“Mindfulness is dumb”

Posted by Nate Binzen on  June 10, 2021

I used to work for retreat center, marketing their contemplative (mostly meditation) practices. We were awarded federal funding early on for research into Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in education. At that time, it was for teachers, as political concerns about pushing “namaste” messages on students were a little hot. So I’ve watched with sympathetic interest as top athletes have promoted meditation apps for improved performance and the important lessons of SEL have increasingly gone mainstream in our schools.

In schools, I’ve seen posters describing breathing techniques, heard teachers leading visualization, observed after-school yoga, and taken note of required SEL coursework. That’s all to the good; it’s probably also why I heard one seventh-grade boy practicing his newfound cynicism by declaring “Mindfulness is dumb.” I’m pretty sure he was referring to the school’s required Mindfulness sessions; as for mindfulness as an abstract concept, I can’t say! But his awareness that yet another academic agenda is being pushed on him can be counted as a measure of success, for even if the session in question was hard to stay awake through, at least a serious preventative effort is being made to address today’s stresses on young and growing lives.

As we emerge from the unique social challenges of the pandemic, we are warned that the marks left by a year+ of social distancing, masking, home schooling, and the shutdown of normal activities may remain with young people for a long time. We’ll have to see. At the same time, other concerns increasingly press upon them. The difficulty of addressing climate change in decisive ways is visible and demoralizing. Legitimate critiques of racism alive in America dent our capacity to celebrate all that is good here. Social media and internet-based possibilities may send friends and loved ones down less caring or self-caring rabbit holes. It’s worth keeping in mind what the goals of Social and Emotional Learning for young people generally are.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) tells us that SEL is:

the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

While many teachers throughout history have intentionally or intuitively incorporated most of the elements of this growth process, it’s good that in our time the “how” of it has been extensively studied and brought forward. I recommend you take a look at CASEL’s website to learn more. Their framework addresses five areas of competence: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. It doesn’t just drop into place: quality SEL requires system-wide support addressing these elements:

  • Building foundational support and plan
  • Strengthening adult SEL competencies and capacity
  • Promoting SEL for students, and
  • Reflecting on data for continuous improvement.

It’s worth keeping in mind that focusing on adult competencies and capacity comes before bringing SEL to the students!

For years, we have sought to reasonably limit our kids’ screen time at home. They’re 10 and 8, and we maintained weekly schedules for TV days, checking in with them about what they want to watch, keeping video games to a minimum, no phones of their own, letting just a little social media creep in over time for our 10-year old…

Then one day in March, it all turned upside down. Suddenly the kids were always at home, and mandated by their school to engage with multiple Zoom sessions, online apps and/or instructional videos per day. The parental assistance required to help them get into meetings on time (or even at all), keep assignments on track (interpreted, printed, completed, submitted)… was enough to have me gnashing my teeth several times a week.

Around our household, the number of Zoom meetings per week became our own little epidemic. My wife was teaching a full slate of remote classes; soon I joined in, starting my own distance-learning enrichment groups for young students. The irony of this enterprise was obvious to me, and has only grown more acute over time. I voice my fight against my kids’ growing habituation of grabbing for the screen, to which they are always ready to point out, “But you’re on a screen all the time – like right now!” I am left stammering, “But I’ve got work to do!” Yes, it is hard to explain.

Since the pandemic began, our well-laid management plans for screen time and social media use have eroded quite a bit. I’m not going to do much to impede my physically-distanced daughter’s wish/need to spend “face time” with friends. But that quickly morphs into online games and a demand for the latest social account by which apparently important and meaningful stickers and emojis are exchanged. Meanwhile, I actually encourage them to watch more programs on screen… as long as the programs are in French. So we’re trying…

There are, for sure, valuable, positive online activities through which kids can explore and grow skills, knowledge, even critical thinking and emotional intelligence. The difficulty I see is in the fluidity with which a child’s attention naturally moves between these parentally curated efforts and others that carry a danger of increasing social isolation, shallow interactions, self-absorption, and the commercially-driven capture of one’s headspace.  

In our present, challenging context of enforced distancing, I have seen the value of online interaction with a small group of peers under the responsive attention of a trusted adult. A big part of it is about togetherness, the reassurance of belonging. It’s also about setting goals and accomplishing them with, hopefully, more intrinsic motivations than straight-up school assignments. If more screen time is a given, we parents can still steer the ship into that ocean with a demand for the greatest quality of human interaction, conversation, and meaning-making that can be found there.