Life - Sunday Herald Magazine - 10 May 2008
Some parents, fed up with competitive child-rearing, are looking to alternative strategies to produce balanced human beings at a gradual pace.
By Vicky Allan
MOST OF US ARE FAMILIAR WITH the slow-food movement. We are aware of the call to slow down our lives, turn down the heat to gas-mark 1 and gently simmer. Slow parenting is the latest version of this concept, and now Carl Honoré, a leading light of the "slow movement", has published a book entitled Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture Of Hyper-Parenting.
In it, Honoré argues that contemporary child-rearing, through its intense focus on the child's talent and development, is breeding a generation of hyper-stimulated spoilt adults who can't think for themselves. The book is based on Honoré's experience of living in Clapham, London, an area known as "Nappy Valley" due to the fact it is a haven for young, aspirational middle-class parents. "On a Saturday morning," he has written on his website, "it's pram gridlock at the market". There, he has said, "childhood has been turned into a rat race".
The Scottish baby world may be less extreme, but as the parent of a baby son, I am aware of an atmosphere of insecurity among the parents around me in Edinburgh. Conversations are loaded with parental competitiveness. "Is your two-month-old walking yet?" "Have you been to tumbletots/baby signing/baby massage/rhyme time?" There is a mild hysteria, in middle-class circles, around doing what is best for your child's cognitive development.
But if, as Honoré argues, this obsession with childhood development is bad for our offspring, then what are the benefits of taking it slow? In my attempt to uncover an answer I discovered that finding parents who were managing to avoid the child-rearing rat race by practising their own version of slow parenting was difficult, which tended to confirm the scale of the problem Honoré describes. One friend said: "Sorry, don't know any of them. Everyone I know is overprotective." Many of the women I thought were slow mummies in fact turned out to be frustrated hyper mothers. "I wish I had time to take my wee one to dance class," was the constant refrain.
But then I found Vroni Holzmann: musician, artist, photographer and mother of a five-year-old daughter. "I don't feel any pressure at all from society," says Holzmann. "I just do my thing."
Holzmann does understand the pressures. Once, sitting on a park bench with her baby daughter, she was questioned by a stranger about why she, a German, was not speaking her mother language to her child so that the youngster would grow up bilingual. "People think they can tell me what to do just because they've read some article," she says.
Holzmann demonstrates a remarkable lack of parental competitiveness. "This whole thing is beyond me," she says. "Because I'm a musician everyone asks: Does she play?' But I didn't start learning to play at that age. Anyway, it's just a hassle for me. It's expensive. And maybe in that respect I'm selfish. I don't want to ferry my kids all over the place for classes. I'm someone who waits for the kid to say, I want to do this'."
Could lack of ambition for one's child be construed as a form of neglect? Some hyper-parents might say so. But there is evidence to back up the more hands-off approach adopted by parents such as Holzmann. In Under Pressure, Honoré mentions a Philadelphia study that found that: "By the age of seven or eight, there was no discernible gap between the performance of children who spent their pre-school years in nurseries that were rigidly academic and those who came from laid-back, play-based ones. The only difference was that the hothoused kids tended to be more anxious and less creative."
Lil Gogan, a comparatively laid-back mother-of-three, believes we suffer from giving too much attention to our children rather than too little. "It doesn't matter what route you go down, whether it's letting your child do what he or she wants all day or playing them Mozart from birth, too much attention is on the child. Whatever the child wants comes way before what the adults want. But I think if you look at nature, with animals, the child always comes secondary to whatever the necessary thing is, for example, getting the food."
Reading Under Pressure, I was reminded of another book I had read in the early months of my own son's life: Jean Liedloff's The Continuum Concept. Based on the author's observations of the Yequana Indians in Venezuela, who maintain a tribal lifestyle, that book suggests that our parenting is so far from the method we evolved with as a species, it leads to a feeling of somehow not being right in the world. Liedloff was concerned that we have not only lost our tribal instinct for constant physical contact with our babies in order to make them more able to stand on their own two feet as children, but that we also obsess too much by imposing structures on children, such as rigid feeding times and separation from adult activities.
Miriam Berlow-Jackson has been following "the continuum concept" since the birth of her 16-month-old daughter Ellie. In some ways Berlow-Jackson could be described as a slow parent. The slow aspect is there, for instance, in her very hands-off approach to Ellie's behaviour and safety. This points to one of the most controversial aspects of the continuum concept: its attitude to risk. Children, according to this theory, need to learn for themselves how to deal with dangers and not have our fears thrust on them. In a continuum-concept household there are no stair-gates or cupboard locks. Children are allowed to use knives from an early age. Berlow Jackson's daughter Ellie is just 16 months old now and has already been allowed to handle a sharp knife. "She's getting the idea," she says, "and she's not dead yet."
It's hard to practise this kind of parenting and still remain part of mainstream contemporary society. Most of the parents I talked to who had fully taken on the continuum concept had made massive changes in their lives. More often than not, like Berlow-Jackson, they had given up work..
Lucy Dolan and her husband gave up their nine-to-five jobs to run an alpaca breeding and llama trekking business from home. Dolan believes that the problem with contemporary parenting is detachment. She suggests hyper-parenting may be a result of our guilt with regard to this. It's as if we feel in some way that we are failing our children by being too busy and not there, and so overdo it when we are present. As Dolan puts it: "People think that lots of hyper-parenting will help them find a connection with their child. They live with daily guilt because they have not done what nature intended them to do."
Should we slow down? Or is the slow parenting dictum just putting more pressure on parents to obsess over how to raise their children? Honoré insists his book is about putting less pressure on parents, not more. "There is no single formula for child-rearing," he writes. "Sure, there are basic principles that hold true across class and culture. But every family must find the formula that works best for them. That is not as daunting as it sounds. It can be done if you shut out the background noise and listen more to your instincts."
[Vroni Holzmann with her daughter Sophie, aged 5 - photo: Malcolm Cochrane]