article

08.03.10

The Child-Meditation Miracle

Can a 3-year-old really reach a Zen-like state—or is it just a good way to shut him up? Gwynne Watkins on the growing ranks of parents and gurus who say meditation calms crazy kids.

You could say that Amdo, a sweet, calm, and curious boy who lives in Brooklyn with his mother Jae, has been meditating since before he learned to walk.

As a toddler, he was fascinated by his mother’s meditation practice, and began to crawl into her lap and sit with her when she meditated in the mornings. Jae, a book conservator who’s been practicing Soto Zen meditation as a discipline for four years, soon begun giving Amdo gentle guidance on the principles of meditation, which he’s already applying to his life. “I tell him, 'Feel what it feels like to feel a tingle in your fingertips,'” says Jae. “It’s not a technique, but you have to be really still (to do it). There was one time when I was really agitated, and spontaneously Amdo was like, ‘Mom, feel your fingertips!’”

One psychologist says that while “not all kids will be able to do meditation,” she’s found that “many kids” can “learn meditative breathing techniques that will help them regulate and not lose control.”

Merriam-Webster defines the act of meditating as “to focus one’s thoughts on, reflect on, or ponder over.” Which means that the definition of the opposite of meditation might be: “to be a toddler.” But some parents are embracing the idea that meditation can calm their rambunctious young children. For holistically minded moms and dads, it’s like a dose of spiritual Ritalin.

Not everyone buys it. Deepak Chopra, the household name in gurus, writes on his website that “there’s no hard and fast rule” for meditation readiness, but names “8 or 10 years of age” as the earliest conceivable moment. Youngsters have limited capacity for extreme concentration, body awareness, or understanding the abstract concepts (visualization, loving-kindness) associated with some meditation practices.

Parents apparently have a different visualization: serene, sedate children who learn to love an activity that keeps them quiet and still for long stretches of time. As such, many meditation centers have begun offering programs for children as young as 7, and meditation instructors tell The Daily Beast that there’s an increasing demand for courses aimed at the pre-K set.

And, perhaps surprisingly, experts say there are indeed elements of meditation that apply directly to the type of frustration that very young children are inclined to feel. “From 2 to 6, children undergo many changes and have little control over their environments,” says Dr. Jennifer L. Hartstein, a child and family psychologist. “Sometimes, their problematic behaviors are directly linked to that.” Although Hartstein says flat-out that “not all kids will be able to do meditation,” she’s found that “many kids” can “learn meditative breathing techniques that will help them regulate and not lose control.”

Even if your child doesn’t aspire to join a monastery someday, they can still appreciate the principles of mediation—or at least, you as a parent can. Renee Skuba’s son Lucien, who turns 4 in a few months, is what Renee diplomatically describes as “very active.”

“Maybe it’s because he’s a boy, or because we don’t have outdoor space,” she says of Lucien’s bouncing-off-the-walls energy level. “A city kid is different from a suburban kid.” To help Lucien cope, Skuba, a yoga instructor and musician, began doing breathing exercises and chants with him. “At nighttime, when he’s really active and not calming down, we’ll do sounds,” she explains, illustrating with hand motions. “Take a deep breath, fill up like a balloon—now buzz like a bee.” Skuba goes through a small litany of sounds—bzzz, hisss, sssh, mmm—raising her arms with the breath, then lowering them with the sound. “When the breath is really short, the mind is really active,” she says, echoing closely what meditation gurus also recommend for adults. “This slows their breath.” She’ll sometimes pull Lucien aside to take some deep breaths when playdates turn into wrestling matches, “and he’ll be ready to come back and enter from a more peaceful state.” Skuba and Lucien also do a yogic chant—the prayer of peace, love, and light, available on Renee’s CD—in lieu of a lullaby. The chanting, she says, makes bedtime a breeze by triggering a peaceful, sleepy state. “It’s like Pavlov’s dog.”

But what if you’re the type of parent who’s more inclined to relax with coffee and Mad Men than deep-breathing and mindfulness? Can you still teach your toddler to meditate in good conscience? Yes, says Anne Kenan, who teaches a meditation class for 3- to 6-year-olds at New York City’s Shambhala Center—but it probably won’t take unless you do it with them. “You don’t have to be a seasoned professional. You can start anytime,” she says. And there’s no need to be too disciplined or structured about meditation when it comes to children. Her own son Rhese, 3, will only sit “for a minute or two,” but, she says, that’s enough. “It’s more getting [your children] familiar with the practice of it. And practicing being still and being quiet,” she says. “They’re not meditating in the sense that they’re following their breath or using a technique. They’re just sitting there. Which is great—that’s how you start.”

Indeed, any parent can tell you that getting a small child to sit still is an accomplishment in itself. Kenan even knows a meditation teacher who bribed her children with sweets to meditate for half an hour. “She’d say, ‘If you sit here for 30 minutes, I’ll buy you a piece of candy,’” Kenan laughs. “It got them to stay there and sit, and now all five children are really amazing meditators.”

Since children under 8 can’t grasp advanced principles of meditation, they make ideal partners for parents who are rank beginners. With this in mind, I decided to try meditation with my own 2-year-old (who, when he’s not meditating, is somewhat of a human tornado). For my first attempt, I used a basic technique recommended for children on the popular website AnmolMehta.com. While preparing my son for bed, I asked him to cross his legs and put his palms together. We took a few deep breaths, and then I instructed him to close his eyes and chant “ohmmmm.” He did it—and then immediately burst into giggles and collapsed in my lap. We did this four or five more times with exactly the same effect, after which he leapt up and starting running in a circle while shouting, “Bang! Bang! Bang!”

However, after speaking to Renee, I decided to give her "animal sounds" technique a try. The next day, while my son was dancing on the couch and working himself into that hyperactive state that suggests he’s about to fracture a rib, I asked him to pause, take some deep breaths, and make sounds with me. Sure enough, the hand motions and the challenge of making the noises kept him focused—and when I finished going through the ones I knew, he sweetly requested, “More?” After we were done, I’m sad to report that he didn’t sit very still and contemplate the nature of existence. He did, however, stop leaping from the furniture.

And the more I do it, the more effective it’s likely to be. Young children love ritual and repetition—hence “circle time” at the beginning of preschool, or the fact that Sesame Street always ends with 15 minutes of Elmo. The value of meditation is getting children familiar with the feeling of being still and quiet, if even for a moment, until it becomes a habit. As Renee told me: “Children don’t need to have a meditation practice. They’re already in that ‘present state’ that we work so hard for. They’re there—they just need to be guided.“

Gwynne Watkins has written about pop culture, parenting, sex, and religion for Babble, Salon, iVillage, Nerve, God Spam, and The Daily Beast. Visit ">www.gwynnewatkins.com .