Parenting Flow - Kimberly Thompson

Attention and concentration are important issues when your kids are growing up – and I’m not talking about theirs. Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced while raising four children with a 9-year age spread was the constant interruption to my thought processes. I am a person capable of intense concentration, to the point that when I am engrossed in a challenging activity I become oblivious to all else. Occasionally I would be startled out of intense focus by my husband bellowing, “WILL you answer that child!” at which point I realized one of my kids had been repeatedly asking me something. When he was not available, I was very conscious of my responsibility to not allow myself to get so deeply into a project that I could not instantly switch my focus to the needs of my children, especially when they were small.

Attention can be thought of as mental energy, and concentration as the use of this energy to order the information coming in through our senses.* When we are efficiently concentrating our attention on a goal that is meaningful to us, we achieve flow. Flow is that marvelous experience when time falls away, self-consciousness is suspended, and we have a sense of becoming one with what we are seeking to achieve. It’s the sensation that we are “in the groove,” and we find ourselves meeting the challenges that present themselves with joy and anticipation of what comes next. It was named flow because that’s the word people tend to use to describe this type of experience. In my personal experience, I was more likely to experience flow in activities other than day-to-day parenting. Why is that? Let’s explore the eight major components of flow, how the typical parenting experience differs at each point, and how you can adjust the way you approach motherhood so that you achieve flow day-to-day.

1. Flow happens when you are working on a goal that you believe is possible to conquer. The major obstacle to this aspect of flow is either not having a clear idea of what you want to achieve as a parent, or having unrealistic goals for yourself. It is hard to achieve clarity when you see the years stretch out in front of you and it seems so long before the job will be accomplished. It is hard to have confidence you can conquer the challenge if you have goals that are heavily dependent on someone else (namely, your child).

So, let’s go back to basics. The one thing that you can manage as a parent is how your child experiences you as a parent. You can behave in such a way that your values are clear. For example, you cannot control how well she does in school, but you can do things like have a set homework time, regularly attend parent-teacher conferences, provide praise for hard work and improvement, and so forth. You can send a strong message, through these types of parental behaviors, that school is important and worth the investment of her best efforts.

Ask yourself how you want your child to experience you as a parent. Your answer to this question will impact every aspect of your lives together, at every stage of your child’s development. Your answer may evolve over time, but if you want to get into parenting flow, you will set clear and achievable goals for this.

2. Flow happens when you can concentrate on the task at hand. The major obstacle for concentrating on your parenting goals is drama in other parts of your life. Instability in your primary partner relationship — marriage or otherwise — is going to drain your concentration away from parenting. Financial instability, extended family conflict, unsafe living conditions — devoting appropriate attention (mental energy) to parenting goals requires movement toward resolving these pressing issues as well.

You might also just lose focus on your goals. Parenting is a very long-term activity, and sometimes you just get your eyes off the horizon. If this is your problem, set reminders for yourself. Fill out this sentence: Today I want my child(ren) to experience me as: ______________________. Then you can write it on your bathroom mirror, post it on your refrigerator door, set it as a screensaver on your computer, or send it as a reminder to yourself through your phone. Spend at least a moment each morning resetting your intention to present yourself to your child in a way that lines up with your goals.

3. Flow happens when it is clear what you are working toward. If you lack clarity, how will you know when you’ve achieved your goal? “Today I want my child(ren) to experience me as a good mother” is vague. “Today I want my child(ren) to experience me as interested in their concerns” is clearer. Define what it means to you to be a good mother. Write down all aspects that occur to you. You can use the “good mother” as a shortcut when writing it on your bathroom mirror, but you can’t be that vague in your mind. You need to know exactly what you mean by that. It could mean spending fifteen minutes every day sitting in the floor playing dolls, making everybody’s favorite food at least once a month, or allowing them to have a pet. Get clear and you are closer to getting flow.

4. Flow happens when you receive immediate feedback every step of the way. It’s easier to get feedback when you get clear about your goals. Feedback is going to help you adjust your behavior in service of your larger goals. Let’s say that your larger goal is that your children will experience you as interested in their concerns. You plan to serve each child their favorite food once a month, as a demonstration of your interest. However, when you serve grilled cheese sandwiches one evening, you find that your child’s favorite food has now changed. This is feedback. Next month, you adjust and put macaroni and cheese on the menu.

So, when you are setting your intentions about the parent you want your children to experience, make sure there is some way for you to know if you are hitting the mark. Sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t, but you’ll get into flow when you have a way to find out about it.

5. Flow happens when you are deeply involved with the task to the point that you lose awareness of other concerns and worries. This is a crucial component of flow, and one of the most difficult to achieve as a parent. It is extra-hard for those who stay at home full-time, or work from home and have no natural break between work and parenting concerns. This is what I recommend to enable you to let go of extraneous stuff when you want to concentrate on your children: Have a set place and schedule for dealing with work, email, bills, scheduling, and the like. Even if you must set up a work station in the corner of your bedroom (and I don’t really recommend this if you have any other option), gather everything you need in one place – computer, phone, calendar, to-do list, pens and paper, sticky notes, stamps – and set aside a daily time to handle the busywork of life. Keep a running list of things that you think of that need to be handled. Once they are on the list, determine to handle them during your designated time. Turn off the ringer on your cell phone, and return calls on your own schedule. You cannot eliminate the interruptions but you can contain a lot of the routine distractions.

If the issue is not so much practical tasks, but rather mental worry, then you may benefit from setting aside an hour a day to allow yourself to worry. Usually we worry when we are trying to resolve a problem that at the moment is unsolvable. We keep turning it over and over in our mind, trying to force a solution. This dissipates mental energy and therefore decimates our ability to pay attention. Knowing that you have reserved an hour of your day for worry will help you say “no, this is not my worry time” when you want to devote your attention to your kids.

6. Flow happens when you have a sense of control over your own actions. Displays of temper, despair, frustration, and other negative emotions are not conducive to flow. When you feel out of control, how can you move toward your goals? Overwhelming negative emotions result from negative beliefs about yourself (I am not in control, I am unable to make choices in this situation), about others (other people, including my children, are standing in the way of what I desire), and about the world (the system is against me, I am powerless in the face of this situation).

Remember that we always have a choice. You can allow your attention to wander, or you can deliberately choose to focus it on the purposes that you have set. You can choose to present yourself to your children in a manner that is consistent with your goals, or you can get off-track. You can even change your goals, or decide in a rush of emotion that your goals don’t matter.

7. Flow happens when your self-consciousness dissipates in favor of the challenge before you. What are you self-conscious about? Your looks? Your parenting skills? Your educational level? Self-consciousness can be skewed in either a positive or negative direction (for example, believing you are either unusually beautiful or unusually ugly), but it always drains mental energy away from the challenge you are facing. A self-conscious person always reserves some of her attention for Self. Self-consciousness is distinct from setting a goal of how you will present yourself as a parent — because the latter is about what you do to create a positive experience for your child.

It’s important for mothers to take control of self-consciousness. As kids get older, they are going to start creating their own identities and become increasingly critical of their parents. This is normal and natural and does not mean that there is anything wrong with you. Achieving flow in parenting means that you let go of your self-consciousness and fully immerse yourself in the challenge … and that will make it easier later on to laugh and say, “Embarrassing my children – just another service I offer.”

8. Flow happens when your awareness of time fades into the background. There are just some things that most of us are counting the seconds until it’s over. Changing dirty diapers, reading the same board book for the 200th time, the last hour of a long car trip. In these situations, let go of the time issue and embrace each aspect of the experience, and you will get into flow. Take your attention off of the poop and put it on the sweetness of touching your child in a way that will pass and be a memory soon. Take your attention off of the words and pictures, and onto the marvelous way your tiny child soaks up time with you, and how well she has memorized this story. Take your attention off the misery of finishing up that long long ride, and help your children notice the landscape outside the car window. Find some way of immersing yourself even in routine and boring experiences … remembering how you want your child to experience you as a parent.

The last point I would like to make is that experiencing flow depends on maintaining mental flexibility. Sometimes you need to do a gut check and recognize when you are worried, when you are in pain, when you are experiencing an ‘aha!’ moment, when you are ridiculously happy, when you are expecting too much, when you are in despair. At other times you need to soak up every detail of your surroundings: The sweet smell of clean baby, the glory of a soft spring breeze on your face, the sound of your child’s voice, a tiny but noticeable improvement in her reading skills, the astonishing fact that she made her bed. Make mental regrouping a sort of routine that you go through several times a day. As your inner and outer awareness increases, so do your chances for stepping into flow.

*The discussion of flow and all principles related to it is taken from the following work: Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins.