I love the variety of words that express the concept of being mindful: observant, aware, attentive, conscientious, careful, cognizant, considerate, present, respectful, thoughtful, sensible.
Living mindfully is another skill that I picked up as I played with creating a solid unschooling environment in our home. Being mindful walks hand-in-hand with unschooling because they both call us to be observant and make conscious choices, see how they play out, and incorporate those experiences into our lives moving forward. It’s how we learn, regardless of age—from learning to walk to figuring out games to discerning our sleep patterns to improving our communication skills to choosing work. So much of unschooling is about being aware of our environment, ourselves, the people in our lives, and the ways they all swirl together.
Unschooling asks us to become more aware of our filters so we might notice more quickly when they are clouding our vision. This also helps us see situations more clearly from our children’s perspective and better understand their actions and reactions. When we meet them where they are we can more effectively support them as they explore and learn about the world.
Being attentive to the present moment helps us see not only the bigger actions playing out in front of us, but the smaller ones too. A fleeting smile of understanding on our child’s face. A quick tensing of our partner’s shoulders. A short burst of giggles from a nearby room. A momentary feeling of unease as our child attempts something for the first time. These are subtle yet important clues about our experiences. They don’t necessarily demand any action on our part, but we’ll do well to add them to our collection of observations, small puzzle pieces that may one day become part of the bigger picture of our understanding of ourselves, our children, and our world.
Being alert and mindful also helps us catch the good moments, the ones that might rush past our consciousness without acknowledgment because they don’t have a direct impact on us. A child sharing a toy with their sibling, or comforting a playmate at the park. Our spouse filling up the gas tank, or playing a game with the kids. All the small moments of caring and connection that populate our days. It’s so easy to miss those moments, or dismiss them. Yet they mean so much in the bigger picture—our world is full of small acts of kindness.
Something else I’ve learned from being mindful of my thoughts and actions is to give space for being wrong. For me, being in the moment has shown me that I cannot predict the future with any significant sense of certainty. Giving up my expectations of the next moment has meant I don’t leap so quickly into moments to try to “fix” or direct them—with my kids, or with other adults. Through giving those moments more space to lead to the next moment I have learned that there are just so many more ways things can go than I can imagine. So many beautiful ideas have blossomed over the years because I stopped myself from jumping in, because I quietly asked myself, “what if?” instead of speaking. Apparently my opinions aren’t often necessary for the lives around me to unfold beautifully. 😉
Being attentive to my thoughts and words also means that I can be selective in what I share—meaning just the really good stuff. That has allowed me to keep my two cents much more often, and I feel richer for it! That’s not to say that I actively avoid conversation—people ask my thoughts, and conversations with my kids have been known to lead to bouncing excitement as we share our thoughts and opinions about many things. But it is in those moments when people are receptive to others’ ideas: when they seek them out. When they are connected to a larger conversation.
Think about it for a moment. How much fun is it to have people tossing their opinions at you when you haven’t asked for them? Not very. Unsolicited advice? Usually annoying. Why? Because it doesn’t match where your thoughts are—it is more distracting than anything. Your best chance in being relevant and helpful to anyone, child or adult, is when you’re responding to their thoughts and questions, joining them where they are, not indiscriminately sharing every thought you have. Take that mindful moment to evaluate whether the thought that just occurred to you is worth sharing, worth the effort the listener will need to make to move from where their thoughts are currently to connect this new one you’ve shared so it makes sense in their perspective.
Another helpful reason to strive for an attentive state-of-mind is to keep an eye out for our unthinking reactions. Those voices from the past in our head, spouting edicts and judging our actions harshly, can definitely affect our mood and our actions. Or those habits we’ve formed over the years that may not be serving us as well any more. Or fear that immediately sends our pulse racing and words tumbling out, yet we’re not sure why. Rather than let autopilot take over and responding in our habitual ways, these are moments that would be great to catch so we can re-consider the situation and choose our response to this moment based on our new perspective. What once was a knee-jerk reaction can become a choice.
What living mindfully helps us do is recognize the many choices available to us every day. If we don’t see any choices, we feel trapped. We feel like we don’t have control of our lives. Our days are an endless procession of telling ourselves we have to do this and that with no end in sight. We lash out thoughtlessly, in general frustration.
Yet when we realize that everything we do is a choice suddenly we feel free, breathing is easier, and a smile is within easy reach—even while changing our young child’s diaper for the gazillionth time. There are so many choices in there! If we take the diaper example, you could choose to not change it right now, leaving it for a while longer. What might happen? Maybe your spouse gets home soon and changes it. If not, eventually your child will probably become uncomfortable wearing it, maybe developing a rash; maybe not. Would that be frustrating for your child, and even more of a challenge for you to deal with in the end? You might choose to just wait a little while. Or you could remove the diaper and leave your child running free for a while. Maybe they’d have an accident—how hard would that be to clean up versus a diaper change? Maybe you guys could play in the backyard while going diaper-free, making clean up even easier. Or maybe your child has a really messy diaper right now and outside would be an easier, and more fun, way to clean it all up: a couple buckets of warm, soapy water and sponges for you both to play with.
Maybe one of those options sounds perfect for the moment you’re in! Or maybe they all sound like more work right now and a regular-ol’ quickie diaper change sounds right. But now it’s not being foisted upon you and out of your control—you’re choosing the circumstances of the diaper change. And now there are even more choices. In this moment, would it be easier to take your child to your regular changing spot or to grab the essentials and bring them to your child?
For me, taking a moment to realize I have many options, even with the most mundane activities, and then mindfully choosing which one best suits the current circumstances, helps shift me out of any frustration I was initially feeling because now I remember the reasons why I’m making that choice. And, unsurprisingly, when I approach the diaper change (or whatever situation I initially felt trapped by) mindfully and with minimal frustration it usually goes that much more smoothly—even if my child gets frustrated in the moment I don’t react back, spiraling us deeper. When we are careful and considerate with our thoughts we see so many more options to a given situation and soon we realize we have and make a lot more choices than we often give ourselves credit for.
We control our lives; not the other way around.
Living mindfully is not only incredibly supportive of an unschooling environment, it has grown to become a wonderful perspective from which to approach my life in general. With both my actions and my relationships, with both children and adults, being fully attentive to the situation at hand, taking a moment to discover and consider the choices available, and moving forward respectfully from there, continues to bring me a level of peace and compassion that had eluded me earlier.