Goldie Hawn, photographed in Dubai. Photo: Getty
Goldie Hawn's children and grandchildren are at her Los Angeles home, swimming in the backyard pool, the dog is barking, and the 65-year-old actor greets me with a gravelly voiced, "Hi, honey."
It's a sunny September day, just a few days after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On that day, the actor, singer and dancer best known for her wacky comedy had vowed to do something serious in response to the terror unfolding before her.
To calm her nerves as she watched the television images of the falling Twin Towers, she had reached into her knitting basket and found some old skeins of red, white and blue yarn. "Knitting has always been a form of meditation for me, so I began to knit the American flag," she explains.
As she sat there, tears falling onto her stitches, she felt compelled to take action more profound than knitting the stars and stripes (which she still has in her home a decade on).
"If I could help just one little girl or boy move beyond those images, which will haunt us all, that would be a gift," she says.
"Remembering my own childhood anxiety [during the Cold War], I longed to show children everywhere how to rediscover their natural joy, understand the value of their emotions and learn to feel empathy for others. I had no idea how to set about achieving this, but I knew as I knitted I had to figure something out."
She had already started making a documentary on happiness for US cable-TV network HBO. But the more she studied the subject, the less she felt she knew about it. So she gathered a team of neuroscientists, psychiatrists, doctors and teachers and, in 2005, created The Hawn Foundation, to try to get to the bottom of the "happiness mystery".
The team launched a program for children, MindUP, to help kids to reduce stress, manage their emotions and be more optimistic.
It is a curriculum (now available through Scholastic Books) that goes beyond academics to teach children how to focus on breathing, attention, relaxation and awareness. The premise is that education should not just be about the three Rs of reading, writing and 'rithmetic, but also reflection, relationships and resilience.
It is now taught in more than 1000 schools in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom and is on its way to Australia, with programs expected to start before the end of the year.
To accompany the curriculum, Hawn has written a book, 10 Mindful Minutes (published by Hachette Australia), as a guide for parents to teach the program at home to children aged five to 12.
It suggests parents sit down with their kids for 10 minutes each day to foster gratitude and optimism, which she calls "a resilience vaccine". It's also a time when parents should turn off the television, laptop and iPod because, she says, electronics and e-communities such as Facebook cannot replace human contact. The crucial thing to remember as a parent, she warns, is that you lead by example.
"We all need to try not to be reactive parents," says Hawn, a mother of four and now grandmother to four. "Of course, we're not perfect, we all learn from our mistakes, but the idea of the book is to make us, as parents, be more self-aware, more calm and forgiving of ourselves and others to manage our own fatigue and focus. Because if we don't learn to slow down, to quieten our mind with even a short brain break, we'll pass our stress on to our children, and that's no way to learn."
Although she's best known for her sunny disposition, Goldie Hawn wasn't always as happy-go-lucky as she appears. Born in 1945, she grew up in Washington, D.C., where her mother owned a jewellery shop and dance school. Her father, a musician, was a descendant of Edward Rutledge, the youngest signatory on the Declaration of Independence. She began learning ballet at a young age, making her stage debut at 10 in The Nutcracker. By her own admission, she was more a C-grade than an A-grade student, but her family never let that limit her aspirations, instead focusing on the things she was good at: dancing, singing and acting.
"My parents nurtured my optimistic nature and that helped me cope with life's setbacks," says Hawn.
Mildly dyslexic, with a reading comprehension problem, she was placed in "the lowest reading group in my class, known as the purple balls. I thought that meant I was special. Even when I found out that being in the purple balls meant that I was supposed to be 'dumb', I was never made to feel so. I was a C student whose parents cried 'Hallelujah' if I brought home a B because they knew I'd done my best. They relished my innate happiness and daydreamy nature, never once chastising me for writing 'Love Goldie, x' at the end of each [unfinished] paper."
Hawn burst onto a wider stage with her 1968 role as the "dumb blonde" on the television sketch comedy Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. It was on this show that her infectious giggle became her trademark. "I didn't know what I was going to do," she says. "They told me to just do some introductions, which I did, and I screwed up and started laughing. That turned out to be my character."
Her undeniable charisma earned her a sort of 1960s "It" girl status, which she parlayed into her first major film role, in Cactus Flower (1969); she played Walter Matthau's suicidal girlfriend and won an Academy Award for her performance. In the next decade or so, she went on to star in a host of other classics, including There's a Girl in My Soup, Shampoo and Private Benjamin.
But that was only her public face. As a 21-year- old, she was prone to panic attacks and anxiety. "The most important thing I did was seek help," she recalls.
"I saw a psychiatrist for many years, which led me on the journey to where I am today, helping kids through the fundamentals of calming them down."
She used the techniques she learnt through self-analysis to navigate her way through the private pain of her two divorces and the deaths of her parents.
"When you look at your life, you realise that death is a part of it," she says.
"Death changes the conversation you have with yourself and others. Also, when people divorce they are hurt, angry and lonely. I felt all those things, but I realised that was not a way to live forever. The trick is not to get caught in the abyss of emotions, because emotions ebb and flow. You can't hang onto a raft of sadness always; eventually that emotion will go out to sea and you won't always be sad."
Hawn has been in a relationship with fellow actor Kurt Russell since 1983, and is mother to actors Oliver Hudson, 35, and Kate Hudson, 32, as well as stepmother to Russell's son Boston.
Together, the couple have a son, Wyatt, born in 1986. Raised Jewish, she's interested these days in many religions, from Buddhism to Hinduism (she regularly travels to India).
"I have many different people on my altar of worship, including Mother Theresa," she says.
It was meditation that brought her to work on the concept of mindfulness with children. This has been her major focus in the past decade; she has not starred in a major Hollywood production since The Banger Sisters in 2002.
In schools where MindUP's 15-lesson "optimistic classroom" is taught, there's been an improvement in classroom behaviour. A University of British Columbia study showed that children in Vancouver schools who participated in the program reported increased optimism and decreased aggression in the classroom and on the playground.
"We've had children who have lived through genocide, people trafficking and parental drug addiction," says Hawn, "and experts have come in to test their cortisol levels after they slow down and focus on their breathing, and their stress levels are lower."
From tough school districts in Los Angeles to London schools where recent riots highlighted the pessimism in some parts of the city, the program has been making inroads with educators. In her book, Hawn underlines that pessimists take things personally, think things are permanent and that problems are pervasive. "Optimists are the opposite; they understand things change, that both happiness and sadness don't last forever."
One of the greatest problems with childhood education, Hawn believes, is the education system itself, and she is dismayed to learn that Australia, like California, has recently introduced standardised testing in primary schools.
"So many kids don't test well; they freeze up," she says.
"Why do we need to subject them to this at such a young age, when we should be just focusing on what they do well? Some kids are artists, some are orators or storytellers. Why does all the focus have to be on academics?
"If a child has a natural talent for tennis but is poor at maths, his parents will most likely focus on getting him a maths tutor. Sometimes the joy of playing tennis will be denied him, so he can focus on his studies. The irony is that if he wins Wimbledon, he can hire an accountant to figure out his finances.
"We need to take a look at those we call successful, because so many people who do well in life didn't do well at school. They became resilient instead - and that's what we need to be teaching."
Hawn's book is an attempt to explain in simple terms how the brain works, so parents can then pass that knowledge on to their children. Hawn describes the amygdala (the part of the brain that is involved in the fight, flight or freeze response) as the guard dog that barks when it senses something bad or good, while the prefrontal cortex (in charge of thinking, planning and problem solving) she calls the wise old owl. Through a series of mindfulness tasks, like tasting, smelling and keeping a gratitude journal, her book describes ways parents can help children who may be depressed, medicated or suffering from attention deficit problems.
"It's preposterous that we ask our children to use their brains but we don't teach them how the brain works," she says.
"We want to teach our children that the smart way to look at a problem is from higher up in the brain - disengaging always helps."
She also suggests this as a tool for parents: to stop micromanaging their children's lives, over-scheduling them to the point of exhaustion.
"We need to put our children in the driver's seat and remember parents can always embrace new ways to learn, too."
As the interview comes to an end, and she readies to return to the family in the pool, she reflects with her customary laugh that her best work has not been on a Hollywood film set, but with children: both her own and the work she does in her charity.
"My life purpose is children - I've always taken care of children. I didn't want to band-aid issues for kids. I wanted to attempt to deal with the systemic problems, so that all kids could have a chance for more optimism and hope."
Exercises for young minds
Giving our children and ourselves the emotional and social skills to reduce
stress and anxiety makes for healthier, happier lives.
- Mindful breathing: Sit with your children for 10 minutes a day (two sittings of five minutes recommended). Focus on your breathing, then ask your children to sit comfortably with their hands in their lap and to close their eyes. Expect young children to be able to do only a few seconds at first, then build up. Get them to put their hands on their bellies to feel the rise and fall of their breath.
- Be prepared for distractions and fidgeting.
- Mindful listening: Gather together household items such as pencils, paper, coins or a pot. Place them in a box, so children can’t see what they are. Ask them to close their eyes, then to focus on the sound you make with them. Mindful seeing: Go into a park. Close your eyes and ask your child to describe an object and guess what it is. Keep a gratitude journal. Mindful smelling: Blindfold your child and ask them to smell four very different items (for example: peanut butter, a rose, a cinnamon stick and a sprig of mint). Ask them to identify each smell and to say what it reminds them of.
- Mindful tasting: Have children pinch their nose and close their eyes. Get them to eat a jelly bean and guess the flavour. Have a turn yourself.
- Mindful movement: Ask your child to stand on one leg like a stork. Laugh when they lose balance and get them to try again. Then turn on the radio and dance with abandon with them.
Edited extract from 10 Mindful Minutes by Goldie Hawn ($30, Hachette Australia).