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Slow parenting: Does mellowing out make sense for your baby?

Published on: March 01, 2010

The slow parenting movement There are many reasons to consider slow parenting. My daughter was born prematurely, at 34 weeks. At the baby's NICU bed, the nurse said that she'd trail behind the "normal" kids for a few years.

So when she was 9 months old, I picked up a set of Baby Einstein cards. Perhaps if I worked with her, she could learn about the color red and how the dog says "Arf."

"This is a dog," I said. "What does the doggie say?" She reached for the card. She knew what it was! That foolish nurse, my daughter's not so far behind after all. She is Baby Einstein!

And then she put the card in her mouth and fell over.

After that, we tried the educational DVDs, after one friend endearingly compared them to "baby crack," but I wasn't quite prepared for the glazed-over eyes, sweaty palms and open jaw at so early an age. And there's no DARE program to forswear kids off edu-tot flicks.

I'm far from the only one who bought into the brain-boosting craze before becoming a part of the slow parenting movement. According to Carl Honore, author of the book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, parents around the world are trying to academically prep their infants - and in the process are creating a self-perpetuating cycle of competition and acceleration.

"The manic and anxious approach to childhood has filtered into the early years," Honore says, affecting even infants. In his book, he describes British parents fussing over in utero educational devices and Taiwanese parents purchasing books with titles like Prodigy Babies or Children's Success Depends 99% on the Mother. Seems we all want our child to have an edge - not to be left in the dust, much less eating dust bunnies.

As new parents, we may inadvertently take up positions in the childhood rat race. We compare sleep and food, weight and height, milestone after milestone.

"I see a lot of parents very concerned with how their child is developing, whether they'll sit up or crawl early," says Mandy Brown, a Seattle-area child-care provider.

Brown says that if some parents see (or hear of) a child walking at 9 months, they will expect their child to walk at the same age, and worry that their child is "behind" if he isn't yet interested in standing. "They think early is the new yardstick, the new normal," Brown says.

How did we get into this parent trap?

Roots of competition: nature and nurture

There's a lot of shame and guilt around admitting we have a competitive streak. In fact, most parents I spoke with wanted to use a fake name so they couldn't be criticized for their competitiveness. "It's more taboo than talking about sex," says Wendy S. Grolnick, co-author of the new book Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. "We're supposed to be kind and good and nurturing, but we all feel competitive, too."

Grolnick says that anxious parenting behavior is just the flip side of the nurture instinct. That's why parents worldwide fuss over brainy-baby benchmarks. "We couldn't devote all we do to our kids unless we were really invested in them," Grolnick points out.

Evolution drives us to see our children succeed and carry on our genetic line, Grolnick says. But concern over whether our child can outrun saber-toothed tigers has morphed into whether he'll attend Harvard. "We've always had this hardwiring, but now there's so much competition out there," Grolnick says, from preschool slots to college scholarships.

But this hardwiring can go haywire, Grolnick says, if we try too hard to control our child's activities or direct their success, instead of allowing them to explore and experiment on their own. Showing a baby the "right" way to play with a toy or filling her every hour with activities can reduce her internal motivation and creativity.

Carl Honore says society sends the message that "everything can be subjected to laws of management and science," and that the more stimulation we provide, the smarter our children will end up. So conventional wisdom insists that if we enroll our babies in enough classes and purchase the learning gadget du jour, we'll produce the supposedly perfect child, "one who hits the ground running, reaches milestones first and scores high in exams," Honore says.

Ann Keppler, leader of the Seattle support group First Weeks, points out that marketers also know how to appeal to the parental Achilles heel. Formula companies offer "brain-building" DHA proteins, and Gerber offers "graduate" juice.

To add a sense of pressure into the mix, we have the much-vaunted "windows of development." "In our hurry-up culture, there's a taboo against taking time," Honore says, "and a terror of missing opportunities or falling behind." Some parents fear that if they don't nurture a skill very early, that skill will be lost to their child forever. For example, Seattle mom Lydia Marko signed her 6-month-old daughter up for Chinese, gymnastics and music classes, worried that she'd be denying her daughter future options. And some baby-sign classes talk about missing the IQ boat.

Milestones, classes and stimulation also can easily become external markers for parental success. Our physicians and parents-in-law ask how the baby's sleeping and which tasks she can accomplish. If our child sleeps well, rolls over ahead of schedule and is the social butterfly, we've done everything right. But if he doesn't, we can easily drift back into a place of worry and comparison.

As parents, we're constantly being fed a diet of pressure, prestige and perfection.  How can we break out of this societal trap that insists childhood is a race to the finish line?

Slow parenting tipsSetting a new pace: slow parenting

The "slow" movements urge us to step off the fast, frenetic track. The slow food movement encourages eaters to avoid Big Mac attacks and instead share longer, well-prepared meals with friends and family.  When traveling, the slow movement celebrates staying in one location on your vacation, allowing you to integrate temporarily with the community.

And now, the slow parenting movement encourages us to counter the competitive urge, encouraging a more mellow approach. "Slow parenting is about giving childhood the time and attention it deserves," Honore says, and not worrying about the next goal or comparing kids to see who's two steps ahead.

Honore points out that slow parenting requires ceding control and an appreciation for unstructured time - but rewards you with a sense of alertness to fine details: the way a baby breathes, coos and gazes at the sky. "Sink into the uncertainty," Honore suggests.

"Take a breath and enjoy the moment," agrees Keppler. She says that slow parenting allows parents to consider that their infant will soon grow too big to fit in their lap and to live in the present. "You won't have this soft cuddly time when you have an 8-year-old," she says.

Seattle mom Olivia Salamon applied slow parenting principles to raising her daughter, Serena. "I had to take this pressure off myself," she says. "I was always in a rush to be everywhere on time. But then I realized I could drive slowly." Salamon reduced commitments and carved out a more leisurely lifestyle to accommodate the new family member.

But just as slow food doesn't mean passing on every dish, slow parenting doesn't mean you must shun singing sessions. Salamon decided to enroll in only one class at a time with her daughter. She follows her daughter's lead: They currently attend music classes because her daughter loves swaying to the sound, not because Salamon's planning out Serena's future at Juilliard.

The slow parenting approach allows parents to truly familiarize themselves with their child's personality and interests. Grolnick says kids pick up their own interests when it's the right fit and they're internally motivated. "Pushing a child is not going to help," she says.

Adult friendships can also provide social support and reassurance with slow parenting, as can parent support meetings such as PEPS and First Weeks. Encountering a wide variety of baby abilities and interests allows us to stay sane and avoid comparisons.

Resisting that evolutionary urge to push and mold takes practice - and it's never too early to mellow out and take part in the slow parenting movement.

Because Lora Shinn no longer feels the need to create genius-babies, she has more time to write for ParentMap, in addition to national publications like Parenting, Pregnancy, and Brain, Child.

Simple toys for slow parenting
Ann Keppler suggests these simple toys to keep babies happy:

0-3 months: At this age, Keppler says, babies want to see the contours of your face, so there's no need to fill their crib with black-and-white toys. They'll copy your mouth shape, sticking their tongues out or cooing an "o" along with you. But when baby looks away, wait until their gaze returns before engaging them again, to avoid overstimulation. "They're processing," Keppler says.

3-6 months: Now that an infant can intentionally bring his hands up to his face, he can grasp and play with toys. According to Keppler, babies at this age love crinkle-sound toys and items with texture, such as little blankets with satin and velvet.

6-9 months: Now sitting well, they'll strive to copy you, playing with spatulas and other kitchen cookware. If you want to shop for toys, Keppler says to seek out the lead- and bisphenol-A-free playthings marked with the "CE" logo. This indicates the objects have been approved in the European Union and are fine for babies to mouth.

9-12 months: Food becomes a sweet toy at the table, so encourage your baby to play with her food. Babies also begin enjoying one another's company, so look no farther than your neighbor's house for the friend who needs no batteries. "They mobilize toward each other, kissing and patting."

Slow parenting books
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn - And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer

Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society by William Crain

Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting by Carl Honore

Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World by Jessica Teich and Brandel France de Bravo

Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child by Wendy S. Grolnick and Kathy Seal

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