It’s common for people to wish they’d learned to control their thinking when they were younger. What’s effortless to learn for largely egoless kids is a bit harder when we’re older, that’s fair. More importantly, for a kid, a lot of suffering can be avoided or abbreviated if we know how to manage our emotions earlier in life.
Phones and computers and automation give many of us a false sense of control. But when we are faced with situations that are overwhelming, increasingly people are finding they are incapable of managing that very normal aspect of life. Lessons on managing our feelings needs to start young –younger than we might think.
Every parent should at least consider waking their kid up in a way that helps them truly understand how the world and our minds merge to create our reality. Rather than just telling them to get up and being perfunctory about getting them physically ready, if possible, we should consider taking a moment to get them psychologically ready too.
Kids generally assume that whatever their parents are doing is what’s happening in every house. Normal is whatever our parents do routinely. So if they wake up and they witness us taking a moment to set an intention for a good day, and if we casually expect that they should do likewise, those things quickly instill that healthy ritual as a normal part of waking up.
A parent can present the idea like it’s a big moment –like when a kid doesn’t have to wear diapers anymore– or, if the kid’s older, it can be said much like you might tell them that they have to remember to grab their skates for hockey practice.
It’s either exciting or pedestrian, depending on how much child-like wonder your kid is still functioning with. I’ll use a young kid in the example. In my admittedly highly idealized example, it starts as easily as:
“Tomorrow when we get up we’ll get you started on setting your intentions,”
“What’s that?” the kid may say in some form or other.
“Well, without an intention people’s feelings are kind of like flags or balloons. They just float in the direction the wind is blowing. And you know how people have good moods and bad ones?” The kid nods. “Well, other people’s moods and our own thoughts are the ‘wind’ everyone has in their day.”
“Yeah, it’s like a wind of thinking. Sometimes it blows us along and makes things better, like when people cheer for us or when we’re thinking lucky thoughts. But sometimes it blows hard right at us, like when a lot of people are picking on us, or if we’re mad, or sad. Some days there’s no wind, but most days there’s at least a breeze. So it’s important to start the day with an intention to not get blown off course.”
“What happens when we’re blown off course?”
“Well, we’re just individuals. We’re very strong and we have lots of control, but sometimes we’re hungry, or over-tired, or sometimes we’re just surrounded by too much sadness or anger. But we don’t want to stay angry or sad –or even get angry or sad if we can avoid it, right?”
“I don’t want to be sad.”
“I don’t want you to be sad either, but we have sad feelings because sad is a part of life. Without sad we lose a lot of love songs, and love songs are beautiful. As we get older we start to understand what to do with sadness –because we can use it to find more happiness if we do it right. But some sadness is just built into life. The way to avoid being too sad for too long is to set an intention to have a good day. That way you avoid the avoidable sadness.”
“You mean we can not feel sad? How?”
“Sometimes you ‘can not feel sad.’ Other times it’s the right feeling for what’s happening, like when we were sad at when we had to take Pepper to the vet to go to sleep.”
“I miss Pepper.”
Cuddles the child. “I do too honey. Thinking about Pepper can be a nice kind of sad though, right? That’s the kind of sad it’s okay to feel. Missing Pepper is because we loved her.”
“There’s good sad and bad sad?”
“Yeah. Good sad is the sad we want to feel. But sometimes you don’t want to feel sad, or we’re tired of feeling the kind of sad we liked and now we want to feel better. When we feel that feeling we have to shift our attention to different things.”
“… what kind of things?”
“Well, if we don’t want to be sad then we can’t think our own sad thoughts because they’re sad. And we don’t want to think other people’s negative thoughts –stuff like insults– either, because that hurts too. Auntie Sara sometimes makes herself sad because she thinks she should look different. But we love Sara exactly the way she is, don’t we.”
“I love Sara… Why does Sara want to be different?”
“Well, wanting is made of thinking. So Sara is thinking about looking different than she does and she likes the person in her thoughts better.”
“So she doesn’t like her real self?!”
This genuinely dismays the child. “Why? Then why doesn’t she stop thinking that?”
“I guess she forgot to. Maybe because she didn’t have the habit of setting her intention for the day.”
“How do I do that?”
“It’s when we decide how we’re going to use our focus for a day. All day long we all each decide what we think about. Nobody else thinks for us. So if you’re thinking about Pepper and it’s making you sad but you like that kind of sad, you can keep focusing on your thoughts on Pepper. But if you’re too sad and you want to stop, instead of thinking about Pepper you have to think about something or someone that makes you happy, like the time we went horseback riding, or when you went on the airplane.”
“I can think about that?”
“You can think about anything you choose.”
“That will make me happier?”
“Yup –if you choose thoughts that make you happy.”
“Can it be a rabbit?”
Every parent knows this kind of stifled laugh when kids introduce an idea from nowhere. “Yeah, sure it can be a rabbit. It can be anything that makes you happy.”
“You and your ‘how’s.’ Okay. Well, when think about nicer or happier things our brain stops making chemicals that make us feel sad, and it starts making ones that feel better. Sad feelings, happy ones, when we’re mad, or laughing –all of our feelings come from inside us, from our thinking.”
“Inside of us?” The kid goes cross-eyed trying to get a look past their forehead to their brain.
“We kind of ask for our feelings. But when we’re young we only know how to do that when it’s easy, like when we get to do something fun. But when we’re old enough, it’s time to start learning the important part. That’s where we learn to to stop being too sad even when a sad wind is blowing.”
“How do I stop being sad when I don’t want to anymore?”
“Just the way I said –you just change to think about something nicer –that you feel better about.”
“Yup. It’s pretty easy. But the voices in our heads can get tricky. They try to tell us we don’t want to be happier when really we know we do, but our thoughts get confused by the chemicals.”
“The sad chemicals?”
“Any of them can confuse us. Wait until you’re older and fall in love. The first time doing that is really confusing. But like everything, we get better at things the more we do them. That’s why it’s important to start practicing when we’re young.”
“I don’t want to be sad like Sara. Sara’s beautiful.”
“Awww honey. Yeah, she is. I don’t want her to think that either. Or for you to think like that about yourself. But doing that is easier if we set an intention. So when we wake up, before we completely get up we have to remember to stop for a few moments. That’s when we do our little meditation.”
“A medit… a m… a what?”
“A meditation. That’s when we take some time to remind ourselves that our thoughts create how we feel each day. And then we remind ourselves that we want to feel good that day. That way, if we forget during the day –and everyone does sometimes– then the intention from the morning reminds us of what to do. If we don’t like our feelings we have to change our thinking. Do you think you’re ready to start trying that?”
If it’s a matter of ready, most kids will jump at the chance to prove more capability and freedom.
“Okay. I’m going to do mine out loud so you have an example, but you can make up your own. What’s important is that it reminds you of your power. No one can change our thoughts but us. Okay, are you ready?”
By now the kid is fascinated to hear what magic spell comes next. And it’s about as close to a real one as we need. Eyes closed, the intention begins.
“Today if I lose my way and I get lost in my thoughts, I will use this intention to remind me that I want to make the most of my day, and so I do not want to dwell on sad, or angry, or guilty, or mean thoughts about myself, my life or any other person or thing.
“Instead of choosing to feel badly I will choose to feel better as soon as my intention reminds me to focus on something better. I thank my intention for helping me keep my thinking in control and thank you for making this little monkey here,” snuggles the child, “so that I always have such a beautiful little monkey to think about to help me when I’m sad.”
“You think about me when you’re sad?”
“I do. When I think of you it makes me happy.”
“When I think of me that makes me happy too.”
“That’s a whole other conversation about identity and ego my little Confucius. Let’s save that talk for a few years.”
“Okay. Can we get a rabbit?”
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.