Slow Parenting

the idle parent

Slow parenting is a parenting style in which few activities are organized for children. Instead, they are allowed to explore the world at their own pace. It is a response to concerted cultivation and the widespread trend for parents to schedule activities and classes after school; to solve problems on behalf of the children, and to buy services from commercial suppliers rather than letting nature take its course.

The philosophy, part of the ‘Slow Movement,’ makes recommendations in play, toys, access to nature, watching television, and scheduled activities. The opposing view is that such children are disadvantaged because their parents do not provide as many learning opportunities.

Slow parenting aims for the goal of allowing children to be happy and satisfied with their own achievements, even though this may not make them the wealthiest or most famous. They suggest that children of other parents are unable to cope with the unpredictability of the real world, either expecting their helicopter parents to intervene, or complaining about unfairness. They may not even understand who they are themselves until much later in adulthood.

Play is a natural part of childhood, which allows young people to explore and discover at their own pace. Children invest much of their energy in playing, demonstrating their natural inclination and the evolutionary benefit. Children have a natural skill for playing and exploring in a way that is appropriate. Other mammals also play in developing their own skills in a realistic but less dangerous environment. However, formal learning is more beneficial from the age of six. Toys, technology, and an adult-imposed educational curriculum are not required, according to the philosophy.

Slow parenting does not advocate watching television. Television is not interactive; a person can watch it with little thinking and no action. It can occupy an enormous amount of time, and is very explicit. At the same time, it is often created by commercial interests with minimal investment in the program content and a maximum of advertising. The social aspects of television are widely discussed and often considered to be negative. Introducing children to television (including families watching it together) is a recommendation to continue this lifestyle, and a discouragement to any other play or activity. It is believed that television advertisements often encourage people further into consumerism by promoting expensive objects which are often unnecessary and ultimately unsatisfying (a satisfied customer may not need to make further purchases). The presentation of these to people who are tired or not concentrating is a further risk to their behavioral development. However, it is recognized that television is a convenient babysitter, and that some programs are enjoyable. Choices might include watching only ten year old pre-recorded video tapes, or watching broadcast television with children and giving a real-time commentary on the content and its message.

Support for after-school activities is often in terms of childcare to fill the hours between school and when parents return from work. Amongst those young people who end up with teenage pregnancies or taking drugs, delinquency peaks at around 4pm on school days. The benefit for children less at risk of such outcomes is less clear. Indeed, in her book ‘The Price of Privilege,’ Madeline Levine found that children of wealthy families, for whom organized after-school activities were commonplace, suffered more psychological dysfunctions, suggesting that such exposure may increase the risk of developing certain psychological disorders, though no investigations into childcare utilizing scientific methods have been made.

Cramming schools and private tutors push children to achieve higher academic results, for example in mathematics or literacy, than they would simply at school. Evidence has shown debatable success; the countries with the most successful schools start them when children are older, and spend fewer hours at school. Excluding other activities, and making children exhausted every evening, bears an often-forgotten cost. Even school homework is of questionable value, by comparison to the opportunity cost of missing out on other activities. Some classes are motivated by a culture of frequent examinations and performance-based school admissions. In the Japanese educational model, getting into the right high school or university depends on previous results, and studying until 9pm most nights may be seen by parents as the way to achieve it. Some schools formally evaluate the performance of children, even at primary age, putting the children under continuous competitive pressure.

All of these activities are directed by adults, and so children are again prevented from following their own path of discovery and development. These activities have three consequences, in addition to whatever direct benefit they may achieve: 1) The time spent in classes, and spent travelling to and from each venue (typically by car) cannot be used for other activities (Opportunity cost). They cannot play at their friends’ houses nor look for snails in the garden. 2) Adult-organized activities reduce the child’s opportunity for creativity and independence. 3) The financial cost of classes to parents is often non-trivial.

While most families have fewer children now than they would have 100 years ago, they invest more in the well-being of each child, and wish to protect that investment. This sometimes leads to parents stopping children from facing risks. Rather than let the child work out how to handle the risk, parents make the decision on their behalf. When they deem an activity to be at all risky, some parents withdraw the children completely. This attitude may also be enforced by law. Everyday life does contain risk. Slow parenting advocates would argue that in order to develop a healthy understanding of that, children must be allowed to face risks. Because many parents have themselves been raised in a risk-averse way, Slow Parenting advocates would maintain that they are often unable to judge which risks are significant. For example, ‘stranger danger,’ a cornerstone of child ‘safety,’ has been criticized for allegedly assuming that all strangers are dangerous, and by negative inference that all familiar people are safe. However, teaching that all familiar people are safe is not a necessary part of teaching that strangers may be dangerous and should be approached with caution.

An open letter by more than one hundred leading pediatricians, academics, and authors, published in ‘The Telegraph,’ highlighted how a fast-paced and consumerist lifestyle has emphasised the fear of physical harm and the subsequent emotional and social damage to children. The newspaper then invited responses from the public and received nearly 120 pro-slow parenting responses within days. These highlighted frequent assessment, political interference, junk food, television, compulsory schooling, distrust of teachers, and many other areas. Some suggested Forest schools (a type of outdoor education) and other adventure activities, while many proposed less political interference with schools. The Slow Parenting movement and set of ideals is obviously not without its set of zealous advocates among parents.

Spending time with children is always recommended for parents. The book ‘The Price of Privilege’ finds that eating dinner together as a family is an indicator of good psychological health. Tom Hodgkinson’s ideal scenario is to be near his children, although not too near. Parenting styles have always varied on a spectrum between too-much and too-little. Slow parenting in various forms might be described by many as too little. ‘Concerted Cultivation’ takes the currently more popular view that children should be managed and given adult-like experiences so that they learn leadership and social skills which will maintain any existing educational inequality and benefit them in adulthood. There are undoubtedly practical benefits to after-school activities such as learning hand-eye coordination in sports, or deportment and rhetoric in performing arts.

While presented by twenty-first century authors as a new concept in reaction to the over-protection of the 1990s, it reflects ancient concepts. The Chinese philosopher Laozi was one of many ancient intellectuals to describe ‘wu wei’; the effortless action of knowing when not to act, and achieving a result without making an effort. In 1762, the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau published a volume on education, ‘Emile: or, On Education.’ He proposed that early education should be derived less from books and more from a child’s interactions with the world. John Locke’s book ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ is a well known foundation for educational pedagogy from a more puritanical standpoint. Locke highlights the importance of experiences to a child’s development, and recommends developing their physical habits first. Of these, Rousseau is more consistent with slow parenting, and Locke is more against it.

In his book ‘Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper-parenting,’ Carl Honoré describes a measured and caring way of stepping back and letting our children face the world themselves. In a carefully considered (but still somewhat journalistic) essay, Honoré steps through the stages of adult intervention in childhood, arguing that many adults drive their children towards goals they have chosen but which are often not suitable. The freedom to play is repeatedly endorsed, with examples of how interfering in this often makes less effective use of their time, and damages their development. He highlights some particular educational techniques, such as the ‘Reggio Emilia’ approach and ‘Forest kindergartens,’ notably the Secret Garden in Scotland, where the mature attitude to risk is contrasted with the health-and-safety mentality that is more generally taken. Within school, testing and homework are singled out for criticism, while after-school activities are shown to take time away from more enjoyable times. Even sports, which are basically enjoyable and healthy, become detrimental when adults impose their focus on winning.

‘The Idle Parent’ by Tom Hodgkinson in 2009 is a relaxed and entertaining alternative to over-parenting. The central premise is that children can take care of themselves most of the time, and that the parents would be happier if they spent more time taking care of themselves too. Hodgkinson’s idle parenting ‘does not refer to slobbing out or giving up, but rather to letting go, going with the flow, a wise and merry detachment. It is, in Alduous Huxley’s phrase, an ‘active resignation.” Hodgkinson rebels both against the government in providing a rigid and rather soul-destroying school education system, and against the wage slavery of working long hours for money that is then wasted when ‘tired from overwork, you collapse in front of the television every night, exhaused and susceptible to suggestion.’

Alongside the jests about how much children like to work, and so should be returned to Victorian workhouses, are valuable points about letting children try to make their own breakfast (while the parents sleep), or camping in a field instead of going to an ‘antiseptic children’s fun palace.’ ‘The Idle Parent’ constantly moderates its zeal, for example in how completely to ban the use of television, against the excess of the Puritans. Hodgkinson also moderates many of his proposals by observing that he didn’t follow his own advice. He bought an in-car DVD player, and drove his children to a theme park that everyone found unsatisfactory. His son plays on the computer all the time, and he himself watches ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Sopranos’ on TV.

American journalist Lenore Skenazy writes about the problems of overparenting with a particular emphasis on risk, but also the unnecessary extra cramming classes. Her book, ‘Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had without Going Nuts with Worry’ and her related website describe the horrors of mainstream schooling, parenting, and organized activities, highlighting the unnecessary protection from risk that limits children’s opportunity to mature properly into independent adults, and the unnecessary training, even in using flash cards for preschoolers, thereby limiting their opportunity to have fun or do their own thing. Despite its apparent similarities to the slow parenting movement, Skenazy’s approach differs greatly in that she does not advocate prohibiting structured activities, electronics, or television viewing. Rather, her style of parenting is simply a modern take on the way it was done in generations past. The same sentiments are expressed by Muffy Mead-Ferro in her 2004 book, ‘Confessions of a Slacker Mom,’ wherein she explains that children develop more independence if left to fend for themselves more, while mothers can also take some time to do what they want.

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