When We Unintentionally Ask Kids to Take Care of Us: A Question of Mindful Motivation

Interactions between adults and children take on a radically different feel when an adult lets go of his or her own agenda to simply connect with a child in that very moment.


I once read that the Dalai Lama revisits his motivation every morning. In an interview with the late actor and writer Spalding Gray, the Dalai Lama said that he tries “to develop a certain motivation” where all of his “activities should be beneficial to others and should not harm others.” Unlike the Dalai Lama, I haven’t yet developed the habit of checking my motivation when I wake up, but I do check my motivation when I get a funny feeling that something I did or said might have been a little bit off. I try to notice those funny feelings early, before I speak or act, but unfortunately I don’t always catch myself in time. Despite my best intentions, sometimes I mess up. I thought about motivation and how sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we mess up, when I read an article in Mindful Magazine by Heather Grimes about a well-meaning family friend named Sam and his somewhat ham-handed attempts to show affection towards Opal, Heather’s adorable six-year-old daughter. Had Sam checked his motivation before asking Opal to give him a kiss my guess is he would have discovered that, deep down, the request was a lot more about Sam than it was about the little girl. Asking a child to “gimme a kiss” is one example of the many situations where well-intentioned caregivers speak and act in such a way that they are inadvertently asking children to take care of them, rather than the other way around: 

“On the surface ‘gimme a kiss’ might seem like a perfectly innocent callback to the way that adults spoke to children in previous generations. I have faded memories of blue-haired distant relatives asking my brother, sister, and me for a kiss when we saw them, just once a year, during summer vacation. Parenting attitudes have shifted since then and exchanges like these, between adults and children who they don’t know well, are not very common anymore. Many close relatives still frequently ask kids for affection though, and my guess is that if they thought about why they’re asking for a hug or kiss most goodhearted parents and grandparents would quickly recognize that they are looking to a child to get their need for affection met.”

At the end of this beautifully written piece, Heather asks us to look at our language around affection and notice the difference between asking and telling. I’d encourage another inquiry, too. How about we reflect on the difference between being and doing? Interactions between adults and children take on a radically different feel when an adult lets go of his or her own agenda to simply connect with a child in that very moment. Given how much caregivers need to get done, just being is often tough to do and a skill that must be learned. One school of meditation has developed a set of slogans to help in this effort and I wonder if two of them — “don’t hope for fruition” and “don’t expect applause” — would have helped Sam find a different way of interacting with Opal. When we speak and act without expecting a specific result, or an “attaboy” for our efforts, our actions are aligned with the motivation that the Dalai Lama said he revisits each morning — that all of his activities are beneficial and do no harm. And sometimes, like Sam, who at the end of his visit got a heartfelt hug from Opal, we’re pleasantly surprised by a positive result and big round of applause. 

End Notes

In a sidebar to Heather Grimes’s article on Mindful, “Empowering Kids to Feel Safe Saying No,” I offer a practice to help us catch speech or behavior that might be problematic, before it happens. How? By learning to check in on our motivation. Click here to take a look.

The Dalai Lama quote is from a conversation he had with the late writer and actor Spalding Gray that was published in a book of essays called A Lifetime of Wisdom.

If you’re interested in learning more about Lojong, the school of meditation that works with slogans, I encourage you to read Pema Chödrön’s wonderful book Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living and Norman Fisher’s new book Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong.

casey altman