Jaci Conry discovers how 'slow parenting' can make family time more meaningful and enjoyable.
A couple of months ago, I was rushing through the grocery store with my preschooler and toddler. It hadn’t been an easy trip; they were whining and bickering, asking for every snack and sweet we passed. I had work deadlines on my mind, we were late for swimming class, and my phone kept buzzing with texts concerning an event I’d volunteered for.
When my daughter Emma started shrieking and trying to climb out of the cart because I wouldn’t give her a Frozen sandwich box, I almost started crying too. In the checkout line, the kids charmed an elderly woman. She touched my arm. “Enjoy this time,” she said wisely. “It goes by so quickly.” I smiled back, of course, but inside I was calculating the months until we’d be past this particular stage.
I felt differently that evening as I snuggled with my nearly five-year-old son, Max, before saying good night. “You are the best mummy,” he said as he buried his face in my chest. “I love you.” I took in the scent of his just-washed hair and tears sprang into my eyes. There would come a time, I suddenly realised, when Max would no longer want to snuggle with me. How did my baby get so big? I felt panicky at the thought that time was flying by so fast. I lay awake later that night wondering if there was anything my husband and I could do to slow down our lives.
When I started researching, I learned that in recent years, a movement known as “slow parenting” has evolved. Loosely, slow parenting means no more rushing around physically and metaphorically, no more racing kids from soccer to violin to art class. Slow parenting cherishes quality over quantity, being in the moment, and making meaningful connections with your family.
“Slowing down and connecting with each other is about being mindful of what you’re doing,” says Carrie Contey, co-founder of Slow Family Living, a series of classes, workshops, and talks that help families find ways to slow things down.
“These days when everyone is so busy, we need to be intentional about making space for family time. Like all of our other activities, we need to mark it on the calendar.” Family time, says Contey, is different for all of us. “You might say, ‘we’re all here on Thursday mornings, so let’s make a leisurely pancake breakfast’; or one night a week take a walk in the dark before bed. Something like that can feel really special and the kids will remember it as they get older.”
Contey, who has a doctorate in prenatal and perinatal psychology. is quick to point out that riding in the car between activities doesn’t count as family time.
While it can seem daunting to change the way we’ve been doing things, John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent, says it’s actually quite simple to start.
“I encourage parents to take some time to just watch their children, whether they are playing, doing homework, or eating a snack,” Duffy says. “Take a moment to drink them in. Remember and remind yourself how remarkable your children are. That pause alone, even if momentary, can drive a shift in the pace.”
For South Shore mother Lindsay Miller, the shift came around the time she read a blog post that discussed “stopping the glorification of being busy.”
“Doing too many things is overwhelming for me. It’s overwhelming for my kids. I don’t want to do it all. It leaves me empty versus feeling fulfilled,” says Miller, a doula and childbirth educator who has three boys, ages 2, 4, and 7.
“We don’t overschedule ourselves. My husband and I spend lots of time at home. My kids dig in the dirt and ride bikes, we blow bubbles and go to the beach. I don’t want to water down the simplicity of having young children.”
Miller likens raising her kids to riding a roller coaster 13 hours a day.
“I’m excited, nervous, laughing, anxious, holding on for dear life, and wondering what I got myself into . . . thinking: Oh my God I can’t do this,” she says. “Then at the end of the day, I think: Oh it wasn’t that bad. I can do it again.”
When Miller does find herself juggling too many commitments or stressed by the needs of her business, she works hard to bring her focus back to her family. “I try to keep things simple in my life for their sake. If I’m stressed in front of them, they pick up on it. They feel what I feel.”
After a bout with mononucleosis a year ago, Meghan Naujoks, a mother of three kids, ages four, six, and eight, made a conscious effort to slow down her family’s life. “I was just trying to get through the day, going from one thing to the next. I wasn’t enjoying it; we didn’t have enough down time.” Now she and her husband have a rule that each child is allowed to play only one sport per season and they always eat dinner together.
“I don’t want to spend all my time in the car or on the sidelines. I think it’s really important to set limits and force everyone to slow down,” says Naujoks. “I don’t feel bad canceling things if one of my kids seems worn out, or even if it just seems like we haven’t had enough time together.”
The family also has technology-free days and Naujoks herself takes “Facebook vacations,” or social media breaks. “I find that if I’m able to stop focusing on what other people are doing, I’m able to center myself and slow down.”
Unplugging from electronics and social media and heading outside is a great way to reconnect with your family, says David Elkind, a child psychologist and professor at Tufts University. “Life has gotten more demanding with technology. Get outside, smell the roses, look at the stars. Play ball in the yard or some other game. Kids can learn so much about people and themselves by simply playing games with their family.”
Parents, Contey points out, also reap benefits from getting out into the fresh air. “When you’re inside the house, it’s really tempting to hop on the computer or get involved in chores. When you’re out in nature, it’s an automatic reset that helps us click back into ourselves.”
“Kids grow up very quickly, each age has its different special qualities. But because we’re so busy, we don’t really have the chance to know our kids,” says Elkind, who recommends that parents of multiple kids carve out one-on-one time with each child. “So often we’re dealing with kids in groups. It’s important to really get to know your individual children.”
Doing too much can be draining on adults, but it can be debilitating for kids whose brains are still developing.
“In early development, kids are still wiring. They need to have moments of doing and moments of being for integration to happen,” says Contey. “If they don’t take space for integration that leads to meltdowns and overtiredness. Kids then think they’re not good at school or a certain sport, when that’s not the fact but the byproduct of being overdone.”
Yet as children get older and start being independent, they really want to do more things, an experience familiar to Stephanie Feronti, a Falmouth mum of a five-year-old and nine-year-old twins.
“It’s more challenging to rein in the activities as the kids have gotten older. They now have broad interests and there are just so many interesting options available to them,” says Feronti. “They are happy and involved when they are busy and would do more if we let them.”
Contey says to allow older children to sign up for what they want to do and see how it goes. After a month, if they seem exhausted cut out something.
Slow parenting is organic, it’s ever-evolving — the only essential is that families carve out time to connect.
“Find little rituals that feel good,” says Contey. “Some days the only way to connect might be to give each other high fives in the morning. But that can be a great way to say I love my family.”
Printed in the Boston Globe, 11 May, 2015