Slow Down, Baby!
My daughter was born prematurely, at 34 weeks. At the baby’s NICU bed, the nurse said that she’d trail behind the “normal” kids for a few years. So when she was 9 months old, I picked up a set of Baby Einstein cards. Perhaps if I worked with her, she could learn about the color red and how the dog says “Arf.” “This is a dog,” I said. “What does the doggie say?” She reached for the card. She knew what it was! That foolish nurse; my daughter’s not so far behind after all. And then she put the card in her mouth and fell over.
After that, we tried the educational DVDs. One friend endearingly compared them to “baby crack,” but I wasn’t quite prepared for the glazed eyes, sweaty palms and open jaw at so early an age. I’m far from the only one who bought into the brain-boosting craze. According to Carl Honore, author of the book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, parents around the world are trying to academically prep their infants, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of competition and acceleration.
“The manic and anxious approach to childhood has filtered into the early years,” Honore says. In his book, he describes British parents fussing over in-utero educational devices and Taiwanese parents purchasing books with titles like Prodigy Babies or Children’s Success Depends 99% on the Mother. We all want our child to have an edge and not be left in the dust — much less eating dust bunnies. As new parents, we may inadvertently join the childhood rat race. We compare sleep and food, weight and height, milestone after milestone.
How did we get into this parent trap? There’s a lot of shame and guilt around admitting we have a competitive streak. “It’s more taboo than talking about sex,” says Wendy S. Grolnick, co-author of the book Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids. “We’re supposed to be kind and good and nurturing, but we all feel competitive, too.”
Grolnick says that anxious parenting behavior is just the flip side of the nurture instinct. “We couldn’t devote all we do to our kids unless we were really invested in them,” Grolnick points out. We want to see our children succeed, Grolnick says, and have since the dawn of time. But concern over whether our child can outrun saber-toothed tigers has morphed into whether he’ll attend Harvard.
“We’ve always had this hardwiring, but now there’s so much competition out there,” she says, from preschool slots to college scholarships. But the wiring can go haywire, Grolnick says, if we try too hard to control our child’s activities or direct their success, instead of allowing them to explore and experiment on their own. Showing a baby the “right” way to play with a toy or filling her every hour with activities can reduce internal motivation and creativity.
Carl Honore says society sends the message that “everything can be subjected to laws of management and science,” and that the more stimulation we provide, the smarter our children will end up. So conventional wisdom insists that if we enroll our babies in enough classes and purchase the learning gadget du jour, we’ll produce the supposedly perfect child, “one who hits the ground running, reaches milestones first and scores high in exams,” Honore says.
“In our hurry-up culture, there’s a taboo against taking time,” Honore says, “and a terror of missing opportunities or falling behind.” Milestones, classes and stimulation also can easily become external markers for parental success. Physicians and parents-in-law ask how the baby’s sleeping and which tasks she can accomplish. If our child sleeps well, rolls over ahead of schedule and is the social butterfly, we’ve done everything right. But if he doesn’t, we can easily drift into a place of worry and comparison.
As parents, we’re constantly being fed a diet of pressure, prestige and perfection. How can we break out of this trap that insists childhood is a race to the finish line? Setting a new pace: slow parenting The “slow” movements urge us to step off the fast, frenetic track. The slow-food movement encourages eaters to share longer, well-prepared meals with friends and family. When traveling, the slow movement celebrates staying in one location, allowing you to integrate temporarily with the community. And now, the slow-parenting movement encourages us to counter the competitive urge, encouraging a more mellow approach. “It’s about giving childhood the time and attention it deserves,” Honore says, and not worrying about the next goal or comparing kids to see who’s further along. Honore points out that slow parenting requires ceding control and gaining an appreciation for unstructured time. It then rewards you with a sense of alertness to fine details: the way a baby breathes, coos and gazes at the sky.
But just as slow food doesn’t mean passing on every dish, slow parenting doesn’t mean shunning singing sessions. The slow-parenting approach allows parents to familiarize themselves with their child’s personality and interests, which may include baby-sign classes or mom-and-infant yoga. Grolnick says kids pick up their own interests when they’re internally motivated.
“Pushing a child is not going to help,” she says. To stay sane and avoid comparisons, people going with slow parenting look to adult friendships and parent groups for support. And they maintain their own grown-up interests and ambitions, avoiding putting pressure on babies to achieve. Resisting that urge to push and mold takes practice — and it’s never too early to start. Because Lora Shinn no longer feels the need to create genius babies, she has more time to write for Carolina Parent in addition to national publications.
Following are some suggested readings for parents:
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn – And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer
Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society by William Crain
Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting by Carl Honore
Trees Make the Best Mobiles: Simple Ways to Raise Your Child in a Complex World by Jessica Teich and Brandel France de Bravo
Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition While Raising a Successful Child by Wendy S. Grolnick and Kathy Seal