“In the age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.” – Pico Iyer
One of the most valuable skills to teach a child is how to pause. Pausing is the act of stepping back from what is happening. It includes noticing what is happening outside as well as within ourselves. Pausing is also noticing our response to what is happening.
Pausing can be modeled and learned.
The very act of pausing, and the stillness that comes with it, is initially foreign and uncomfortable. That’s why, in adults, it is often an under-practiced skill.
Helping children learn to pause gives them a powerful tool to shape their lives in purposeful ways. Why is this? Because we develop most of our problematic coping habits – such as avoidance of conflict or being harsh with ourselves – at a young age and without knowing it. Responses developed outside of awareness limit our ability to creatively respond to the environment. Learning to pause gives children a greater range of options and helps them to more flexibly respond to any situation.
Children learn how to pause by having the behavior modeled. They also learn to pause when adults help them place their awareness on what is happening in new ways.
By learning to pause, a child learns about herself and her way of responding to her world. We can only learn to do things differently by first learning to step back and notice how we are responding as it is happening.
What does pausing look like? It might be helpful to think about two types of pausing practices that can help a child.
The first is to purposefully build in time to step away from daily routines. These breaks can be as short as a couple of minutes.
The second is to develop the capacity to notice what is happening as it is happening. This kind of pause enables us to be adaptive and gives us a sense of ownership of our lives.
The first kind of pause helps to build the second day-to-day, in-the-moment kind of pause.
Jenna, a bright 10-year-old who believes that being her own harsh taskmaster helps her do well in school, recently declared, “I got an A, but I could have done better. I was lazy.”
At this young age, Jenna has developed ways to motivate herself that are judgmental. This motivational style comes at a high cost: Getting down on herself diminishes her joy of discovery.
Jenna’s parents brought her to psychotherapy because of her intense stress and anxiety around taking tests. It became so severe that she started to develop headaches as test time approached. She recently vomited in anticipation of standardized tests.
Upset that Jenna was so hard on herself, her parents talked to her many times to try to help her approach school work with less stress and more enjoyment. By the time I met them, they felt helpless in the face of Jenna’s anxiety.
We worked together to encourage Jenna to take short breaks during the school week. These breaks were an introduction to pausing. They were designed to help Jenna step back from school stress by engaging in activities she otherwise found enjoyable, like reading, riding her bike, or making jewelry. Jenna initially resisted these weekday breaks because she felt burdened by her workload, and the breaks added to her stress.
When Jenna spoke harshly of herself or her performance, even in subtle ways, I pointed this out each and every time. “Wow, you are tough on yourself,” “You’re really disappointed that you placed second,” or “If a good start to the essay doesn’t come to you right away, the whole night can be upsetting, huh?”
My noticing, and the pauses that followed, were brief and frequent. I modeled for Jenna ways she might watch herself at these moments. I didn’t always know whether my comments registered with her. This was okay. Guiding a child in placing awareness does not always require a response. In fact, it may seem as if your comments are ignored much of the time.
I began to encourage Jenna to test out different ways of talking to and about herself. “I bet you can’t even think of ways to try hard that are a little nicer!” (Jenna liked a good challenge.) Or when she spoke to herself like a taskmaster, I might say, “I know, I know…you can’t help yourself.” (She would smile mischievously at being found out.)
I encouraged her to imagine what it would be like for to feel less stress and worry. “Okay, even if you don’t believe it can be different…let’s just pretend what might it look like to feel really good about your essay,” or “Can you imagine enjoying the test, as if there were no grade at the end? How would that be different for you?”
My gentle challenges were initially playful, so that they could be received by Jenna. With time, these same messages became tied to a second message – that it hurt her to be harsh with herself.
“Imagine, Jenna, if Sari (her beloved little cousin) was beating herself up like that? Can Sari learn only by looking at what she does wrong?” “What advice would you give Sari?” “Don’t you deserve a break, just like Sari?”
Encouraging Jenna to imagine doing things differently built in a pause. Asking her to imagine her little cousin beating herself up built in a pause. These kind of questions modeled the possibility of alternative ways of regarding herself.
Jenna began to notice for herself when her self-talk was harsh. For example, “I know, I know, I called myself lazy.” When she did this, I noticed and praised her: “I saw that! Nice noticing! Right on, girlfriend!” (Fist bump.)
Jenna then became curious about finding new ways to talk to herself, as well as new strategies to use when she was frustrated. “I got upset at trying to write an essay. And my mom was no help at all! Then I let myself read for 15 minutes. I sat down again and wrote the whole essay in 10 minutes!”
As Jenna became more skillful at noticing for herself, I paid more attention to the ways she did things differently. I became more interested in her treating herself kindly than I was in her old habit of self-criticism. I came to ignore self-critical behavior as long as self-kindness was more frequent. My interest in her self-compassion and helpful reflection was reinforcing for Jenna. She liked the idea of becoming good at self-compassion.
Children need help noticing when they are doing things in new and different ways. Building up these kinds of noticings leads to transformation, to real and lasting change.
An important rule of thumb when guiding children to notice their experience: use fewer words! Often full sentences are more than is needed. Full paragraphs are almost always too much.
My comments to Jenna generally were kept to a few words or a sentence. If Jenna did not respond to me, my repeating myself or explaining further would likely lead to her glazing over or ‘yes-ing’ me.
It is sometimes tempting for parents (and therapists) to want to explain things at length, or to repeat something if there is not a response. Yet using too many words more often teaches kids to be articulate rather than curious about their own experience.
By using words sparingly to help children place awareness in new ways, we help them experience things more directly for themselves. When this happens, kids learn to use their own words in ways that come from within them, from a more deeply knowing place.
The best teaching moments come out of little noticings. These noticings build up over time and gradually shape our understanding of ourselves and our world. This is true both for adults and the little beings we love and guide.