As you know, I've been thinking about the whole concept of slowness for the last several months. The irony that it is months and months between these 'slow' posts is not lost on me. Anyway, we've looked at the benefits of slow activism and lately I've been thinking particularly about slowness in relation to parenting and family life. What does it mean for us to slow down and connect as a family in a world that wants to rush us about?
This time last year I took the notion that Levi should have a go at swimming lessons. He LOVES swimming, had always enjoyed our family trips to the local pools and had been getting more confident about jumping in, splashing about and navigating the water. I thought lessons would be the next step for him, his first proper extra curricular activity. So off I went, enrolled him for a full term of half hour weekly lessons.
He was 3.
3 years old.
Even though he loved swimming, this was an entirely new and foreign format. He was to get into the water with 4 other children he had never met, an adult he had never met, and we had to sit on the side as mere observers. He, quite naturally, was not a fan.
Each week that went past was a battle. He wanted us in the water with him. He cried. We all dreaded it. No amount of cajoling or false excitement to gee him up worked. But we had paid the fees. So we went back FIVE weeks in a row, each week hoping that this week would be the time he started to enjoy it but that time never came and so we gave up, packed the lessons in and went out for cake.I felt pretty ashamed about how long it took me to give up on the swimming lessons; how much I suppressed my instincts telling me that he just wasn't ready, that he was still so small to be venturing into lessons that required such independence from us; how I dragged my heels (and my tiny child) through the whole ordeal. Why didn't I see the obvious? What was the rush?
There is no doubt that life with small children is busy. Naturally busy. We are moving at a pace that can be relentless; seeing to the big needs of little people is no slow machine, so it may be a little peculiar to think of parenting as slow. However, I have been thinking about how life-giving it could be if we found intentional, purposeful ways to bring a gentler rhythm to family life.
So much of our lives - adults and children alike - are scheduled. Work, education, activities, meal-times, bed times, trips etc. We meticulously (and often for the sake of our own sanity) plan these things in order to feel in control, to avoid chaos and because we want to provide the best for our families. The slow parenting or slow family life movement is about challenging the family culture that over-schedules children, that prioritises connection as the main family goal not the success or achievements of the members.
HOW CAN WE SLOW DOWN AND CONNECT?
As always, I come with the clear reminder that I am not an expert. I have not nailed the slow parenting rhythm but I do feel like we have put some effort in over the last few years to try and develop a family culture of slowness and connection so I thought I'd expand a bit here. Here are 5 easy ways we are trying to cultivate slowness in our parenting/family life:
+ Being OK with boredom:
We decided (as a whole family) to do away with our TV last December (you can read about it here). I plan on writing an update on our first 6 months without TV soon but right now it is safe to say that making that move has been really positive for us all. There are natural lulls to the day, times when all of us default to our devices (which is more than OK!) but we have also found real joy in watching Levi create his own fun in those lulls, clambering up to the kitchen table as though it is his domain where he takes to drawing pictures upon pictures and making things. We do not feel the need to fill his every moment with activity and stimulation. Slow parenting means we try to enjoy the every day hum drum of life together.
+ Not enforcing or manipulating lessons or activities:
Once we kicked the swimming lessons to the curb I felt such a sense of relief. Being led by the cues of your child is one of the most liberating ways to parent. If piano lessons or football or extra tutoring is an absolute nightmare every single week, you may need to ask if that is really how you want to spend your time communicating with your kids? Is it worth the cajoling, arguing and taxiing about just so your child can get their grade 3 in piano? It may take some time to see what really interests your child, but I promise you will see it and then you can watch them thrive because they enjoy something not because they have endured it.
+ Practicing attachment/gentle parenting:
Attachment and gentle parenting philosophies provide a great framework for slow family life and this is probably the biggest and most challenging way that we have intentionally embraced slow parenting. The attachment/gentle parenting theories lean on the notion of connection and empathy as the most important elements of the parent/child relationship. There are particular practical practices that can help that connection along (like baby-wearing, co-sleeping, breastfeeding etc) but the communication part of these philosophies is where the real practice of slow parenting is put to the test. For us it has meant taking time to see past some of the behavioural challenges and protests to identify the deeper need that Levi is expressing (often that need is more connection with us). Traditional discipline and responses to children 'acting out' are often based on quick solutions: shouting (to...er....make them stop shouting), taking away things that they like as punishment, removing the child or isolating them, threatening consequences etc. Disclaimer: these are all things I am guilty of having done in moments of struggle. Gentle, respectful parenting, however, works with the child to unlock the hidden need behind the behaviour or the issue. It takes time, digging deep into your reserves of patience. It also depends on a slow but consistent way of communicating, allowing space for a child to be heard and acknowledged. This slow, connected way of responding exercises the chemicals in their brain that develops empathy, wiring children up to grow into compassionate empathic adults. For more on the neuroscience behind empathy read here, and for anyone who may think this sounds passive or like a free for all - check out some of the myths around gentle parenting here.
+ Not focusing on parenting 'results':
I believe that one of the biggest challenges of parenting in modern culture is that we, the parents, are from a generation that have become accustomed to instant gratification. We depend on speed to get things done and much of that need for instant results can be projected onto our children and family life. This is a lesson I have learned the hard way, and am continually having to remember. Parenting is a long haul investment. We are not listening and empathising and connecting with our kids so that they will be perfectly behaved right now - that would be nice, it sometimes works, but that's not really the point. We have to take our eyes and our minds further than the present time, away from the chaos and challenges and remember that we are depositing this culture of empathy and deeply rooted compassion in our kids so that they can develop those characteristics as they grow. Slow parenting also eases up on the expectations that children should be doing particular things at particular levels and particular stages and trusts that the security of the family will allow the child to develop in their own time and ways.
+ Seeing the raising of children as a time for us to also be raised, sharpened and to learn.
You know that Justin Timberlake song..."It's like you're my mirror, my mirror staring back at me..."? Yeah. That's my parenting song. So much of the last 5 years of my life has been a massive lesson in self-reflection. In my responses and reactions to Levi I am often brutally and painfully aware of how flawed I am. I feel sharpened and refined on a daily basis. It can be exhausting, this mirror, and if we aren't careful can teeter into the slippery slope of guilt - where we over-examine every parenting decision we make, beating ourselves up about never quite getting it right. What we should do instead is not just reflect on how we raise our kids, but really see ourselves as being raised in the process. I have never been a parent before. This is my first go; yours too. Not one of us has done this before so we deserve to take it slow, take it in and allow ourselves to be raised, challenged, humbled and changed by this role.
Does family life feel fast and furious to you? How does your family connect best? What areas of family life could you slow down a little?