Go With The Slow

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Words: Fiona Cowood
Frazzled at the thought of the holidays? ‘Slow parenting’ is transforming the way some families are filling their summers.

When you think back to your summer holidays, what do you remember? For me, it was endless sunny days riding my bike around our suburban cul-de-sac, making potions in my mum’s mortar and pestle in the shady patch by the back door and unscrewing the stoppers on my big sisters’ rollerskates. Waterfights, improvised ‘shows’ with the kids on my street, daisy chains and tennis for one against the side of the house.

On rainy days, I’d find myself in my neighbour’s house, watching her brother’s VHS of Robocop over and over again. Or learning all the words to her cassette of Eternal Flame. One thing I don’t remember is having anything whatsoever to do with my parents.

Fast-forward 30 years, and I’m now a mother to two girls. With the school holidays fast approaching and Instagram urging me to ‘make memories’ with them, I can’t help but wonder what will be imprinted on their minds 30 years from now. Will it be the simple stuff of my childhood, or being bundled in the car to get to the intensive swimming course they’re booked on as soon as school breaks up?

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A recent study showed that during term time, children complete on average 46 hours of work per week (made up of school, clubs, homework, chores and reading) – that’s more than the average 37.5-hour working week of a British adult. And yet, despite this, when school holidays are on the horizon, an increasing number of us go all out to ensure our children’s free time is taken up with tennis/cricket/coding courses to keep them busy and stave off boredom.

But have we got it all wrong? Carl Honoré, author of best-selling book In Praise of Slow (carlhonore.com), certainly thinks so. He is an advocate of ‘slow parenting’, which he describes as an essential antidote to the over-scheduled, pressurised world children now grow up in.

Honoré explains: “We have turned childhood into a race to perfection. Children do not have enough time to play, think orexperiment on their own. We seem to have swallowed the idea that more is more: so if some stimulation, organisation and pressure is good, then more must be better.”

A slower summer is something that writer and mother Helen Fear is planning on with her twin daughters, Frida and Rae, six, this year. Previously, Helen ensured their weeks were packed with dance, gymnastics, swimming, drama and Rainbows. “But they would complain that they didn’t want to go,” recalls Helen. “I think because everyone else seems to push their kids to do so much, I felt like I had to. I thought they would enjoy it, that it would make them happy and stimulate them. But mostly they prefer being at home.”

Now her approach is very different. “In the holidays we do very little,” she explains. “I stick to walking to the park, feeding the ducks and going for ice cream. We may do a daytrip to the zoo…but they have holiday for a reason, and that’s to recharge. This summer, they will be going to a playscheme on the days I work, but I will keep all the other days free. When I try to do too much, I get stressed and fraught, and the girls do too.”

Like me, Helen remembers her simple summers and is keen for her daughters to experience the same. “I often tell myself how little I used to do as a kid,” she says. “I didn’t do any classes. I would be found with my nose in a book or practising my handwriting or playing with my only Lego set – and I turned out all right!”

It’s this willingness to let children be bored that seems to have slipped out of fashion among today’s parents, and yet according to Honoré, boredom is vital to a child’s development.

“People now are terrified of boredom,” he says. “It used to be that when kids were bored, parents would tell them to go and figure it out and it would be left to a kid’s resources. But now parents feel like they’re failing or their kids are failing if they’re bored, so they jump in to offer stimulation, to erase the boredom. But boredom can be really constructive – it can lead to bursts of creative thinking and invention. Kids can ‘fall through’ boredom to make up some entertainment for themselves, which is a great skill to have.”

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Danusia Atkinson is mum to Grace, five, and Arthur, three, and she runs mindfulness classes for kids in Sevenoaks, Kent (find her on Instagram @relax_kids_with_danusia). She takes the ‘slow’ approach with her children, though she admits it’s not always easy.

“For me, slow parenting means being present in the moment with my children and giving them the space to explore the world around them at their own pace,” she says. “But that’s not always easy – the distraction of work or smartphones is always there, and conversations can sometimes feel like waiting for your turn to speak rather than actually listening.” But she’s adamant that the benefits of keeping your phone out of arm’s reach and postponing all those things on your to-do list in favour of some slow, quality time are vast – for everyone.

“My own mental health and stress levels are improved by being mindful with my children – I genuinely enjoy being outdoors and active in a way I would never have thought possible,” explains Danusia. “As a parent, I have lost count of the times I have been told to ‘enjoy every moment’ – it’s a really hard thing to hear when you aren’t getting any sleep or your toddler is having a tantrum! For me, it tended to trigger feelings of guilt – should I be enjoying this more? What else should I be doing with my children before I lose them forever?! I have found that slowing down helps me manage that panic of enjoying every moment! It’s frankly impossible to enjoy every moment, but spending even just a small time trying to be in the moment can really help you notice how funny your child is, or some odd habit that they have – the things you will remember when they are older.”

There’s no doubt that in a culture where it’s possible to see what everyone else’s families are up to (thanks Instagram), doing less or *whispers* nothing can feel like radical rule-breaking. Aren’t we all supposed to be dreaming bigger, leaning in, achieving more? Well, perhaps not. I’m taking this research as my passport to do less. We’ll stick with the swimming – it’s a life skill, right? – but the rest can sink to the bottom. No time limits, no hot carseats, no shouting “shoes on” for the fifth time in a single day.

Carl Honoré agrees: “Kids are not products or projects. They are people. And they stand a better chance of thriving in every way if given the time, space and freedom to drive their own lives rather than just ride along like a passenger in the back seat.”

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Resist the urge to accept every invitation or fill every day. One activity per day is plenty – perhaps even too much!

Embrace boredom. Don’t save your children from the b-word. Instead, encourage them to find their own solution – and guess what? That way you get a break too!

Listen to them. If they don’t want to do an activity, why are you making them? Imagine if you were being made to do something you don’t enjoy in your holidays!

Try some slow activities like gardening and baking – impossible to rush.

Once your child is entertaining him/herself, don’t interrupt their flow.

Take a walk in the woods. Lift up logs and look at what’s hiding underneath. Talk about the colours and noises you can hear.

Model being slow – let them see you read a book, drink a cup of tea or simply stare into space. Silence and time don’t have to be filled.

Photographs: Emma Donnelly
Charlotte Huguet
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