book review: Thich Nhat Hanh’s Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children

If we want to fully enjoy life’s gifts, we must practice mindfulness throughout the day, whether we’re taking a bath, cooking breakfast for our child, driving to work, or working with children in the classroom. Every step and every breath can be an opportunity for joy and happiness. Life is full of difficulties. If we don’t have enough happiness on reserve, we have no means to take care of our despair. With mindfulness, we can preserve our inner joy, so that we can better handle the challenges in our lives. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Planting Seeds, p. 16)

Although I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve generally come to meditation and mindfulness practices through Buddhist traditions and writings, and I find these practices really helpful. I believe that practicing mindfulness is emotionally, intellectually, and physically healthy, much like taking long walks in beautiful places or surrounding ourselves with people we can truly trust. So, mindfulness (in day-to-day life) and meditation (like, actual sitting meditation) are resources I’d like to share with my children. But it’s not obvious to me when or how I might do that.

During college, I got a lot out of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Blooming of a Lotus. I don’t remember how I came across that book, but I do remember the simplicity of the practices and the way they helped me ground myself during some angsty periods of my life. I remember walking down a path through campus, breathing in and breathing out. So when I saw the same author’s recent Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, I hoped it would help me figure out ways to start passing these tools along to my two young children.

There’s a lot to like here!

  • The book is straightforward, interesting, and well-designed.
  • Although the text is clearly rooted in a Buddhist set of beliefs, it’s pretty easy to set aside what doesn’t fit for your family and use what does–even if you’re totally secular or practice a different faith. (Indeed, the text actually invites us to do so on a number of occasions.)
  • The activities and practices are simple, clear, and mostly very appealing. Most are appropriate for preschool-aged children all the way through adults.
  • The book is aimed at anyone who lives and/or works with children, so some activities are intended for larger groups (as in a school or retreat setting), but others work for individual children. I can imagine some of the activities working very well in a playgroup setting, too.

Perhaps my favorite thing about it is its deeply loving tone, its way of taking children and parents and educators as real, whole people worthy of respect, affection, and compassion. Children and parents are included in the practices of mindfulness, rather than excluded by a monastic approach that so often leaves parents (especially mothers of young children) feeling that we must set aside our spiritual lives, physical/emotional wellbeing, and self-care for big chunks of our lives. I love reading a voice that assumes meditation can be a part of family life rather than something that must happen in spitup-free silence in a pristine room.

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  1. Lara
    Posted 31 July 2012 at 7:31 AM | Permalink

    That sounds so nice! I think my son’s preschool teacher is doing some of that with his class, actually, and it’s amazing what the kids are able to do. (I don’t know if she got the ideas from that book, but she practices as a Buddhist, so it’s probably similar.) It’s funny, I was introduced to “mindfulness” in parenting through the Berkeley Parents’ Network, when I lived out there, and it was presented in such an unappealing way I never wanted to touch a book about it. Advocates presented it as, “If you are mindful in your parenting, you will be happy as a full-time caretaker of young children. You won’t need time for yourself, or even other parents to hang out with at the park while the kids play with each other. You will be satisfied sitting in your own house/yard, playing with your kids, all day long every day.” Perhaps it would have worked if I had actually tried it, but it sounded a bit too much like self-mortification to me.

    • Molly
      Posted 31 July 2012 at 8:25 AM | Permalink

      Oh, geez, that sounds dreadful. The idea behind mindfulness is just paying attention to (and often enjoying) what’s happening now rather than obsessing over the past and the future. It’s good stuff for stress reduction and wellness, not an argument for any particular sort of parenting … other than, I guess, being kind and open to new perceptions.

      It’s really interesting that that’s where a group of parents took it! I wish I knew the background there …

  2. Posted 31 July 2012 at 3:08 PM | Permalink

    Sounds great! I’m adding it to my wish list. While I haven’t directly encountered what Lara described, I’ve noticed a similar subtext in articles/discussion forums. Ditto with regard to “playful parenting”–which is also awesome–however, I’ve also noticed a handy little feature of those who write most passionately about it [and sometimes about mindful parenting too] are regularly *without their children for large chunks of the day*, i.e. school/daycare, to which the cynical part of me says, “must be easy to be playful/mindful/whatever, if someone else is primary caregiver the majority of the time.” :-P

    • Erin
      Posted 2 August 2012 at 9:50 AM | Permalink

      I’m not trying to create equivalencies, because certainly there are real differences between being at home with kids all day versus being without them for large chunks of time, and yet I feel like I should say, to your last comment – it really, really isn’t [easier to be playful when your kids are at daycare/school]. When I come home from work, not only am I completely exhausted, but I have a whole houseful of work that needs to be done – lunches unpacked, dishes washed, dinner made, laundry to fold, etc. I’m not trying to being Pain Olympics because I’m *not* saying this is harder than being a SAHM, all I’m saying is, I’m with my kids a LOT (because my husband is gone half the year) but I rarely *spend time with them* playing, etc. because my mornings and evenings are consumed by That Which Must Be Done every day. I realized when we were on vacation this year – watching my son’s face light up by my presence, how much joy he gets from being with me and doing things with me all day, and how seldom our time together has been full of connection, lately.

      • Molly
        Posted 2 August 2012 at 2:16 PM | Permalink

        Thanks, Molly & Erin, for sharing these experiences. I just wanted to say I hear both of you.

        In my own life, I’ve noticed that my stress level and happiness level have more to do with my ability to parent mindfully and playfully than does whether I’m working outside the home at the time. When I was working way-more-than-full-time in an unpleasant and high-stakes environment, even when I was with Noah I was halfway trying to do other things (either in my head–like solving work-related problems–or literally hanging up laundry or whatever). Playful, no, not even a possibility. When I was working full-time and living separately from my family four nights a week, but loved my job and colleagues and could really be home and present 100% when I was home, parenting was great–there was enough room for attention and fun in that setup, with Eric as work-from-home parent doing the vast majority of the housework. The times when I’ve been at home all the time have been nearly as variable. And I’m guessing that varying amounts of available support/help make a huge difference, too.

        One big thing that the idea of mindfulness has given me is that I try to pay attention when I hug my children. I have time to do that no matter what. It feels so good really to feel the hug, smile, hold their gazes for a moment. I’m still training myself not to do mental multitasking all the time, because that’s what parenting as an academic does to you. I imagine lots of other situations do that, too, given our culture’s values …

      • Lara
        Posted 3 August 2012 at 9:59 AM | Permalink

        It’s funny, in many ways I think that’s a wonderful approach. But only as long as I can hang onto the feminist piece of me that says, “yes, I want to enjoy my kids when I’m with them, but at least in some big, political way, I am allowed to resent that I am a full-time caretaker of young children because I was unwilling to take a 60-hour-a-week job while I had young kids.” In Berkeley, mindful/playful parenting often represented the approach where you exchange “feminist” for “well-adjusted.” And, what if you are just never going to be a person who enjoys hanging out with toddlers 13 hours a day, 7 days a week? That’s a very long work week, even for work you value. I felt much better once I decided that I would enjoy the good parts, acknowledge my boredom, and frequently let my mind wander to the work I find truly inspiring and that I still think is my calling, even if I’m not willing to sacrifice everything for it. (Though I have resisted getting a phone that can do email, so that I don’t undermine what mindfulness I do manage to achieve!)

      • Molly
        Posted 3 August 2012 at 12:03 PM | Permalink

        Oh, Lara, totally. I didn’t mean ‘why doesn’t everyone just get a forty-hour-a-week job with a flexible schedule and a work-from-home partner and get mindful already?’ That was a great gig, but it was also a temporary one, and it came with its own set of problems. What I meant to illustrate with that example was that I don’t think it’s inherently easier to be mindful/playful/etc. EITHER as a parent who doesn’t work outside the home OR as a parent who does, that hours, support, nature of the work, general stress level, etc. all factor in. Oh, and parent’s and child(ren)’s personalities, child(ren)’s ages, all that jazz, too.

        Your larger point–that the reason it’s hard for *everybody* is that the system sucks, that we live in a sucky sucky sexist family-unfriendly culture, is of course THE larger point.

        I do aspire to find another, longer-term job where I can do meaningful, interesting professional work but also be at home enough and happy in both places (most of the time, anyway). Good luck to me, eh?

      • Lara
        Posted 3 August 2012 at 2:49 PM | Permalink

        Absolutely. The “playful parenting” reminds me a little bit of what I used to call the “Dad Job,” i.e., playing with the kids when you get home from work, while your partner does all the stuff Erin listed. I feel lucky to at least have the resources to have somebody be able to get the “Dad Job” in my family — at least we’re not just all scrambling. There are not many of us lucky enough to say that, and I do appreciate it. But I sure do notice that all of us perky, optimistic undergrads at Harvard assumed we would get the Dad Job. Including me. But no, the dad (my husband) got it, and it turns out I’m a mom, which somehow I figured I wouldn’t be, since I always related so much more to my dad when it came to my life’s aspirations. And now I’m not sure it’s even possible, since I suspect that the Dad Job as I learned it growing up requires one person who is willing to be a full-time homemaker. So the version of “mindful parenting” or “playful parenting” that we are figuring out as we go is definitely something new, in my world.

        Much of this, for me, relates to the general problem of how to stand by the feminism of “the personal is political,” without going crazy because you can’t change everything all of a sudden, or even in our generation. I need to hold onto both my feminism and my need to adjust to circumstances to have a good quality of daily life. They are definitely in tension. And you are absolutely right, all of this feels/works much better during those intervals when 2 academic parents manage to find some balance and inspiring work! And when the kids happen to be happy, and play well together, and be in a phase of life when they are pleasant to be around most of the time.

  3. Posted 31 July 2012 at 8:46 PM | Permalink

    I have had this book on hold at the library for months. There are only two copies, and lots of demand! Thanks for the review. I can’t wait to get my hands on it. :)

  4. Molly
    Posted 4 August 2012 at 10:10 AM | Permalink

    p.s.: Upon further reflection, given the direction our conversation in this comment thread has taken, I just wanted to clarify that this isn’t a book about ‘mindful parenting.’ It’s a book about how educators and parents can teach mindfulness practices and principles to children. Of course, to teach it, you kinda have to do it, and the book does talk a lot about how to practice mindfulness within the context of a teaching and/or parenting life–and the importance of finding the space to take care of our own needs and relationships before we can help anybody else (children included).

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