Slow parenting (also called simplicity parenting and free range parenting) is a parenting style in which few activities are organised for children. Instead, they are allowed to explore the world at their own pace. It is a response to concerted cultivation and the widespread trend for parents to schedule activities and classes after school; to solve problems on behalf of the children, and to buy services from commercial suppliers rather than letting nature take its course.
The philosophy, stemming at least partially from the Slow Movement, makes recommendations in play, toys, access to nature, watching television, and scheduled activities. The opposing view is that such children are disadvantaged because their parents do not provide as many learning opportunities.
Slow parenting aims for the goal of allowing children to be happy and satisfied with their own achievements, even though this may not make them the wealthiest or most famous. These parents suggest that children of other parents are unable to cope with the unpredictability of the real world, either expecting their helicopter parents to intervene, or complaining about unfairness. They may not even understand who they are themselves until much later in adulthood.
Throughout each interpretation of slow parenting, the natural world is emphasised as an under-used resource. Letting children out to play in the garden, or other open spaces, is recommended. For more carefully considered natural experiences, especially for pre-school-age children, forest kindergartens offer people with educational and supervision experience to watch children while they play in a woodland. It has been suggested that people instinctively appreciate and benefit from natural settings and wildlife—the biophilia hypothesis.
Access to nature is often denied to modern children because it conflicts with several modern issues. There may be unfamiliar people in a public park, presenting 'stranger danger'. There may be risks of personal injury, for example by walking into the branch of a tree, falling from a height or twisting an ankle on uneven ground. It is less closely supervised by adults, and it is free to use, and therefore not encouraged by commercial interests.
Play is a natural part of childhood, which allows young people to explore and discover at their own pace. Children invest 15% of their energy in playing ( p54) demonstrating their natural inclination and the evolutionary benefit. Children have a natural skill for playing and exploring in a way that is appropriate. Other mammals also play in developing their own skills in a realistic but less dangerous environment. However, formal learning is more beneficial from the age of six ( p64). Toys, technology and an adult-imposed educational curriculum are not required, according to the philosophy.
Slow parenting does not advocate watching television. Television is not interactive; a person can watch it with little thinking and no action. It can occupy an enormous amount of time, and is very explicit. At the same time, it is often created by commercial interests with minimal investment in the program content and a maximum of advertising. The Social aspects of television are widely discussed and often considered to be negative. Introducing children to television (including families watching it together) is a recommendation to continue this lifestyle, and a discouragement to any other play or activity.
It is believed that television advertisements often encourage people further into consumerism by promoting expensive objects which are often unnecessary and ultimately unsatisfying (a satisfied customer may not need to make further purchases). The presentation of these to people who are tired or not concentrating is a further risk to their behavioural development.
However, it is recognised that television is a convenient baby-sitter, and that some programs are enjoyable (The Idle Parent contains a list of the author's favourites). Choices might include watching only ten year old pre-recorded video tapes, or watching broadcast television with children and giving a real-time commentary on the content and its message.
Everyday life does contain risk. Slow parenting advocates would argue that in order to develop a healthy understanding of that, children must be allowed to face risks.
Because many parents have themselves been raised in a risk-averse way, Slow Parenting advocates would maintain that they are often unable to judge which risks are significant. For example, stranger danger, a cornerstone of child "safety", has been criticised for allegedly assuming that all strangers are dangerous, and by negative inference that all familiar people are safe. However, teaching that all familiar people are safe is not a necessary part of teaching that strangers may be dangerous and should be approached with caution.
An open letter by more than one hundred leading paediatricians, academics, and authors, published in The Telegraph, highlighted how a fast-paced and consumerist lifestyle has emphasised the fear of physical harm and the subsequent emotional and social damage to children. The newspaper then invited responses from the public and received nearly 120 pro-slow parenting responses within days. These highlighted frequent assessment, political interference, junk food, television, compulsory schooling, distrust of teachers, and many other areas. Some suggested Forest schools and other adventure activities, while many proposed less political interference with schools. The Slow Parenting movement and set of ideals is obviously not without its set of zealous advocates among parents.
Spending time with children is always recommended for parents. The book The Price of Privilege finds that eating dinner together as a family is an indicator of good psychological health. Tom Hodgkinson's ideal scenario is to be near his children, although not too near.
Synonyms and variations
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The idea of slow parenting has been repeated by many authors and commentators, many of whom have attached their own names. A few are briefly reviewed below:
In his book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper-parenting, Carl Honoré describes a measured and caring way of stepping back and letting our children face the world themselves. Parts of UP have been serialised in the Daily Telegraph. The author has previously written about the Slow Movement in his book In Praise of Slow.
Honoré steps through the stages of adult intervention in childhood, arguing that many adults drive their children towards goals they have chosen but which are often not suitable. The freedom to play is repeatedly endorsed, with Honoré providing examples that he believes shows that interfering in this often makes less effective use of their time, and damages their development. He highlights some particular educational techniques, such as the Reggio Emilia approach and Forest kindergartens, notably the Secret Garden in Scotland, where the mature attitude to risk is contrasted with the health-and-safety mentality that is more generally taken. Within school, testing and homework are singled out for criticism, while after-school activities are thought to take time away from more enjoyable times. Even sports, which are basically enjoyable and healthy, become detrimental when adults impose their focus on winning.
Risk aversion in helicopter parents is said to leaves children unable to handle risks.
The idle parent
The Idle Parent by Tom Hodgkinson in 2009 is an alternative to over-parenting. It has also been serialised in a newspaper column in the Daily Telegraph. The central premise is that children can take care of themselves most of the time, and that the parents would be happier if they spent more time taking care of themselves too. Hodgkinson's idle parenting "does not refer to slobbing out or giving up, but rather to letting go, going with the flow, a wise and merry detachment. It is, in Alduous Huxley's phrase, an 'active resignation'." (page 46). IP does not have to be costly: Many activities are free, such as lighting a fire; while others are cheap, such as buying 10-year-old video tapes from charity shops.
Alongside the jests about how much children like to work, and so should be returned to Victorian workhouses, are points about letting children try to make their own breakfast (while the parents sleep), or camping in a field instead of going to an "antiseptic children's fun palace". The Idle Parent constantly moderates its zeal, for example in how completely to ban the use of television, against the excess of the Puritans.
American journalist Lenore Skenazy writes about the problems of overparenting with a particular emphasis on risk, but also what she sees as unnecessary extra cramming classes. Her book, Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had without Going Nuts with Worry and her related website describe what she sees as the horrors of mainstream schooling, parenting, and organised activities, highlighting the unnecessary protection from risk that limits children's opportunity to mature properly into independent adults, and the unnecessary training, even in using flash cards for preschoolers, thereby limiting their opportunity to have fun or do their own thing.
- Waldorf education
- Forest kindergarten
- Helicopter parent (opposite)
- Concerted cultivation (opposite)
- Slow Movement
- The Price of Privilege
- Levine, Madeline (2006). The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Harper Collins. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-06-059584-5.
- Hodgkinson, Tom (2009). The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids. Hamish Hamilton. p. 233. ISBN 978-0-241-14373-5.
- Maller, Cecily; Townsend, Mardie; St Leger, Lawrence (March 2008). Healthy parks, healthy people: The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context. Deakin University and Parks Victoria.
- Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-07442-4.
- Gill, Tim (2007). No Fear. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. ISBN 978-1-903080-08-5.
- Honoré, Carl (2008). Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From The Culture of Hyper-Parenting. Orion. ISBN 978-0-7528-7531-6.
- Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin. ISBN 0-670-80454-1.
- Gill, Tim (2007). No fear: Growing up in a Risk Averse Society. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-903080-08-5.
- "Modern life leads to more depression among children". The Telegraph. 12 September 2006.
- Honoré, Carl (25 March 2008). Slow parenting part two: hey, parents, leave those kids alone. The Daily Telegraph.
- Honoré, Carl (26 March 2008). Slow parenting part three: let babies learn to think for themselves. the Daily Telegraph.
- Hodgkinson, Tom (16 February 2008). Idle parenting means happy children. the Daily Telegraph.
- Skenazy, Lenore (2009). Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had without Going Nuts with Worry. Jossey Bass. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-470-47194-4.
- Skenazy, Lenore (2009). "Free Range Kids blog".