Family Matters

‘Slow Parenting’: Why a Mom Is ‘Fed Up with Frenzy’

In a new book, "slow parent" Susan Sachs Lipman pushes back against the highly scheduled, jam-packed lives of parents and kids

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For parents, familiar is the feeling of exhaustion that accompanies a day filled with work (for you) and school and play (for your kids). There are meals to be made, teeth to be brushed, backpacks to be assembled, permission slips to be signed, car-pool arrangements to be finalized — and that’s all often before 8 a.m.

No wonder that a considerable amount of ink has been spilled parsing why we have kids when they’re so much work and, in the words of a 2010 New York magazine headline, “All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting.”

Susan Sachs Lipman remembers having the same sort of not-so-joyous experience when her daughter, Anna, now 16, transitioned from preschool to elementary school. “Suddenly our lives felt hectic and less enjoyable than I thought it should be,” says Lipman, who serves as social-media director for the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit organization devoted to getting kids’ hands dirty.

Dropping Anna off at school was the last straw, Lipman says. There were signs that said, “Drop, Don’t Stop,” and other parents sometimes honked when lines got too long. “Something about the drop-off curb served as an epiphany,” says Lipman. She decided to park her car and walk her daughter to school. “I thought if I can slow one part of our day and have a calm transition, maybe it will help us calm other parts of our lives.”

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Lipman continues to muse about channeling tranquillity in her new book released earlier this month, Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World. You’ve heard of the Slow Food movement that advocates long, leisurely meals meant to be savored and enjoyed. Slow parenting is just like that, simply substituting children for entrées. Lipman writes:

I yearned for a life filled with creativity and play; true connection with my family, my community, and myself; and enjoyment of small observations and moments that come 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.

Lipman gives parents dozens of ideas for slowing down their family life in chapters entitled “Slow Kitchen” (she suggests making homemade butter with kids, using heavy cream and a glass jar) and “Slow Games” (no iPhones here; think hand-clapping to “Say, Say, Oh, Playmate”). Here, she talks more about saying farewell to frenzy.

Do you have any advice on how to bow out of the rat race?
A lot of us have a lot of anxiety about our children’s futures. Will they get into a good college? Where will this activity they’re doing now lead? If you can just be present, that offers us greater joy and family connection.

Is this situation we find ourselves in today any different from how it’s always been?
Children have half the free time they did 30 years ago, so kids are busier. Half of Americans bring work home regularly, and working mothers spend 40% of their time multitasking. Things have changed, certainly since my childhood. A lot is because of technology. Technology is great. But there is something valuable about tearing away from technology, and I want to promote that. Checking out of some of the things we do — giving kids all those enriching activities, not checking e-mail all the time — has given my family a sense of freedom.

It can be hard to not get caught up in extracurriculars.
There is a lot of anxiety parents have around giving their child opportunities early. We don’t honor play and free time and family togetherness enough. Now we are hearing you don’t have to do all the enrichment activities at once, and not doing them will actually give your child a successful start; not doing them will give you the connection and joy you feel is lacking.

What you’re advocating is pretty revolutionary. Are we doing our kids a disservice by signing them up for so many activities?
In our very well-meaning attempts to give our kids the best and help them get ahead, we might not be doing what’s best for them. What’s best may be a slower pace, doing things at the developmentally appropriate time. We do a lot of things early now because we think we’re giving kids a head start, but especially in early childhood they need a lot of free time and free play and time to discover who they are and what they like to do.

My daughter did peewee soccer when she was 3 or 4. At 5 or 6, soccer required a few practices a week and there was some travel. I thought it seemed a little serious for that age child. She didn’t like soccer that much so we didn’t pursue it. On Saturday morning when the other kids were playing soccer, it left time to take hikes and play tag in the park and make clay beads in the kitchen — fun, low-key family stuff.

When she entered high school, she became a serious athlete and is now on three teams — water polo, lacrosse and the mountain-bike team. She was able to get involved in sports at a later age when it seemed more appropriate because it was of her choosing. And as a bonus, we got all that time when she was younger to really bond as a family.

Once one decides to slow down, then what? How do you fill your time? Or not?
We’re anxious and want to make the most of our time. You have to embrace downtime. It’s actually embracing another mind-set, that downtime is O.K. and even valuable. Also there’s something to doing wonderful activities that are simple and don’t require equipment, like how to show an outdoor movie. Every summer we set up an outdoor movie in our driveway, have the neighbors over and make some popcorn. It’s a little old-fashioned and takes us away from the everyday. Just string a sheet between two trees and show a movie. Or make boats from newspapers, an idea from Curious George Rides a Bike. Or play classic playground games like Kick the Can or Capture the Flag and Red Rover. A lot of kids don’t know how to play these anymore.

What is slow parenting in reality?
Sometimes people hear the word slow and they hear about all these activities, and they say, Hey, you’re not being slow. We’re not being slothlike, but it’s doing things at a pace that’s correct for you. Sometimes it’s about saying we need to be at a slow pace this weekend and part of that is saying no to obligations or birthday parties or volunteering. We want to do everything, but sometimes the price is too high for our family.

Isn’t a lot of what you espouse passé in a world where toddlers tap on tablets?
A lot of people have the desire to return to that world. I do social media for a living. I know when I do a lot of screen activity, I crave being outside in the natural world. People yearn to go back to simple, tactile, old-school activities. We started making jam when Anna was 3.

Jam seems like a good place to start. I’ve made it once before, but years have passed because we’ve been, well, busy. But over the weekend, my two older kids and I braved the tangles of thorny blackberry bushes that grow wild not far from our house. I have sugar, lemon and pectin, and I promised them we would try our hand at making our own jam. I can’t wait to see what slow parenting tastes like.

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