Have you ever noticed a funny feeling in your body the split-second before doing something you later regret? Maybe the funny feeling is a tightening in your chest, or a flush of heat rushing to your face, or a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. These funny feelings can take place in what Western meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein calls the “about to” moment. This moment is the split-second before you speak or act.
We can train ourselves to identify the “about to” moments in our lives, and notice when a funny feeling accompanies them. By paying attention to the physical sensations that sometimes accompany an “about to” moment, we have an opportunity to pause before acting and reflect on what we’re about to do or say. This is a chance to ask ourselves: “Why choose to act in this way?” “How does it make me feel?” and “Will what I’m about to do or say lead me and my family closer to, or further away from, genuine happiness?”
The “about to” moment has special relevance to parenting because it is also the place and time where we choose (whether consciously or not) what we teach our children by example. It is a chance to shift direction if we recognize that our automatic reaction to a stressful situation is not consistent with our image of the parent we hope to be, or the adults we hope our children will become. Character development is a life-long process, happening through repeated actions both large and small. One place it happens is during the countless “about to” moments in our lives.
About a year ago, several prestigious universities published a study about the effect of spanking on three-year-old children. They reported that three-year-olds who had been spanked by their mothers more than twice in the month prior to the time they were assessed by researchers had an increased risk for higher levels of child aggression at age five than children who had not been spanked.
Even though this finding is consistent with a well-established body of academic literature on the topic, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents refrain from spanking entirely, the reporting of this study has been somewhat controversial. In the comment section of several blogs about the research, some people have taken offense. Perhaps because many parents continue to spank their kids, even those as young as three. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than 90 per cent of families report having used spanking as a form of discipline.
The “about to” moment, when a parent chooses to spank a child, is an opportunity for the parent to ask what he or she is trying to accomplish. Spanking is, at the very least, a stressful life experience for both parent and child, and it is well known that stressful life events can have a profound impact on brain development, especially in young children. In their book Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential, Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz explain that when early childhood experiences are nurturing and empathetic, a child’s nervous system will wire up one way; but if early childhood experiences are stressful, harsh and frightening, the same child’s brain wires up in a different way; one that can make learning and later relationships more challenging. I doubt that any parent, upon reflection, hopes that his or her actions will make it more difficult for kids to learn and get along with others at school or home.
The “about to” moment is also an opportunity to reflect on the quality that one is reinforcing within oneself and modeling for one’s kids. For example, is striking out in response to behavior that we disagree with/disapprove of a quality that we want to strengthen in ourselves? Is it one we want to model for our child? Will teaching children that it’s OK to hit other people help them become their best selves? Will it help them have an easier time on the playground? Will it lead them toward genuine happiness?
The choices that we make in our “about to” moments determine who we are and who we will become. They also let our kids know loud and clear what’s important to us. Making the choice to exercise restraint, empathy, compassion and even-handedness time and time again is how these qualities become habitual in both parent and child. When our kids see us being kind to others, we’re both practicing kindness ourselves and modeling it for them; when they watch us exercise patience while waiting our turn in the grocery line or when stuck in traffic, we’re both modeling patience to our kids and practicing it ourselves; when we find nonviolent ways to address inappropriate behavior we’re both modeling nonviolence and practicing it ourselves.
To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “character is higher than intellect.” It is the choices we make in the “about to” moments—choices we make over and over again all day every day—that determine our character and set an example for our children to follow.
For more, watch Susan Kaiser Greenland’s video, Teach your kids awareness with an apple!