. “This suggests not having fully taken in the moments over the years as they were occurring. One significant downside of not being present is that life can pass us by.”
The idea of being present or mindful derives from Buddhist practice and was first brought to the U.S. by Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn adapted the Buddhist principles of mindfulness to western psychology in 1979, and named his program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction — scientific-sounding jargon intended to distance the therapy from religious practice. It seems to have worked. “Mindfulness” is now a household term and pop-psychology standby, with studies claiming it reduces anxiety, boosts cognitive functioning, improves self-esteem, and curbs age and racial biases.
The trick is learning how to do it as a parent. Because the rigors of parenting are anything but mindful. Lack of sleep makes meditation tricky, and juggling soccer practice with that piano recital sure makes living in the moment seem unrealistic. Klow suggests parents start by focusing on their breathing, which can itself decrease stress, regulate blood pressure, and help with emotional control. This will make it easier to pay attention to other internal cues, and focus on the moment rather than dwelling on the past or jumping into the future without savoring the present.
“The body is always in the moment,” Klow says. “Noticing what is happening in your body can be an anchor for being present.”
Meditation and yoga can help, too. But for busy parents who can’t even find time to breathe mindfully, let alone work yoga into their daily schedules, there’s a quicker fix — put away your smartphone, notice what your kids are doing, and give them specific feedback. After all, isn’t that your job as a parent?
“A father who is present can respond to his four-year-old with more than a perfunctory very nice or good job,” says marriage and family therapist Raffi Bilek. “He is noticing what his kids are up to and engaging with them rather than having his body there but his mind elsewhere.”
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