Maybe it’s because my generation’s parenting culture can be a bit obsessive, but there have been a spate of recent books with the message for parents to just chill out. They tend to be in line with the Slow Christmas ethos, arguing that our stuff addiction is part of the problem. Some link the preponderance of attention disorders to the overwhelming amount of choices that children are facing right now. All of them have in common a call for sanity. Now, I wouldn’t recommend buying one of these books for your most over-achieving parent friends for Christmas, because that would be passive aggressive. But if you’re looking for some sane, Slow Christmas-style parenting advice, these authors are a great place to start.
Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, by Jim John Payne, M.Ed. with Lisa M. Ross
In this book, Kim John Payne, a therapist and educator by training, recounts the threat to healthy childhood posed by too much information, too much speed, too much stuff, and too little calming rhythm and routine. His central thesis: “Our society — with its pressures of “too much” — is waging an undeclared war on childhood.” There’s a lot about the book that resonates with the Slow Christmas mission to spend less money and spend more time. On slowing down:
If, as a society, we are embracing speed, it is partially because we are swimming in anxiety. Fed this concern and that worry, we’re running as fast as we can to avoid problems and sidestep danger. We address parenting with the same anxious gaze, rushing from this “enrichment opportunity” to that, sensing hidden germs and new hazards, all while doing our level best to provide our children with every advantage now known or soon to be invented. This book is not about hidden dangers, quick fixes, or limited-time opportunities; it is about the long haul. The big picture: a reverence for childhood.
The book is not just a screed against modern society; there are some great concrete recommendations about how to get back to basics with your kids. On opting out of excessive consumption, he argues that overloading children with stuff gives them too many choices. Children are very busy developing in their first ten years, neurally, socially, physically, and they need the bandwidth for that development. When we overwhelm them with stuff, they learn that all this stuff belongs to them. But since there are so many things, none of them can have real value. So it must be something else they’re missing. Thus begins an unquenchable desire for more, which makes them hold out for whatever they don’t have. Payne recommends giving away most of their toys, storing some of them in a toy library, and keeping just ten toys, or the amount of toys a kid can put away in five minutes, out at a time.
In his decades of making this shift with parents, and with his own kids, a strange and kind of shocking thing happens: the kids don’t really notice. Or once their rooms are freed from the clutter, they see a toy they haven’t noticed for a while and get absorbed in playing with it. But how do you know which toys to get rid of and which to keep? Payne explains the difference between “fixed” toys, which don’t allow for much creativity, and toys that engage a child in a hundred different make-believe games. If a toy “does everything” already, there’s not much a child can do to manipulate or change it or imagine with it. Toys should allow for a million different uses — real kitchen or garden tools, blocks and spools of string, colorful cloth, and clothespins, even a repurposed cardboard box. These are the toys that kids tend to be drawn to, time and time again. When the cousins would gather at Grammy and Grandpa’s house, our game was to take apart the old sectional couch upstairs and make cars and houses and forts out of it. It became something new each visit.
The one part of Payne’s book I’m still trying to wrap my head around is the need to limit your child’s exposure to the adult world, especially adult conversation about current events. As a youngest child, I was always privy to conversations above my age level. When my older sisters went to see The Breakfast Club in theaters, six year old me went along. Perhaps because I wasn’t naturally anxious in temperament, I’m not convinced this did me harm. It probably made me more cynical about politics and human behavior at an early age. But it also gave me a wicked array of cuss words to impress my classmates.
It all started when Lenore Skenazy let her nine year old son ride the New York subway home by himself and wrote a column about it. Responses to the column came fast and furious: she was dubbed “America’s Worst Mom” by the Today Show, Fox News, and MSNBC. In this book, she tells her side of the story. She calls on parents and the broader society to distinguish between the level of risk encountered walking the New York streets and the much higher levels of risk children have encountered in past centuries. Our parental worries are often lacking an evidence base, since New York City’s crime rate at the time ranked about on par with Boise, Idaho.
Skenazy contends that the biggest risk our children face today is a life that contains no choices and no independence. The book, and the blog that accompanies it, cover helicopter parenting trends and provide helpful suggestions for how to avoid raising a Little Lord Fauntleroy who can’t cut his own food. She is an entertaining writer and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re in need of a parenting reality check. Fair warning — her approach is less clinical and more political than Kim Payne’s, so expect more humor and insight than sympathy and therapeutic wisdom. All in all, a good contribution.
Honoré is a friend to Slow Christmas and a journalist whose first wake up call to slow living came when he was tempted to buy 60 second versions of the classic bedtime stories to speed up reading to his son at night. Horrified by the impulse, he started doing research on the culture of speed and what could be done about it, resulting in the excellent 2005 book In Praise of Slowness. In Under Pressure, Honoré takes on parenting. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but Honoré is an excellent writer and I’m excited to check it out.
The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids, by Tom Hodgkinson
I haven’t read this one yet, but the general idea is that kids need freedom from consumer culture and sky-high parental expectations so they can explore and be themselves. Hodgkinson has a 21 point manifesto, which includes such gems as “We try not to interfere”, “An idle parent is a thrifty parent”, “We reject the inner Puritan”, and “We embrace responsibility”. It’ll be interesting to see how he recommends applying these in daily life. Apparently, Tom Hodgkinson lives on a farm in Devon, England with his kids, so it’s probably easy for him to say. All the same, it’s nice to see another voice in the chorus to chill out.
Anyone read other slow parenting books lately?