Thursday, December 1, 2011

What is Slow-Parenting?

GDS Lower School Head, Marianna Davis, forwarded me this April 8, 2009 blog from Lisa Belkin with The New York Times. Belkin's blog is called Motherlode. Both Marianna and I find much to be admired in the notion of Slow-Parenting and hope readers will find it thought provoking. The blog is reprinted here in its entirety.

What is Slow-Parenting?


A running theme on Motherlode is that life simply goes by too fast. Carl HonorĂ© thinks he has the solution. He is the author of “The Power of Slow: Finding Balance and Fulfillment Beyond the Cult of Speed,” and, more recently, “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting,” which is being re-released in paperback in the United States today.

Together the books have become a bible of sorts for those who are part of what has been dubbed the “Slow Parenting” movement, although, as HonorĂ© will tell you in a moment (patience, patience), that is not his term.

He and I talked by email — HonorĂ© home in London, me home in New York. The conversation, fittingly, meandered over several days. My questions and his answers were these:

LB: What is slow parenting?

CH: You know, the funny thing is that I don’t use the term “slow parenting” anywhere in Under Pressure. I felt it didn’t communicate all of the complexities and nuances of modern child rearing. It seems to me that today we are speeding up children too much in some ways (academic hot-housing, for example) while slowing them down too much in other ways (not letting them walk to school alone until they’re, um, 23).

That said, the phrase “slow parenting” has gained currency — and so I’m happy to use it.

I take it to mean “slow” in its broadest sense. My first book, “In Praise of Slowness,” examines how the world got stuck in fast-forward and chronicles a global trend towards putting on the brakes. That trend is called the Slow movement.

“Slow” in this context does not mean doing everything at a snail’s pace. It means doing everything at the right speed. That implies quality over quantity; real and meaningful human connections; being present and in the moment.

To me, Slow parenting is about bringing balance into the home. Children need to strive and struggle and stretch themselves, but that does not mean childhood should be a race. Slow parents give their children plenty of time and space to explore the world on their own terms. They keep the family schedule under control so that everyone has enough downtime to rest, reflect and just hang out together. They accept that bending over backwards to give children the best of everything may not always be the best policy. Slow parenting means allowing our children to work out who they are rather than what we want them to be.

Slow parents understand that child rearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product-development. It is not a project; it’s a journey. Slow parenting is about giving kids lots of love and attention with no conditions attached.

LB: How did we get this off track in the first place?

CH: We have stumbled into a unique moment in the history of childhood where we feel immense pressure to give our children the best of everything and make them the best at everything – to give them a “perfect” childhood.

We got here because a number of trends have converged at the same time to produce a cultural perfect storm. The rise of globalization has brought more competition and uncertainty to the workplace – which makes us more anxious about equipping our kids for adult life. The consumer culture has reached a kind of apotheosis in recent years and the net effect is to create a culture of soaring expectations: we now want perfect teeth, perfect hair, a perfect body, perfect vacations, a perfect home – and perfect children to round off the portrait.

Demographics have also changed in ways never seen before in history. Smaller families mean we have more time and money to lavish on each child. Parents are more anxious because small families give them less experience of parenting and put their genetic eggs in fewer baskets. Women are having babies much older than ever before, and that can add another layer of worry. If your first pregnancy comes at 38 or 39, then you may well have spent long years fretting over and planning for the child. And if something goes wrong you may not be able to have another one to make up for it. So there is a built-in anxiety from the start.

Parents of both genders are having kids older, or after many years in the workplace. As a result, we end up importing the office ethos into the home. We think, “Well, how can we parent better? Why don’t we do what we do at work when we want to improve our performance: bring in the experts, spend lots of money and put in long hard hours – we will professionalize parenting.”

The bottom line is that parents in this generation have lost their confidence. That makes us easy prey for companies hawking unnecessary tools for child rearing (helmets to protect two-year-olds from toddling injuries, anyone?). And very vulnerable to pressure from other parents (“What, you mean your child doesn’t have a tutor?!?”).

LB: Is the recession a possible reason for parents to slow down?

CH: The recession could play out in two ways.

It could cause parents to push their children even harder in the belief that the world has become still more competitive and if they fail to conquer Mandarin by their fourth birthday they can forget about going to college.

But I prefer the optimistic view, which is that this recession will force us all to rethink every aspect of our society – from the way we run the financial system to the way we consume to the way we raise our children.

When there is less money around, then signing up for every single extracurricular activity suddenly seems like a less attractive option. In these belt-tightening times, and after a period of wild and reckless spending, maybe people will start to rediscover the simple pleasures in life. For families, that means spending time together that does not revolve around buying stuff, following a schedule or building the perfect resume.

This transition will be hard because we are all so marinated in the idea that we have to push, polish and protect our kids with superhuman zeal. That we have to strain every sinew in our bodies, and stretch every dollar we earn to the breaking point, to give them the best of everything and make them the best at everything. But with time I think many parents will feel relieved that they have been liberated from the tyranny of supplying the perfect childhood.

Here in London where I live, one father I know lost his job in banking. The result was his two highly-scheduled children got yanked from most of their extracurricular activities. For several weeks he felt like a failure but last Sunday he woke up and realized that the family had a completely free day stretching out before them (instead of the usual manic dash to take the kids to multiple activities) – and he actually felt good about it. “I exhaled and it was like I was letting out a breath that I’d been holding for years,” he told me.