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Slow, free range, idle parents can increase IQ and happiness

In my Silicon Valley hometown, there seemed to be only one speed for raising children: fast forward to college. Here kids are prepped for “success” (i.e. the right colleges) as soon as they can toddle to a sport or art class, if not before with nannies to assure their bilingualism. In my public high school, I saw only honors and AP (advanced placement) kids outside of classes like art and typing; we practiced our college entrance exams in English class; and 27 of us went to Stanford, and nearly an equal number went to Ivy Leagues (I don’t think I knew anyone who didn’t go to college at all).

Suggest an idea like Slow Parenting to some of the parents of my former classmates and you might be met with the question, “And where does that fit on his application?”. Before I explain how a less-hurried parenting style might actually help raise your child’s IQ score, let me explain how so many of us became hothouse parents in the first place. After all, Silicon Valley isn’t the only place in the country where parents start their kids with Mandarin lessons as 6 months.

The rise of fast parenting

In the past century, all aspects of our life- work, food, sex, sports, relationships- have sped up and parenting is no exception. Carl Honoré, chronicler of the Slow Movement, argues that we have become hurried caregivers because of a convergence of issues:

  • Globalization means more competition and a perceived increase in workplace uncertainty for our offspring.
  • Consumer culture has led to higher expectations for “perfect teeth, perfect hair, a perfect body, perfect vacations, a perfect home – and perfect children to round off the portrait”.
  • Smaller families means more time and money to spend on each child.
  • Older parents have had more time in the workplace before having kids and therefore, they tend to professionalize parenting.

With all these pressures, it’s no wonder we’ve come to treat childrearing- to quote Honoré- as a cross between “a competitive sport and product-development”. Honoré- author of the bestseller “The Power of Slow: Finding Balance and Fulfillment Beyond the Cult of Speed,” and more recently, “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting,”- argues that Slow parenting is not so much about speed- or lack thereof-, but about balance.

“Slow parents give their children plenty of time and space to explore the world on their own terms. They keep the family schedule under control so that everyone has enough downtime to rest, reflect and just hang out together. They accept that bending over backwards to give children the best of everything may not always be the best policy. Slow parenting means allowing our children to work out who they are rather than what we want them to be.”

Slowing down can raise IQ

That may make sense if you’re concerned for your child’s psychological well-being, but what if you worry about their future (i.e. college, jobs, etc)? It turns out that speeding up not only can stress our kids out, but it also probably doesn’t make them any smarter.

When an elite Scottish private school banned homework for kids under 13, noted Honoré in a TED talk in 2005, the parents complained, but by the year’s end grades had risen in math and science by 20%.

Or in a 2005 study sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, the I.Q.s of workers who responded quickly to a constant barrage of e-mails fell 10 points, double the drop of someone under the influence of marijuana. “Fast isn’t turning us into Masters of the Universe,” Mr. Honoré explained to the New York Times. “It’s turning us into Cheech and Chong.”

Finding time to be creative

So why can slow be good (at least sometimes)? Part of re-learning that faster isn’t always better means understanding that it’s important to allow kids to just hang out and get bored at times.

Not only is it good for a kids’ psyche to have time to relax a little, but it’s also this unstructured time that allows for them to be creative.

I remember when my first child was about one-years-old and I was feeling guilty about not spending enough time reading to her or keeping her actively-stimulated during the day. Actually, I had been convinced by my husband that she should spend her naptime- the full two hours- in her room playing even if she didn’t nap (see video Idle Parents in search of a slow, free range, childhood). As he saw it, it was good for her and good for us. She didn’t really complain and seemed to enjoy inventing games for herself (she now spends lots of time on a slice-of-bread phone, sticking play-doh to the wall or putting diapers on her dolls), but I felt guilty.

Somehow I’d gotten it into my head that my parents had been always-active caregivers with us and that I was somehow neglecting her by leaving her alone. My father put an end to this myth by telling me that we’d been left alone to play as kids. And to defer any worries about her future ability to achieve, he reminded me that Einstein realized his greatest theories during moments of daydreaming.

Inventing American parenthood

Much of Slow Parenting is simply re-learning how things used to be before we starting treating parenting as product development, or as something to be learned via books, videos, magazines or classes.

I was surprised to learn, when I picked up an article in the New Yorker last summer, that parenthood is a relatively new invent. In the 19th century being an adult meant being a parent- wrote Jill Lepore in the magazine-, but as people began to live longer, have fewer children and have them later in life, “all these changes, aggregated, made parenthood into something different, something big, something planned.”

In the 1920s, Parents Magazine was born to help the middle class learn how to be parents. It delivered a supply of pithy advice columns, as well as, fostering the belief that parents need training.

The magazine’s editor, Clara Savage Littledale, helped- in the words of Lepore- “invent American parenthood”, but Littledale was very forthcoming about the very concept being a new construct. “Once it was believed that the very physical fact of parenthood brought with it an instinctive wisdom that enabled one to rear children wisely and well. Parents knew best,” she admitted in 1930. “Today fathers and mothers are unwilling to struggle under such a load of self-imposed omniscience.”

Littledale helped usher in an era where parenthood was something you could be judged for. When one mother admitted to her on her NBC radio show that she was afraid she was “a failure as a mother”, Littledale responded “One way to be a failure as a mother is to overplay the role.”

Free-range parents

This type of advice dovetails nicely with a new more hands-off parenting style (which also converges nicely with the Slow Parenting movement) that’s been dubbed “free-range parenting”. It was unofficially launched by New York journalist Lenore Skenazy who started a controvery when she wrote in an editorial that she let her 9-year-old ride the subway alone.

Skenazy believes parents should give their children the same freedoms they grew up with. “We do NOT believe that every time school age children go outside, they need a security detail,” she writes on her blog Free Range Kids. “Most of us grew up Free Range and lived to tell the tale. Our kids deserve no less.”

At a time of 24 hour news it’s easy to become sucked into the fear that your child will be kidnapped or killed if you let him out of the home alone, but crime rates have actually dropped in many cities (like New York) and mortality rates for kids have fallen as well in the past quarter century. Despite the statistics, we hover over our children more than ever. In 1972, 87% of kids who lived within a mile of school walked or biked daily. Today, only 13% of children bike, walk or get themselves to school. (As the Center for Disease control reports with this fall in activity has come a rise in obesity).

Idle parents

Free-range parenting provides freedom not just for kids, but for parents. And this is exactly what writer Tom Hodgkinson preaches in his book “The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids”. He believes in skipping the theme parks and fancy holidays, in redecorating when the kids have left home and in making work fun (i.e. dancing while cleaning), but also such recklessness as naps for parents and reading the books we want to to our kids (e.g. Kipling, Lear and the Arabian Nights), because if we watch out for our own needs then everyone will be happier, kids included.

Hodgkinson, like my husband, believes that being a parent doesn’t have to be so difficult and that we have more choice than we think about how we choose to parent, and to live. It may seem ironic that I, and all of these “un-parenting” gurus, are devoting so much time and energy to the idea that parenthood can be more passive, but after nearly a century of overhyping the role, some re-alignment is in order.

And while we may ostensibly be discussing parenting, there’s a bigger issue at stake. This was spelled out for me by a mother on the booksharing site Goodreads (full disclosure: the site was started by a friend, though I found this review randomly via a google search) whose review of “The Idle Parent” was a testimonial to how re-learning how to parent may help us uncover clues on how to find more freedom, and happiness, in our lives in general.

“Every time my mother snarks at me about my life being so “easy”, as if it is some badge of honor to have made yourself a difficult life and to drudge about “getting things done”, I am being confronted with the Puritan ethical standard that I grew up with (and thankfully grew OUT of) and that I think has made Americans fairly unhappy as a whole. Life is not for suffering and work should be enjoyable… Every day life should be enjoyable for both the parents and the kids, and we should live more in the present, and stop “investing” so much energy in the future.”