Present parenting and the mindful art of Play-Doh

Father and child“Mindfulness” is not only a buzzword in the media, I realize it’s one in my office as well. I reference it constantly and try to incorporate it into my work and personal life consistently. Of course the emphasis there is on the word “try”. It doesn’t necessarily come naturally, and it certainly doesn’t come every day. So I decided to create an opportunity to be mindful, and figured I would share my experience.

As a parent (of a two year-old and a one year-old), I often find myself caught in a whirlwind of attempted ‘clean-up’. In my mind, it only makes sense for every new mess – crumbs, toys, books, clothes – to be cleared before the next one is made.

If you’re a parent yourself, or have even momentarily been in the presence of a child, you are undoubtedly laughing. I don’t blame you.

I am a parent, and I am a psychotherapist. I recognize that my illogical and unproductive response to this situation is the product of anxiety; a grasping for the reins in a rodeo – child-rearing – in which I often feel a lack of control. I get that. But sometimes, when spaghetti strands are flying, tears are falling, mile-high block towers are being knocked down, and my husband and I find ourselves locked in a shared, silent daze, I forget. I stop being present and get transfixed in a quest for neatness and order – a visual indication that the inmates aren’t running the asylum, but that my husband and I do indeed have some authority. I desperately want to clean up.

And yet of course I also want my children to have good – no, great – lives. I want them to have fun, to experiment, to learn, and to explore. I want them to have a childhood.

I want them to play with Play-Doh.

So they do. And I play with it too, talking to them about what I used to make with it when I was their ages. They love Play-Doh. Who doesn’t?


I can’t believe I never noticed how much of a mess it makes. It stains clothing, it inevitably dissipates into minuscule, brightly colored sticky crumbs, and even if you designate a space (the kitchen table, the one with the plastic placemats on top of an oil rag tablecloth, just in case!) where it should be kept, you will find it everywhere. It is my undoing.

So…I am opening up a can right now. I am going to play with Play-Doh mindfully. I figure it can’t be too big a leap to parenting more mindfully – being present when I parent – so here goes. Let the non-judgement begin!

Sigh. Okay, it’s cold. It’s really cold. And it smells so familiar – salty and undeniably of childhood. It is a little bit sticky, and certainly malleable. A thought of how it will end up in those minuscule crumbs crosses my mind…I let it pass and resume observation. A streak of pink amidst the blue – this batch has clearly gotten a tiny crumb of another batch in it. As I pull the Play-Doh into a long strand, the pink crumb stretches out against the blue. It looks like a shooting star across the night sky.

I check my breath. It’s quiet and easy, no trace of the deep inhale and exhale I exerted when I first opened the jar.

I turn to my ears. “This is probably the first and only time Play-Doh has ever heard silence”, I think to myself. In my imagination and memory, Play-Doh has always been accompanied by sound – lots of it. Squealing, talking, pounding, laughing, smashing.


I stop myself from crafting pronouncements about how I’m going to translate this moment of peace into reform of my cleanliness-craving ways. I did this exercise to have an experience, not to achieve an end result. And it worked.

And I enjoyed it.

And I will do it again.