The new science of human relationships and brain development — affective neuroscience — has revealed that children actually download their parents’ ways of socially and emotionally relating. It’s truly a copy/paste situation! Attuned interactions with you are as important as calories in building a healthy brain. Together with tending to this attachment-based brain development, here are 5 ways to download wellbeing to your kids:
Find Joy During Pregnancy
Mounting evidence tells us that circumstances in the womb program us in critical, life-altering ways. The prenatal environment is equally as important as genes, perhaps even more so, in shaping our lifelong physical and mental health.We can no longer afford to consider pregnancy a nine-month grace period before parenting begins. On the contrary, pregnancy is like Nature’s Secret Head Start Program for your baby! When a woman is pregnant, her baby’s organs and tissues develop in direct response to lessons they receive about the world. Through her diet, her behavior and her state of mind, a mother downloads lessons to her baby about what kind of world it’s coming into — a world that’s basically peaceful or a world that is threatening. Development (especially of the fetal brain) adapts to suit that download.
While science currently provides us a dizzying array of problems brought on by stress in pregnancy, I’m confident that scientists will soon also “prove” what so many wisdom traditions and cultures have long known about the role of joy in optimal prenatal development! Indeed, research from such disciplines as psychoneuroimmunology, cell biology, positive psychology and epigenetics reveals that joy allows for optimal functioning of our organs and psyche; by simple logical extension, we can confidently hypothesize that joy during pregnancy allows for optimal development of each fetal organ.
Presence is being fully here, right now, with your body, thoughts and feelings. Engaged, connected. One of the greatest needs of a child is regular doses of their beloved adults’ undistracted presence. Try “Nothing Else” time: Sit on the floor, amidst the blocks, the books, the dolls… and be available to your child. This is potent, brain-to-brain training time. (It is also when parents allows themselves to be taught by their children — curiosity, playfulness, spontaneity.) If you can carve out 20 minutes, 15 minutes, even 10 minutes in a day, it’s like a magic vitamin for your child’s lifelong wellbeing. It buffers and protects against disrupting or upsetting elements of daily life. It also enhances the true self-esteem that flourishes with the child’s experience that she is worth your time, your attention, yourpresence. You can build your “presence muscle” through such practices as yoga, mindfulness, meditation, even journaling. Cultivating your capacity for presence is perhaps the most reliable investment you can make for the lifelong wellbeing of your children, and yourself!
Find Your Center
Children instinctively want and need us to be their loving, authoritative leaders. This allows them to feel secure, and relax into the full “growth mode” that fosters the most vibrant development of their social brain circuitry. And yet, there is an epidemic of well-meaning parents unintentionally undermining their own authority with their young children, and conveying uncertainty instead. They do it by engaging with their little ones in too much negotiation, too much explanation, too much justification of every decision or event that happens. Another common way we do this is through the unclear directives we give your kids, like “Do you want to get your sweater on now?” “Time to brush your teeth, okay?” These may convey that you’re not quite sure of yourself or of what you’re asking. It invites power struggles as the child (unconsciously) feels the need to become more controlling to fill the vacuum of leadership. That’s when he becomes “a handful.”
Tend To Your Own Wellbeing
Children closely follow our example of how to treat themselves, others and the environment — with compassionate care, mindless disregard, or mere indifference. So model the wellbeing you hope to see in your child as an adult! Demonstrating your respect for the two life basics of eating and sleeping is a particularly effective way to instill habits of wellbeing, simply because of their daily repetition. For example, express your commitment to Nature’s precious treasure of sleep. Simplify life enough to gift yourself and your child(ren) with the hours you need (10-14 for them; 7-8 for you).
Portray through your example the idea and the habit that we eat with mindfulness, in the name of friendship with our fifty trillion cells whose work is to keep us alive. To bring presence and consciousness to the simple act of eating instills a lifelong template of wellbeing. Become a model of gratitude, which is associated with many dimensions of positive mental and physical health. A great little blessing before a meal or even a snack — suitable to secular or spiritual families: “Here’s to the health of all of our cells.”
A child’s natural impulse is to celebrate beauty and feel reverence and awe about almost everything. But what does our culture do in this techno-materialist age? We foist upon even the youngest child a flat world of facts and commentary. Sheltering your child’s natural sense of wonder — and indeed, cultivating your own if it has atrophied over the years — is a gift of lasting wellbeing for you both. An inoculation against ennui. That sense of “Wow, water out of the tap! or “Wow, text sent over phone lines through squeaky little noises!” is a route to vast inner horizons. When we lose that, we need ever more stimulation — more shopping, more drama, more drugs and alcohol, more thrillers (which feeds the collective propensity toward societal violence), more sexual excess, and so on — to fill the void of disenchantment.
Essential traits in an innovative peacemaker poised for success in a changing world include curiosity, playfulness, willingness to experiment, flexibility, humor, receptiveness to new ideas, and eagerness to learn. These lifelong qualities are primed by everything listed here, and nurtured by wonder.