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At soccer games and birthday parties, in school hallways and other places parents congregate, our conversations are often the same: many of us feel that we are running around and doing more together than ever, yet somehow enjoying our family time less. We often find ourselves isolated, distracted, plugged into electronic devices, performing chores, driving, and multitasking—and our family lives tend to reflect that. Chaos, rather than calm, is the norm.
A decade ago, when my daughter, Anna, entered elementary school, I distinctly realized that something wasn’t right. Our lives, and the lives of many families around us, were off balance. Parents seemed frazzled and hurried, spending more time transporting our children and dropping them off than actually playing or even being with them. Our children seemed to do specific, monitored, often goal-oriented activities instead of playing freely. There were arranged playdates, lessons, and sports practices; yet despite all the organizing and hovering, many of us went about the task of parenting relatively alone and unfulfilled.
I yearned for a life filled with creativity and play; true connection with my family, my community, and myself; and an enjoyment of small observations and moments that comes from slowing down enough to notice them. I wasn’t experiencing those types of connections and moments because I was too busy planning, scheduling, and driving. I was too busy with the future to notice the present, too busy with the calendar and the to-do list to stop and chat in the market or between activities. And, frankly, others seemed quite busy, too. I began to wonder just what the rush was, and whether slowing down might help me and my family become more connected and calm.
My family had experienced some of the connection and community I sought during Anna’s preschool years—so much so that the pace and expectations of elementary school life seemed jarring. It was as if the ground beneath us had transformed from a meandering, woodsy path into a rapidly moving walkway. We suddenly struggled to keep up.
Anna’s preschool, Kumara School, had emphasized process over product. For the most part, the children directed their own play, in nature and with art materials that were simple and often natural or recycled. Anna spent about a year being fascinated with adhesive tape—pulling, cutting, and laying it down on paper, creating cardboard box-and-tube cameras and “candy machines.” She didn’t seem to need or want anything more expensive, complicated, or “educational” than that. I’ve found that this and similar observations often occur when we slow down, adjust our ideas about what is normal or expected, and let our children and our own instincts guide us.
Even with a small child, society sometimes informed us that we’d better hurry and get on a schedule, or else she would be left behind, from kindergarten on up to college. We had visited other preschools in which kids sat on specific cushions and learned the letters of the alphabet, in order to get ready for kindergarten. I instinctively felt that Anna would learn best by playing and that traditional academics could wait. I was well on my way to entering a slower parenting style that didn’t adhere to schedules of education and child development, which had sped up dramatically since my own childhood.
As a young family with a preschool child, we had time to garden, visit farms, make jam, create art, and celebrate the seasons. With Anna’s school community, we welcomed each summer and winter solstice and many holidays with songs, stories, rituals, and food, much the way people have been bearing witness to the changing seasons and honoring life’s mysteries for thousands of years. We connected with a burgeoning group called Sustainable Mill Valley that was championing better use of resources, local food, and other goods; stewardship of our beautiful land and town; and community gathering and bartering. We had friends of many generations, professions, backgrounds, and beliefs.
And then something changed. With elementary school, we entered a world that seemed frenzied and heavily scheduled. Parents appeared to be models of efficiency, whipping out day planners to plan their kids’ playdates, carving time from busy schedules for the many child-centered appointments, activities, and meetings. Although I knew Anna couldn’t stay a preschooler forever, I missed the ease, fun, and organic community that that period of her life had offered our family and wondered whether this new way was the sole alternative.
My feelings of unease mounted one morning as I sat in my car near the school drop-off curb, engine running, waiting my turn to deposit Anna at school. Other parents inched up, one per car, in the chaos of traffic—some honking, some cutting in aggressively, some visibly upset. Passenger car doors opened and slammed shut. A volunteer parent hustled children out of their cars and onto the sidewalk. The youngest children, who appeared dwarfed by their brightly colored backpacks, wound their way into the school in a sort of daze.
This ritual is a necessary feature at suburban schools across America that offers busy parents the opportunity to let their children out of their cars without having to park, leave the driver’s seat, or turn off the ignition. The drop-off, and the pickup at day’s end, are designed for maximum efficiency. Signs tell us, “Drop, Don’t Stop.”
The abrupt transition didn’t feel right to me. I decided that, even though I was a busy working and volunteering parent, my schedule wasn’t so packed that I couldn’t find fifteen minutes to help my daughter (and, by extension, myself) make a more graceful transition to school. I started parking the car a few blocks from the school and walking in with her. We felt the change immediately. In those few minutes walking to and from school, we made observations and talked about the day. We enjoyed the smells of wild onions in the spring and wood-burning fireplaces in the winter and fall. We met people who lived in the neighborhood, and we greeted fellow parents and students as they poured through the school’s gates.
I believe that that small act profoundly changed our lives. As Anna became older, we walked longer distances, then she walked and biked to school by herself. There were still hurried mornings when I was grateful for the drop-off curb. But we also found community and created memories and joy by intentionally sidestepping frenzy, by choosing to slow one particular part of our day and routine to get something back that was incredibly full. To this day, the smell of the wild onions near the school will remind us of the fun we had walking that little bit and the lifelong friends we made during that special period.
A few years later, when Anna was in the fourth and fifth grades, her Girl Scout troop would meet down the street from her school at the conveniently located Scout Hall. This provided another opportunity for neighborhood walking, and the girls loved to walk the few safe blocks to the hall. It was wonderful for them to have fun together and get a little exercise and fresh air after school. Along the way, they marched, sang, and waved to shopkeepers and at passing drivers, who waved back. I saw the girls learn things about their town and neighbors, things that you can learn only when you slow your pace enough to allow for observation and connection, as well as for roots to form.
For some of the girls, scout meetings offered a rare opportunity to walk in their town. Yet parents invariably arrived at the school at meeting time, offering to drive everyone the few blocks to Scout Hall. They thought the meeting could start more quickly that way, that time would be used more efficiently. They could drop the girls off, run errands, and pick them up again at meeting’s end, and no one would have to walk. I protested: Walking was part of the meeting. It provided the girls with fun, relatively unstructured, and meaningful time together. Walking, as an activity, had value. In time, the other parents, especially those who walked with us, began to agree.
When well-meaning parents experience their days as a race against time, much is actually lost. Many of us want more connection and meaning in our families’ lives, but we remain too busy to even think about achieving those things. Nearly half of Americans bring work home with them regularly. Working mothers spend a whopping 40 percent of their waking hours multitasking. Children have roughly half the free time that they did thirty years ago.
And then there are a great number of us who are constantly plugged into electronics. How many times have you been somewhere and seen a whole family, each of whom is individually texting or playing a game on his or her own device? Perhaps you’ve wished your own family was more connected to one another and less to technology. Instead of freeing us, technology, for work and for pleasure, has created a culture in which many of us are afraid to unplug, for fear of missing something. It turns out that, instead, what we wind up missing is a life of family connection and joy.
Slowing down has offered me, my family, and the kindred spirits in my community the blessings of greater family memories and closeness, more enjoyment of lost arts and activities, and, more often than not, the kinds of happy and successful children that we had hoped to foster through our unintentional anxiety and over-scheduling.
The threads of encouraging free play; using resources wisely to help the planet and ourselves; getting better in touch with our food, land, and lives; reclaiming lost, tactile arts; and forming healthy communities and loving families have all woven loosely together into something called the Slow Movement. Many trace the Slow Movement’s origins to Italy and the Slow Food movement, which came about as a response to quickly prepared and consumed fast food. The Slow Cities movement, also from Italy, followed, to encourage thoughtful urban planning and use that is designed to get people walking, convening, enjoying local goods and services, and slowing down as a result. Today, there are designated slow cities all over the world. Carl Honoré wrote In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed. More books and slow groups followed. More people decided to try something different. And their ideas took on the force of a movement.
While exploring the slow life for my own family, I came across and learned from a community of authors and mentors. Those resources are included in the Resources section of the book.
The more I read, the more I talked to people who desired to take a similar path, and the more I tried to walk that path myself, the more my family experienced enhanced presence, community, spontaneity, play, and simply time together. By making choices to eliminate a couple of organized activities and commitments, we made time to take long family hikes, make televisions out of shoe boxes, and float origami boats down a local creek after the spring rains. By shifting away from the culture of hurriedness, we made time to open our lives to enhanced wonder, connection, and joy.
As Carl Honoré writes, the Slow Movement is not about crawling at a snail’s pace. Rather, it is about doing things at the right speed for you. It’s about choosing how to spend time and then savoring the moments, rather than rushing through them.
In the years since my family has slowed down, I’ve noticed a slight change in other families, too. Perhaps a critical mass of us also felt off balance. Perhaps many of us have even decided to say “Enough!” to super-parenting and consumerism and running around (I call it “racing to yoga”) and not being happy anyway. Perhaps you count yourself in this group.
Why Become a Slow Parent?
Many of us probably know instinctively that slowing down is good for our families and ourselves, and many experts affirm this. Here are a few specific benefits that come from slow parenting.
Slow Parenting Creates Successful Children
A whole host of positive character traits—resilience, optimism, confidence, empathy, and better performance in school—flourish when parents and children have time to be together and experience one another’s positive support and unconditional love. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, writes, “The most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare…children for success arise not from extracurricular or academic commitments but from a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling, and guidance.”
Slow Parenting Improves Physical and Psychological Health
Slowing down, for as brief a period as six minutes, can reduce stress for people of all ages. Activities like reading, listening to music, enjoying tea, and going for a walk significantly lower our heart rates and other stress indicators. Getting out in nature, something we often do when we slow our pace, has also been found to bring profound benefits to every aspect of children’s development—intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and physical. In addition, slow parents tend to make time to allow kids to run, jump, and play; to use their bodies to be active, to dance to music, to march to a beat, and to express the joy inherent in being alive.
Slow Parenting Allows Time for Beneficial Unstructured Play
It turns out that kids actually need free play and unscheduled time for their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Unstructured free play has been found to benefit creativity, problem solving, self-discipline, cooperation, flexibility, and self-awareness. Kids who have time to play are less stressed, less aggressive, and happier. Families who have time to play experience vital bonding.
Sometimes play is when we can most be ourselves. Unstructured play allows us get in touch with our imaginations and our inner worlds in a way we can’t during competitive sports or more passive leisure activities. Slow parents can foster their children’s play simply by making time for it and then choosing when to join in and, importantly, when to get out of the way.
“Play is where children show us the innermost experiences that they can’t or won’t talk about.”
—Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen, Playful Parenting
Slow Parenting Allows for Valuable Downtime
Dr. Ginsburg notes, “Some of the best interactions occur during downtime—just talking, preparing meals together, and working on a hobby or art project, playing sports together, or being fully immersed in child-centered play.” Time and again, we’ve noticed this, on family walks or sitting around the kitchen table stringing beads. Something happens when time is allowed to expand, when the family is no longer rushing. Interesting and deep conversations occur, and we feel a genuine closeness. In the very small moments, the world can seem marvelous, because we actually have a chance to notice this. Our children can reveal things because they are calm and relaxed. In our busy lives, we often miss out on downtime, both because we over-schedule our time and because we rush through everyday tasks and moments, like gardening, bathing a pet, or running errands, which could provide time to be together in a simple and unhurried way.
Slow Parenting Fosters Irreplaceable Connection and Learning
Although we may think that some of the best enrichment for our kids comes from educational videos and materials, research shows that children who watch DVDs, like Baby Einstein, actually learn fewer words and score lower on cognitive tests than do children who learn through human interaction, language, and play. Videos and other tools can also end up replacing vital parent-child bonding time. When we spend time holding our kids in our laps and reading to them, we’re doing more than transferring words. We’re transferring affection and the idea that they are important to us and that we value the time spent together. “There is no substitute for a parent’s attention and time,” says Dr. Rebekah A. Richert, who researched videos and word learning. The many hours my family spent reading together helped create an intense bond that lasts to this day, a bond due both to our physical closeness and to the wonderful books we all discovered together.
“There are no more valuable means of promoting success and happiness in children than the tried, trusted, and traditional methods of play and family togetherness.”
—Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg
Slow Parenting Allows Us to Be Fully Present
With a 2010 study reporting that the average American child spends an astonishing fifty-three hours per week plugged in to some form of electronic media, many of us rightfully worry about our children allotting too much time to electronics. But parents’ multitasking and media use can be just as extreme and disruptive to parent-child bonds.
“Today’s parents might not even realize how their divided attention plays out with kids,” says Dr. Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on Technology and Self and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less of Each Other. For children, she says, “shared attention can feel like no attention at all.” In more than three hundred interviews with children over five years, Dr. Turkle unearthed countless stories of children feeling neglected for media. Although she recognizes the pressure adults feel to make themselves constantly available for work and other communications, she believes that a greater force drives them to keep checking their screens.
I confess to finding the screen very compelling. When I volunteered in schools, and now that I rely on the Internet for work, there were and are always new emails to answer and fascinating things to see and read. For that reason, I refrain from checking my devices when I’m having family time. I try to be present and to “single task,” knowing that the electronics can wait and that my divided attention wouldn’t end up being satisfactory to anyone.
Slow Parenting Fosters Discovery and Wonder
Time is necessary for discovery, wonder, observation, imagination, and creativity to flourish. The psychologist Carl Jung wrote that we are all born creative. If we don’t use the creativity we’re given, our souls and spirits become deprived and unfulfilled. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Albert Einstein. It is extremely important and natural to young children especially. Rudolf Steiner, the philosopher whose work laid the groundwork for Waldorf schools, advocated that children be allowed to remain in the peaceful, dreamlike realm of the imagination for as long as possible. There’s time enough for the concrete, and there is a time when children’s brains are developmentally prepared for it. Slow parents can foster discovery and wonder by providing materials for art and pretend and nature play and then either guiding the projects as much as needed or getting out of the way and letting kids supervise their own play. We can foster these qualities by taking the time to observe and share, whether we’re walking in our neighborhoods, playing in nature, or performing chores.
“By simplifying, we protect the environment for childhood’s slow, essential unfolding of self.”
—Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
—Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
Slow Parenting Creates Family Memories
The warmest and most potent family memories often come from moments that seem small at the time. Small gestures and jokes that arise during shared activity, downtime, and play can have a way of becoming repeated family sayings and microrituals, which add to life’s texture and enter the family memory bank.
One memorable time, out of the many sessions we had engaging in one of our favorite hobbies, making jam, we were crushing berries in a food processor when one lone berry ended up on top of the unit, plump, uncrushed, and seemingly looking down at the rest. Anna, who was three years old, said, “That berry looks like he’s saying, ‘OK, every berry. I’m going to say who gets made up into jam.’” We laughed that she had created a sort of boss of the berries. I wrote the saying down on a piece of paper that went up on the refrigerator, and the saying became one of our gentle family traditions—to this day, when we’re gathering to go somewhere, we are likely to call out, “OK, every berry.”
Slow Parenting Helps Create and Pass On Beloved Family Traditions
Many traditions arise from a combination of intention and awareness, two qualities that slow parenting fosters. My friend Cynthia has a tablecloth onto which she has guests write their names after special gatherings. She then embroiders over the writing so that the tablecloth has the memories of multiple generations and gatherings literally stitched into it. When I use the soup ladle given to me by my childhood friend Sandy, which was her own mother’s, it triggers an opportunity to tell Anna stories about our families and the times when we were growing up.
Slow Families Experience Purpose and Connection
Slow families tend to enjoy a greater sense of purpose, as well as a better connection to nature, the seasons, their neighborhoods, and the daily rhythms of life. They often practice enhanced routines and gratitude, which in turn helps children feel secure and helps parents respond to their children’s needs with grace.
“Once you understand the importance of creating rhythm in the life of the child, and then provide appropriate opportunities for his or her creative play and imaginative and artistic development, you’ll find that your child is much happier and easier to live with. And nurturing children in this way also nurtures the caregiver.”
—Rahima Baldwin Dancy, You Are Your Child’s First Teacher
Making time to enjoy meals together is a hallmark of slow families. Dining as a family at least five times a week is associated with lower rates of teen smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use. Children from families with predictable routines report greater satisfaction with family life and even perform better in school. If our family is any indication, the meals certainly need not be anything special—the special part is that we share them.
Spending time in nature together can also be quite powerful for families. And that doesn’t mean you have to pack up and travel to a national park—the nearby nature of a backyard, city park, school playground, or a balcony with growing flowers can provide the same benefits as a wild space. My family and I nearly always feel the incredibly calming and bonding effects of nature. Nature works like magic to allow people of all ages to get in touch with the wonder of the world and their own inner compasses. And that, coupled with the downtime that nature provides, tends to allow us to connect more deeply to one another. In addition, nature and gardening have provided my family with many memories, from the marigolds and lamb’s ears that Anna planted when she was small to the flowers we gathered to make May Day crowns, the games of Tag we played in the park, and the naps we took under canopies of stars.
Getting Started on the Road to Slow
Perhaps you’ve already experienced a lack of balance and fulfillment in your parenting and in your life but have been unsure how to approach it, or have felt unsupported by partners, friends, work, schools, or the culture at large. Perhaps you’ve shared my nagging feeling that something is “off.”
Most of us entered our roles as parents with dreams and desires for memorable experiences with our children. Many of us yearn to slow down and have more family time to enjoy simple pleasures like skipping stones, making fresh strawberry jam, blowing bubbles, singing campfire songs, or gazing at the stars. Often we’re not sure where to start or how to do some of these activities. And of course, our children don’t know how either.
In an attempt to slow our family down, I tried many fun pastimes with my family and with scout and youth groups, and in this book I have compiled our favorites. You’ll find tons of ideas and instructions that will allow you to slow down; be more present as a parent; improve your connection with your children; and enjoy more of your family, friends, and time. My hope is that the activities in Fed Up with Frenzy will help your family regain a sense of connection, joy, and playfulness—and perhaps even discover or rediscover games or crafts from your own or your parents’ childhoods.
Using This Book
The activities in Fed Up with Frenzy cover a wide range of skills, ages, and moods. Sometimes you will want to complete an activity relatively quickly with man-made materials (slow family or not) and sometimes you’ll want to do an activity that calls for a more sustained effort, in which everything is lovingly created from scratch. Sometimes you will want to plan a community-wide event far in advance, and sometimes you will desire something quiet or spontaneous. Please feel free to follow activity directions to the letter, or to use the ideas as jumping-off points. What matters is that you enjoy the act of doing something together that feeds your family members’ souls.
Perhaps you’ll simply be facing a rare moment of down-time—a rainy day or a school vacation or a slumber party or an afternoon in the backyard or on the living-room floor—and think, “Now what? What activity can I do that is fun and maybe a little unusual, meaningful, or bonding?”
Fed Up with Frenzy is designed to help you exchange the tyranny of time not just for productivity or even serenity, but also for deeper meaning and connection with your children and your own parenting. I firmly believe that the time my husband, Michael, and I spent with our daughter when she was young—putting on puppet shows, baking pies, walking in the woods or the neighborhood, reading to one another each night—truly paid off when she became an older child and then a teenager. The habits that led to closeness were deeply ingrained. Our shared family memories and small moments had served as a powerful bonding agent. Fed Up with Frenzy is full of simple, affordable, and delightful activities and tactics to help you be more present with your own children and experience more joy and wonder as you trade a lifestyle of frenzy for fun.
I hope you’ll stay in touch and let me know what you think of this book and what worked for you and your family. You can find me through my blog, Slow Family Online, at www.slowfamilyonline.com.