We all want the best for our children. We want them to be well liked, to be caring, fit and sporty; to do well in school and explore their musical and artistic talents. We want them to be firmly attached to family yet stand confidently on their own two feet. We want to offer them any and every opportunity we might not have had. We want them to dream big and realise their potential. The more we give them, the bigger they can grow — this is unarguable.
Or is it? Could our undivided and loving attention be backfiring? According to many experts (and wise parents and grandparents), when it comes to child-rearing, loving more might mean loving lighter … and slower.
For Carl Honoré, the wakeup call came after a parent-teacher evening for his seven-year-old son. The feedback was good, particularly from the art teacher. “He stands out in the class,” she gushed. “Your son is a gifted young artist.”
That night, Carl trawled through Google hunting down art courses. If his son truly was gifted with a capital G, it would be a travesty not to nurture it. Visions of raising the next Picasso swam through his mind — until the next morning.
“I don’t want a tutor; I just want to draw,” his son declared at the breakfast table. “Why do grownups always have to take over everything?” The question stung Carl like a belt on the backside. He realised his son was right. It wasn’t enough for him just to enjoy his art. He had wanted to harness that happiness, to hone and polish his son’s talent, turn his art into an achievement and, in doing so, likely kill the enjoyment of it.
The event precipitated Honoré into a thorough re-examination of not just how we parent but how we live our lives. He is now a leading proponent of what has become known as the “slow movement” and bestselling author of In Praise of Slow, Under Pressure and The Slow Fix.
“Over the last generation, adults have hijacked childhood like never before,” Honoré says. “Parents feel pressure to push, polish and protect their children with superhuman zeal, to make sure they have the best of everything and are the best at everything. Think baby yoga; the latest iPod; schedules jammed with ballet, soccer, pottery, yoga, tennis, hockey, piano, judo.
“Whether you call this hyper-parenting or helicopter parenting, when adults take over, kids miss out on the things that give texture, meaning and joy to a human life: the small adventures, the secret journeys, the setbacks and mishaps, the glorious anarchy, the moments of solitude and even of boredom.”
The social agenda
According to London-based Honoré, parents are just part of the problem. Outside the home, everyone from the government to the advertising industry is trying to bend childhood to fit its own agenda.
“A task force of British parliamentarians recently warned that too many children dream of growing up to be fairy princesses or soccer stars. Their solution: career advice for five-year-olds. Today, more children than ever before are prescribed drugs like Ritalin to control their mood and behaviour. Isn’t medication the ultimate form of adult intervention?”
Honoré’s recent trip to Australia to speak at the Young Minds conference was in service to his message that children need less “doing” and more “being” if they are to grow into whole-hearted adults.
“Speed is selfish. When we get caught in a roadrunner lifestyle and turn childhood into a race to perfection, it pushes connections with other people to the wayside. They miss out on the simple, slow pressures of friendship. They think the world revolves around them. This won’t teach them altruism.
“All of this rushing around from one organised activity to the next, from one electronic distraction to the next, is crowding out the time when children can play. And I’m talking about free play when kids let their imagination go and disappear into a game.
“That kind of play is crucial for brain development. It teaches children social skills and fosters creativity. It also gives them the time and space to look into themselves and work out who they are rather than what we want them to be. Free play is nature’s way of knocking young brains into shape. It is what children are programmed to do — and they need time to do it.”
Put on the brakes
Much to the shock of their friends, Carl and his wife put the brakes on the family’s packed-out schedule, paring back extracurricular activities, instigating screen-free time and refusing invitations.
Walking the talk is a daily practice for the family, he says: “Just like an alcoholic, for the recovering hyper-parent the temptation is always there to do too much, especially in London. We have to be rigorous and ruthless. We’ll sit at the table with the kids and consciously decide if we really want to go to three birthday parties that weekend or not. It’s profoundly counter-cultural to break ranks with the busyness, even if you can feel in your bones this is right.”
The slow parenting movement started, well, slowly, with online Forums and websites as well as local “playbourhoods” of parents gathering for a morning coffee while the kids played freely together.
The movement has spread worldwide, gaining support from local authorities. To give overscheduled children a breather, some towns across North America now hold special days when all extracurricular activities are cancelled. To give youth sports back to the young, leagues are shifting the emphasis away from winning at all costs to learning and enjoying the game. One peewee hockey team in Toronto, Canada, stopped tracking personal statistics and ensured that every child got the same ice-time, regardless of ability. The result: the boys fell back in love with hockey, burnished their skills and won nearly 20 tournaments in three years.
While “slowing down” childhood is primarily a parent’s prerogative, it can be harder for teachers.
Sydney-based primary school teacher Rachael Fisher found it stressful trying to meet the increasing demands of the school curriculum while knowing many of her students needed less, not more. Beginning her own mindfulness practice about eight years ago, Fisher found that as she cultivated the skills of kind presence and care within herself, she was able to easily adapt these techniques to everyday classroom routines. The whole tone of her classroom began to change.
In 2010, Fisher launched KindKids Project, a program that teaches tools such as mindfulness training and loving-kindness practices to school students, teachers and parents.
“In our fast-paced age of increasing demands, we need to offer children ways to slow down and benefit from stillness and silence,” she says. “Mindfulness is like a boat that can help them travel from the shore of anxiety and anger to the shore of wellbeing and understanding.”
The KindKids methodology explains how the current school curriculum and our world culture are focused on cultivating two of the three main systems in the human brain: the “motivation” system (working towards goals and incentives) and the “protection” system (such as anti-bullying or road safety). Mindfulness brings balance to children by offering practices to nurture and cultivate the third system in the brain called the “soothing” system, responsible for safety, acceptance and care.
“One of the starting points in the program is for each child to discover their ‘soft spot’: a still, quiet place within,” says Fisher. “They may imagine themselves under a favourite tree or with their beloved animal friend. This tender place becomes an anchor [point] a child can connect to anytime.
“Young children especially love a breathing activity called ‘rocking your toy to sleep’ — this teaches them how to be still [and] tune into the rhythm of their own breath while feeling the gentle rise and fall of a soft toy resting on their abdomen.”
Another way of cultivating kindness and care for others is addressed in the “heart science” component of the program.
“Ancient traditions have always recognised the heart as the true brain and modern science is rapidly catching up to this understanding as it uncovers how much more information the heart is communicating to the brain than the brain is to the heart,” Fisher says.
“The heart is something children can easily tune into. It’s a way of bringing them back to that ‘grandmother wisdom’ of listening to the heart and being grateful.
“The children are excited to attend classes. One 12-year-old told me it was the most relaxed she had ever felt and an eight-year-old said that he could feel all of his problems flowing out of him.”
According to Fisher, the 10-week KindKids school program demonstrates that children can learn how to slow down and care for their minds, bodies and feelings by practising simple mindfulness techniques for a few minutes every day.
“When children begin to know themselves they have the possibility to realise their potential, the courage to express themselves authentically and to be choice makers; the ability to respond to life’s challenges rather than just reacting or ‘trying hard’. Helping children make healthy choices is one of our most challenging jobs and one of our most profound opportunities.”
It is an opportunity made all the more powerful when teachers and parents role-model the kind of presence Fisher aims to instil in the children.
“How parents and teachers take care of themselves, and the type of attention they offer the children in their care, is precisely what raising kind kids is about,” says Fisher. “As parents and educators begin to familiarise and befriend their own inner world, to practice kindness, they are more able to greet with kindness and wisdom the flurry of happenings within our children, the challenges and the conflicts.
“As we practise mindfulness we can look with more kindness versus reactivity and judgement; we can listen with more calm and be ‘choiceful’ in our responses; we can speak with more soft strength; we can sit and stand with more dignity of stillness and inner peace.”
It took some self-control for Carl to express unattached pleasure rather than punch the air with a “Told you so!” when his son announced that he planned to join the school sketching club.
“It was his decision, and should remain that way,” says Honoré. “Let’s just hope I remember that lesson when it comes time to organising his first exhibition!”
Three daily practices for cultivating self-care, calm & kindness
- Start the day well. How we begin our day often sets the tone for the rest of the day. Instead of just wishing each other a good day, take three deep breaths together before walking out the door.
- Best thing today. When you put your child to bed, ask them to share the best moment of their day. Make this a daily practice of gratitude.
- Let your children know that you value their empathy. When a child does something thoughtful for a pet or another child, comment on his/her thoughtfulness or understanding.
Courtesy: Rachael Fisher
Three ways to slow-parent
- Experiment with reading no parenting manuals and websites for a week.
- When at a playground, resist the temptation to jump in and co-play at every turn. Back off so your child can play on their own or with other children.
- Schedule a few hours each week that are free of structured activity when the family can rest, chat, play games, cook together — whatever takes your fancy when the moment arrives. Let your children tell you how school went today, rather than demanding a full debrief the moment they step through the door.
Courtesy: Carl Honoré
Claire Dunn is a freelance journalist and writer based in the Hunter Valley of NSW, Australia and author of My Year Without Matches, a memoir about a year lived in the wild.