Slow parenting in a sliding economy
Anna Brindle, a Seattle mom, is being laid off. But she’s not worried. Instead, she sees her upcoming layoff as a welcome change, like those deep breaths that come after a running a marathon. Her layoff means she’ll cut way back on spending and take part in slow parenting her 8-month-old son at home while her husband continues to work as a physician’s assistant.
“It’ll be worth it to clip some coupons, find free activities, go for more walks and fewer movies,” Brindle says. “I don’t think it’ll hurt, it’ll just make us more creative. The more creative we’re forced to be, the better our son’s life will be.”
But Brindle harbors no illusions and knows that going from two incomes to one will be a major lifestyle change. “We will live within our means, we won’t get fancy toys, we’ll have more special family time,” she says. In fact, Brindle believes her layoff may force changes that are ultimately better for her son, such as being able to take part in the slow parenting movement. “He may look back and be ticked that he doesn’t have as many toys as everyone else, but his parents were around more.”
A self-perpetuating cycle
The kind of slow parenting changes that Brindle is planning are antithetical to the prevailing wisdom that, when it comes to raising children, more equals better; more enrichment, more classes, more stuff will make for happier and more successful children. In fact, some parents are so busy pushing their kids that they create a self-perpetuating cycle of competition and acceleration, says Carl Honoré, author of the book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.
“The manic and anxious approach to childhood filters into the early years,” Honoré says. In his book, he describes parents fussing over in utero educational devices and purchasing books with titles like Prodigy Babies or Children’s Success Depends 99% on the Mother. Hey, we all want our child to have an edge, not be left in the dust — much less eating dust bunnies.
But what happens when the world economy goes off the rails? Will it inspire us to new heights of parental competition? Or will it force us to stop, take a breath — and to take advantage of the slow parenting moment?
“My feeling is the severity of the recession, and the total failure of the powers that be, opens up the possibility for a real change in slow parenting,” Honoré says. “It is now possible to question the status quo in ways that would have been unthinkable a year ago. And the fact that people have a lot less money to splash around may take the pressure off parents to dash around trying to supply the mythical ‘perfect childhood’ for their kids.”
Certainly, as job losses and reductions in hours soar, there’s less money for classes, tutoring and expensive learning toys. Families are forced to make difficult, conscious choices about where their money goes; perhaps we can’t all afford to keep up with the Einsteins. But it’s hard not to worry that our children might fall behind in living standards, without access to multiple forms of constant enrichment.
“We’ve been on a fast-forward treadmill of consumption and competition for the last 15 years that has warped the way we bring up our children,” Honoré says.
Pushing for prodigies
As new parents, we may inadvertently take up positions in the childhood rat race before seeking out the slow parenting lifestyle. We compare sleep and food, weight and height, milestone after milestone. There’s a lot of shame and guilt around admitting we have a competitive streak. “It’s more taboo than talking about sex,” says Wendy S. Grolnick, co-author of the book Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. “We’re supposed to be kind and good and nurturing, but we all feel competitive, too,” she says.
Grolnick says that anxious parenting behavior is just the flip side of the evolutionary nurture instinct, and it’s why parents worldwide fuss over brainy-kid benchmarks. “We couldn’t devote all we do to our kids unless we were really invested in them,” Grolnick points out.
Economic issues can intensify our fear and anxiety over our children falling behind or getting ahead. Parents want to see their children succeed, Grolnick says, and have felt so since the dawn of time. But concern over whether their children can outrun saber-toothed tigers has morphed into whether they’ll attend Harvard and get a good job. “We’ve always had this hardwiring, Grolnick says, “but now there’s so much competition out there,” from preschool slots to college scholarships.
But the wiring 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 child the “right” way to play with a toy or filling her every hour with activities can reduce internal motivation and creativity, both key to long-term success in life.
Carl Honoré 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 kids 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,” Honoré says.
“In our hurry-up culture, there’s a taboo against taking time,” Honoré says, “and a terror of missing opportunities or falling behind.”
Milestones, classes and stimulation also can easily become external markers for parental success. Physicians and parents-in-law ask how school is going, how we’re enriching our children’s lives. 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.
Setting 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 within the community.
And now, the slow parenting movement encourages us to counter the competitive urge, encouraging a more mellow approach. “It’s about giving childhood the time and attention it deserves,” Honoré says, and not worrying about the next goal or comparing kids to see who’s further along.
Honoré points out that slow parenting requires ceding control and developing 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, or how a child can retreat into an enchanted world of stuffed animals.
Slow parenting was already gathering steam as a new zeitgeist for American family life when the incredible economic downturn first started smacking families around last fall. Now, a number of local families are embracing slow parenting as a new way of life — out of necessity, rather than choice.
Involuntary slow parenting is exactly what Rennie Araucto of Lynnwood found himself doing. He was laid off in November 2008 from his job. Rennie and his wife, Amy, agreed that he would become a stay-at-home dad and take over the home’s household duties, primarily raising their children, Ronin, 2, and Waverly, 4, while she continued to work.
Because of their reduced income, they laid off the nanny, and cut back on dance lessons and gym classes. “We can’t go out and eat randomly anymore,” Araucto says. “Instead, we make three-bean soup with on-sale meat, and freeze half of it for lunches.”
Araucto says it took a little while to adjust to their new, slow parenting lifestyle. “It was disconcerting and challenging at the beginning, just understanding [the children’s] cycles,” he says, regarding feeding, naps and social times. “It was about me getting on their schedule.”
Rather than rushing from one event to another, Araucto says, he’s working at what he terms the “art of storytelling.” He uses Legos or wooden figures to tell an unhurried tale, which “creates a slow, peaceful place, and pulls them in,” he says.
But just as slow food doesn’t mean passing on every dish, slow parenting doesn’t mean shunning singing sessions or good friendships. The slow parenting approach allows parents to truly familiarize themselves with their child’s personality and interests, and that may include baby sign language classes or Mommy and Me yoga.
Today, Araucto takes the kids to the community swimming pool and other community outlets; and the couple is trying to find a way to keep Waverly in dance lessons. Araucto tries to expose his kids to a wide variety of experiential, hands-on learning opportunities and wants them to follow their own interests.
That’s the ticket, Grolnick says. With slow parenting, kids pick up their own interests — with passion — when they’re internally motivated. “Pushing a child is not going to help,” she says. To stay sane and avoid comparisons, people going with slow parenting look to adult friendships and parent groups for support. Araucto lunches with a play group every Friday afternoon. And the Arauctos and others maintain their own grown-up interests and ambitions, and avoid putting pressure on kids to achieve.
You needn’t have a parent at home to practice slow parenting; plenty of slow parenting takes place around the edges of the two-income workday. Families are cutting back, slowing down busy schedules and re-examining their priorities in light of new financial realities, and finding lots to like about their new and simpler, slow parenting lifestyle.
Honoré says that the recent economic downturn and the resulting anxiety could exacerbate some problems. “The danger, of course, is that the recession might have the opposite effect,” he says. “The panic will drive parents to push their kids even harder and to go even further down the hyperparenting route.”
“I’m sure this will happen to some,” he adds. “But I think that for many of us, the economic downturn will help bring us to our senses and more into the slow parenting movement.”
Because she no longer feels the need to create super-genius children, Lora Shinn has more time to write for magazines such as Backpacker, KIWI and E. The Environmental Magazine.
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 Honoré
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
The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine
A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting by Hara Estroff Marano