Meet Mark Bertin, and read an excerpt from his book "How Children Thrive"

 

Interviewed by Aviva DeKornfeld

Mindful living can be summarized as this: If you’re doing something unskillfully, stop. If you’re about to do something that seems unskillful, stop. If you’ve just done something you found unskillful  . . . also stop, and go back and make amends.

note from susan

Mark Bertin's new book How Children Thrive is a smart, readable, and immensely valuable guide to the development of executive skills.  It’s exactly the type of book I was looking for when my children were growing up. I'm delighted to post an excerpt as this month's shout-out along with a Q & A where Mark talks to Aviva DeKornfeld about how he came to mindfulness, moving out of autopilot, and stumbling blocks parents who are new to mindfulness generally face.


How did you come to mindfulness? Was there a specific moment when you decided this was important to you? How have you seen mindfulness have an impact on your life?

I was lucky enough to be introduced to mindfulness during my medical training and stuck with it from there.  Initially, it had a lot to do with managing stress during a stressful period of time for me. Now it’s more than that. It has become part of how I think about, approach, and live my life.

One thing mindfulness has helped me manage is my “inner critic.” When I was younger, I was quick to doubt or blame myself, which resulted in a lot of anxiety. Now, I’m not particularly harsh with myself, (at least most of the time) even when things don’t go so well. 

Mindfulness has changed a lot for me professionally. For many years I kept my mindfulness practice to myself.  Around 15 years ago, I realized doing so made no sense. Anything that helps parents and children feel more grounded and less stressed not only has a direct benefit but also supports the rest of pediatric care.  Between my own experience and the accumulating evidence behind it, mindfulness is now part of how I practice medicine too.

You offered a useful, step-by-step list of actions one could take in order to mindfully engage with a stressful situation. How did you come to this list? Was it something you learned or a process you’ve created based on your own experience? If it was something you created, tell me about the process creating the list.

As far as I’m aware, that list is something I created from scratch in this format. 

Mindfulness is not specifically any one thing. It’s a way of approaching life.  Lately, I think of it as having three parts: focusing and staying settled, staying aware and working with habits, and building compassion. The intention of mindfulness is to affect how we live moment to moment. 

In any situation, the only thing we directly control is what we do or say, or choose not to do or say.  All we can aim for is to stay settled, see things with clarity and compassion, and try our best to handle things well. I work with families who are navigating emotionally charged situations that do not always have a one clear solution. It’s useful to have a specific framework to continually return to when facing something difficult or open ended.

For all of us, acting skillfully is a whole lot easier said than done, so the list itself is meant as a reminder.  Like all of mindfulness, it’s not aiming for perfect, but simply to do our best and to keep trying.  Whatever we are facing, we can practice living as skillfully as we can, even when we don’t know exactly what’s called for yet.  

You advise people to pause and move out of autopilot. If you're new to mindfulness, how do you pull yourself out to pause and recognize that you're on autopilot in the first place

Mindfulness is about building various mental traits through practice.  The concept of autopilot refers to the fact that without effort our minds are all over the place.  We’re here, but not here.  That’s what minds do, so the practice doesn’t eliminate that pattern – but we work with it, and hopefully get stuck in it less often.

Whenever our attention is elsewhere, we’re almost by definition falling back on mindless habits around whatever we’re thinking, saying or doing.  We’re on autopilot.  One aspect of mindfulness, then, is to start catching ourselves and giving life our full attention more often.  That’s one of the traits that develops when meditating regularly.  

At some point, after enough practice, does a mindful response become your natural reaction to stressful situations? Does it ever get easier or more natural to remember to check your emotional reactions.

Absolutely.  Through practice and repetition, all the traits related to mindfulness become more instinctual and part of everyday life.  

What are the common stumbling blocks for people? Where are the sticky points in the mindfulness process?

Getting started with mindfulness is building a new routine for ourselves, which is always hard.  It’s important to be patient with that process and to also be concrete with our plans and reminders.  Set a time for when you’re going to practice along with an alarm, and patiently problem solve when things get in the way. That all goes a long way to making it more of a habit.

One common stumbling block is perfectionism.  Having a fixed view of what mindfulness ‘should’ be or how we ‘should’ feel is a quick way to stop practicing.   We’re not going to be calm all the time, or endlessly blissful.  We’re going to forget to practice and have days where we can’t focus at all.  All of that is normal and nothing to worry about.  It’s OK to be imperfect.  Aiming for perfection will lead most of us to give up pretty early in the process. What’s most important is sticking to the practice itself.

What is something that you wish people knew about mindfulness? Or something that you feel like is missed in the common understanding of mindfulness?

I hope people can learn that mindfulness is not a cure-all, but it is practical for pretty much anyone who commits to the effort. Mindfulness is sometimes presented as either a quick fix for everything or dismissed as a fad. It’s not the cliché of being ‘Zen.’ It’s actively engaging with challenges and living life well. We build awareness and become more skillful in how we live. All of that goes for anyone.  For parents though, raising kids raises the stakes. As parents, there’s nothing we’re more invested in, and yet, raising children is inherently full of change and uncertainty, as we can’t fix or control everything for our kids.  Mindfulness helps navigate that reality in ways that tend to help our kids, and us too.


Everyday Mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness isn’t an endpoint for its own sake; it’s meant to affect how we live. It’s showing children through our actions what we value. It’s resolving to do what we can to take care of ourselves so we can care for our children. Living mindfully means making sure that our words and actions align with our beliefs. 

We can, therefore, bring mindfulness to any part of our day. Setting an intention, perhaps, to bring full attention to family meals, or doing the dishes, or going for a run. Treating others with intention too, noting how we carry ourselves, and speak, and the assumptions we’re making about our children and the world. Living with mindfulness, we teach our children mindfulness. 

Everyone at home contributes to the household atmosphere, but we directly control only our own part. When our mood is edgy and off, the household feels more edgy and off. How we speak to the family, manage stress, and set our priorities influences everyone. Our mood impacts our family, and changes how they act towards us – and then towards each other. 

Our behavior and choices create a ripple effect for our children all through the day. If we yell nastily as our child races to get on the bus, how is he going to treat other kids when he sits down? If we’re warm and supportive, how might that change his social behavior? Our choices create an unavoidable domino effect far outside our families. 

No matter the situation, all we affect directly is how we choose to act, or not to act, throwing fuel on or dousing fires. In a moment where your child is completely off the rails, redirect, stand firm, and seek resolution, all with continued awareness that your own actions change his. The basic rules of cause and effect apply across all aspects of life. 

Of course, we’ll never be perfectly serene all the time. But what, then, is our attitude when our personal weather turns foul? Even those times, grumpy and irritable, create an opportunity to demonstrate mindfulness, realistically accepting our mood, its effect on the family, and cleaning up after the storm by making amends, setting new intentions, and reconnecting. 

A classic proverb advises, “Before speaking, make certain your words will be an improvement on the silence.” What you say and do, how you carry yourself, and even your emotional state make a tense conversation more likely to escalate or deescalate. There’s nothing more we can do, though, than listen, adapt, and manage our own side. If we have a reactive, snippy child, does that more likely persist if we meet it with reactivity and snippiness, or another path?  

  • Pause and move out of autopilot.Step by step, skillful action pulls together all of mindfulness practice. Pay attention more fully, seeing things exactly as they are. I’ve pre-judged her this time around, let me listen first. Pause, catch yourself, and check in. I’m hooked, angry, and about to say something I’ll regret. She’s totally caught up in it, not thinking clearly, neither of us can communicate well right now. 
  • Notice whatever impacts your experience.With any challenge, the situation is likely far more nuanced than it seems. There’s the conflict – an angry child flipping out in front of us. There’s the physical sense of tension and stress taking over our body. There’s our emotional state, whatever mood we’re in plus whatever the conflict sets off. And there are thoughts, some of which may be quite unproductive – guessing what he is going to say, collapsing into fearful rumination (here we go again), or leaping in a future of endless conflict. 
  • Check in with your habitual reactions under stress.We can remain aware, again, of our habitual reactions under stress. Recognize all the entrenched, circular, not so useful patterns that exist within our families. There it is, the bickering over homework, there’s what I say when I’m stressed about money, that’s what happens when she doesn’t want to go to piano lessons. Seeing them as habits, we can catch ourselves – and choose to say something different or nothing at all.  
  • Choose how and when to act (or not act). Bring awareness to your choices. Even when another person seems off base or out of control (especially then), our own actions are what we influence. That doesn’t mean passivity; perhaps your typical habit is backing down too quickly. Consider the tension in the room, and whether asking to pause and continue the conversation some other time makes most sense. Realign with your best intentions, while also standing stand strong. 

Like all of mindfulness, skillful communication doesn’t require micromanagement or driving yourself crazy aiming for any unrealistic ideal. Instead of getting caught up in distraction, habit, and reactivity, remain aware of yourself before, during, and after any conversation. When it doesn’t go well anyway, pause and try again. That’s all. 

Mindful living can be summarized as this: If you’re doing something unskillfully, stop. If you’re about to do something that seems unskillful, stop. If you’ve just done something you found unskillful  . . . also stop, and go back and make amends.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

MARK BERTIN, MD, is a pediatrician, author, professor, and mindfulness teacher specializing in neurodevelopmental behavioral pediatrics. He’s a regular contributor to Mindful.org, HuffPost, and Psychology Today. He is the author of How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids. Dr. Bertin resides in Pleasantville, New York. For more, visit developmentaldoctor.com.