Slow parenting: The hands-off approach

Nov 15, 2010 at 10:20 a.m. ET

Slow parenting means child-led parenting, to an extent. Those who parent this way prefer to let their children explore their world and learn from their natural environment without extensive extracurricular scheduling such as sports or music classes. Find out more about this style of parenting and see if it's right for you!

Child riding bike

Viewing the world as a classroom

Proponents of slow parenting say that modern children are overscheduled and not allowed to get to know their surroundings and learn from them as much as they should.

Lili, the mother of two children on the autism spectrum -- Saoirse, age seven, is autistic and Neil, age 16, has Asperger's Syndrome -- feels this way. She said, "Slow parenting appeals to me because I think too many parents don't allow their kids to have a childhood anymore. My own best memories of childhood are of time spent on my own. I always resented too much adult intrusion."

Barbara, mom of two girls -- Grace, 17, and Sarah, 14 -- agrees. "It's my opinion that many kids no longer know what to do with free time," she said. "Their parents, in their quest to provide every opportunity for their child to become erudite and successful, have taught children to be 'helpless learners'. If they aren't scheduled and have something to do nearly every minute of the day they're bored and restless."

Bumps and bruises

Stepping back and letting a child experience life firsthand does not come without its bumps and bruises. Instead of anticipating a negative outcome and intervening on behalf of the child, slow parenting encourages parents to hang back and let children experience the results of their actions and learn cause and effect this way.

Of course, parents do intervene in dangerous situations, but as Sarah, mom of one-year-old Ethan, said, "It seems like a lot of parents feel like letting their kids just BE is negligent. I think it's not my job to bombard Ethan with activities. It is my job to be tuned in to his development enough to be able to supply him with the raw materials he needs to imagine, exercise and enjoy doing it."

Slow toys?

The types of toys slow parenting proponents encourage are open ended -- toys that allow the child to use his imagination, creativity and natural curiosity instead of those that flash, blink, make noise and otherwise direct a child how to play.

Sarah was raised in a similar fashion as what she now practices as a parent and said, "I was a very happy, good-natured, obedient little girl, and I learned to enjoy playing with cardboard boxes and other 'toys' that didn't dictate how I should use them." Some recommendations are Legos or simple wooden building blocks. Lili said, "I buy basic Lego sets rather than the 'kits' that are supposed to build a specific object and find that my kids are incredibly creative when left to build whatever they can imagine."

Other toys are not really toys at all -- paper towel tubes, cotton balls, pillows, boxes of different shapes and sizes, chairs and a blanket ... the possibilities are endless. Lili's daughter loves the outdoors. "My daughter spends a good bit of time in the back garden and is often running indoors to show us her latest discovery, whether it be butterflies, flowers, rainbows or changes in the trees."

The natural life

Growing up with no organized parenting certainly has its perks. Laura, a 64-year-old Australian mom, has two adult children who she raised this way. She also remembers her own relaxed upbringing in the Australian countryside, where "we all planned our times to go tadpoling, flower picking, building cubbies [playhouses] in the bush, walking or generally just sitting around talking." She enjoyed the learning-rich environment the natural world provided.

"We used to find a water hole and go swimming, too," she said. "I often think it's a wonder we didn't drown but the older kids looked after the younger ones. It was a very different life back then."

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