Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Grandpa playing with toddler

How a toddler can teach you mindfulness and how you create the environment where that can happen.

by James Porter September 21, 2023

Whenever I write about mindfulness and how to stay in the present moment one of the tips I always share is: spend time with pets. Pets are always in the present moment. They don’t have the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that allows adults to constantly LEAVE the present moment and worry about the future and regret the past.

When you pet a dog or a cat and it wags its tail or starts to purr, it pulls you right into the same present moment that they inhabit all the time.

Young children live in the present moment until about the age of 4 or 5. Even by age five, they have almost no concept of tomorrow (my grand-niece calls it “nexterday”) and they have no concept at all of the day after tomorrow. My 18-month-old granddaughter is at that stage now where she can duck behind a couch and be genuinely SURPRISED to see me every time she pops her head back up. In mindfulness this is known as “beginner’s mind,” where everything she sees or does is new, fresh and wonderful. 

I also see how she remains in the present moment even when she cries. I didn’t see this with my own kids because when you are young and trying to raise a family, you’re just so overwhelmed by all the balls you have to keep in the air, that a baby’s tears are just one more thing you have to deal with. But now, brought on by the perspective of aging, I can see that that my granddaughter’s crying is always directly related to some need or pain and not the result (as it often is with adults) of a “story” we tell ourselves about the pain.

There’s a mindfulness fable called “the story of the two arrows that applies here.” When adults experience pain it’s as if we’ve been hit by two arrows. One arrow represents the real pain and the other arrow represents the “poor me” story we tell ourselves about the pain. For adults, sometimes the second arrow inflicts more pain than the first.

But for babies, there’s no second arrow. Sometimes, just picking her up and comforting her instantly relieves the pain. Or sometimes it’s something else. My wife, with her years of child-rearing experience always seems to know whether it’s time for her nap (long blinks, heavy eyelids), or she’s hungry (time elapsed since the last meal), or she’s teething (drooling or gnawing on some toy) or she’s coming down with something (runny nose), OR JUST NEEDS TO BE HELD (she will always try this option first and if it doesn’t work, that means it’s something else).

The point here is babies don’t fake their pain. Their emotions and their crying is authentic. It’s how they get their needs met. Lack of a fully developed pre-frontal cortex helps babies be exactly who they are, because they are incapable of faking anything or self-regulating their own emotions. But as the adult in the room, that it’s up to you to do that for them. I’ll write about that in next week’s installment.

James Porter
James Porter