There’s little new about slow parenting, the style of parenting that calls for intentionally underprogramming your children.
Accordingly to slow parents (confession: I’m not entirely certain that’s what they call themselves), if you pare down extracurricular activities and after-school classes and let your child uncover the world around her at her own pace, you’ll wind up with a happier, healthier and possibly smarter child.
This may work during the school year. When your children are out of the house for most of the day, giving them several hours to slowly discover your backyard, the toy room or the inside of your purse is doable. You’ll save money on countless classes, probably add years to your life avoiding the after-school-activity carpool shuffle, and your kids can do what so many of us want to do at the end of a long day: nothing.
However, all of this changes in the summer when you have months of time on your hands. Come summer, what once seemed like a reasonable approach during the school year can seem downright onerous.
I came to summer slow parenting the hard way — when I fell off the fast parenting treadmill and couldn’t get back on again. The summer my eldest was entering kindergarten, I found myself signing him up for all sorts of one-week specialty camps that were not only expensive, but were also conveniently located as far from my house as possible.
Because most camps will only take children once they’re out of preschool, and because most preschoolers would implode if forced to change camps every Monday, I still had little children at home. My son might have learned how to build a latrine in the wilderness, use a pottery wheel and construct a robot out of soda cans, but by mid-July I’d blown my entire summer budget and was thoroughly exhausted.
Not only was I tired, but by the end of the summer, I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten everything I wanted out of the break. I think I envisioned summer as long days by the lake, soft-serve ice cream cones at the farmers’ market and time for the kids to be together, without the distraction of playdates and appointments.
There were two things working against the slow summer model. The first was me. I may desire long stretches of uninterrupted time, but I also needed time to squeeze in a morning run or make an occasional (gasp!) solo jaunt to the supermarket. (I managed to slow down my work schedule over the summer, but I still needed a few hours a week to keep on top of things.)
The second thing working against me was the Seattle weather. With summer only showing its face in August, there were going to be no lazy lake afternoons. To get through June and July, I still needed my trusty list of rainy-day activities, and nothing brings on a mommy meltdown faster than a solid week of rainy-day activities.
So I did some planning, which is what you have to do if you intend to pull off slow parenting. As I learned from some of the slow parents around me, slow parent does not equal lazy parent. Slow parents think ahead, they map their days and weeks. They just do it without seeming to.
Structure your week
The first rule of thumb, therefore, for slow parenting over the summer is to find an arc to your week.
One friend, an avid cook, structures her week around local farmers’ markets, visiting two a week, making one trip a week to a far-off farm with her children. The week culminates in a meal they all have planned and cooked.
If cooking isn’t your thing, or if the thought of cooking with small children underfoot sends you running for a bottle of gin, the public libraries offer extensive free summer programming, including puppet shows, singers, plays and movies. You can easily plan your weeks around these, especially if you have small children.
As part of the Seattle Aquarium Beach Naturalist Program, experts appear at local beaches during low tides and talk about wildlife and answer questions. (The schedules for all of these usually come out in the spring, so you can plan ahead.) Many take advantage of Seafair week, making sure to hit all the free activities, such as Fleet Week and watching the Blue Angels take off from the Museum of Flight.
Some parents allot a day or two a week for adventure. A friend of mine and her two daughters open a city map, close their eyes and point. Wherever their finger lands is their destination and they have to build the day around it. Older children will be especially up to the challenge, and once the weather cooperates, just about any large, undiscovered patch of green on the map is fair game.
You can prepare a bucket list ahead of time, or an activity jar. Make a list of all the things you want to do and write each one on a separate piece of paper. Put all the pieces in a glass jar and choose one a day. Just be warned — you might need a rainy-day jar as well. (Also great for rainy days: AMF Bowling has free summer bowling for kids. Just sign up at the beginning of summer, and AMF will send you a weekly e-mail with your passes.)
The second rule of summer slow parenting is to pool your resources with your friends.
Find another family or two and take turns organizing the day (and by organizing I really mean picking the beach or playground), or just stick together for company. Yes, you want to spend countless unstructured hours with your children, but it’s always good to have adult company.
Pooling with other parents not only stops you from going insane; it also gives your kids an occasional break from each other, and brings new ideas into the mix. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want to make sure one of the other parents is the Snack Mom. The Snack Mom is always good to have along on a trip, so when you slip up and pull out last week’s bag of Pirate’s Booty as the only snack of the day, she can joyfully throw her well-stocked bag at your feet.
This may seem counterintuitive, but the third rule is to find a babysitter. Days together can be intense, and you can occasionally hire someone to sit through a puppet show or concert. This leaves you free for the less structured hours of the day to do something like hop a ferry and take a ride around Puget Sound.
Fourthly, if you can, choose a camp. Some parents let their kids choose a camp each, and the list of one-week specialty camps is endless. Truthfully, I’d tried many and the best ones I’ve found are the ones run by the city — the Mount Baker Rowing & Sailing Center is especially good. It also has the distinct advantage of being significantly cheaper. One friend of mine lets her children choose a camp or two each and then intentionally staggers them. That way, she can do age-appropriate activities with each kid. (She took her older kids to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, something she could never do with her preschooler in tow.)
Finally, I firmly believe that travel is the single best thing you can do with your kids — and by travel I mean any kind of travel, near or far.
Don’t abandon slow parenting on your summer trip. I see countless photos on Facebook of families at museums and old houses in which the parents are grinning through the pain of the experience and the children look like they’d rather be eating kale. Yes, it’s good to identify what you want to do or see, but it’s also great to plop down (or pitch a tent) in a new town and explore. Hit local supermarkets, bookstores and parks. In short, do all the things you’d do at home; just do them somewhere else. Vacation rental websites, not to mention the home exchange option, make this easier and more affordable than ever.
Your nerves may be tried at times, and you may be embarrassingly excited to hit the supermarket alone come September, but slowing the summer down allows you to truly experience the lazy days of summer and gives everyone a much needed break.
Lea Geller is a part time lawyer and full time mother of five. She lives in Seattle and blogs about her misadventures in parenting at This is the Corner We Pee In.