The Unhurried Child
"Are these going to be fizzy?" My son is holding a tube of candies. I squint at the writing on the package — at words like "fizzplosion" and "megafizz." "Yes," I say. "Definitely." He shakes the tube. "But are they going to be fizzy like, 'Oooh, fizzy!' or fizzy like, 'Yikes, fizzy!'?" In the illustration, a child's head effervesces away from his neck on a carbonated geyser. "I think more like 'Yikes!'" I say, and Ben carefully puts the tube back on the shelf.
Ben has 65 cents burning a hole in his pocket, and we're in the old-fashioned stationery store in town, where he studies the racks of candy as though he expects to be tested on them. Attractive candidates are evaluated for flaws: The Dubble Bubble will, he fears, make his jaw ache; Red Hots are too spicy, Lemonheads too sour. Malted milk balls? He palpates them through the package: There are only seven. Hmmm. Hmmm.
I, meanwhile, am the sole competitor in an invisible but grueling Olympics of patience. If I were in a sitcom, I'd be turning to the camera with wide eyes, biting my fist. But Ben's been looking forward to this outing all week, so I smile and say, "Take your time, sweetie" — even though I keep picturing that surrealist painting, the one with clocks and stopwatches melted all over the place and crawling with ants. Perhaps Salvador Dali had just taken his kids candy shopping.
When it comes to time, children and adults are like different species thrown together in a cruel zoological experiment: We hurry exhaustedly to and fro while our kids dawdle around with boundless energy. A child sitting on the floor with untied shoes, for example, might well exasperate his late and waiting grown-ups, but those moments unwind for him from an infinite spool. Little kids don't multitask, as you've surely noticed, and shoe-tying is rarely first on the agenda. "Children have a sort of strange, elastic relationship to time," is how Canadian journalist Carl Honoré explains it to me. "They have their own rhythm — and it's not at all like an adult rhythm. It kind of ebbs and flows. It defies the clock."
Honoré is not exactly speaking off the cuff here: In addition to being the father of two kids, 8 and 5, he's the author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. In that book, Honoré describes a cultural epidemic of what he calls "time-sickness," the constant pressure to move faster, to get more done. With more and more kids overscheduled and "living like high-powered grown-ups," childhood — with time for play, imagination, and carefree idleness — may be its most heartbreaking casualty.
Reading Honoré's diagnosis, I can't help but remember the time I took Ben to an aquarium and we watched the smiley-sleek sea lions swoop and bubble through the water while a man standing near us by their tank muttered under his breath: "Sure, it's all fun and games — for the seals." We joked for months about his bizarre pinniped resentment ("Yeah, life's a ball — when you're a walrus!"). But I'm worrying about it now: Don't we sometimes feel this way about our own children, irritably envious of their carefree nature?
I picture a recent bedtime. Ben scoots along the floor, tummy down, toward his pajamas, announcing, "I'm a prowling crocodile!" I have no imagination left on this particular evening, so I don't say, "Let's pretend those pajamas are your prey!" or even "Scary!" What I say is: "I'm setting the alarm for 15 minutes. When it goes off, that's when I turn the lights out, whether or not we've read our chapter yet." It's a miserable idea. Yes, he gets ready lickety-split, but the cost is too high: I see his hands shaking while he pulls his pajama top on, the worried knit of his eyebrows when he scuttles into bed. It's one thing, of course, when you're late for work or school or your flu shot, and you really do need to prod the little slowpokes into action. The world can't always wait just because your children would prefer to lie on Coat Mountain rather than put on their jackets. But this? This is another thing; it's just bedtime.
Chastened by similar brushes with brusqueness, Honoré vowed to slow down, and in his book explains how people like me might do the same. Don't panic. He's not trying to get you to trade your watch for a sundial. He's just looking at our hurry-up culture, at its food and medicine, work and relationships. I admit I laughed aloud over the inadvertently comical "slow-sex" chapter — at the image of us panting and shivering for Tantric hours on end while our kids sit in the other room spooning up mac and cheese.
But the chapter that's called "Children: Raising an Unhurried Child" is as provocative and inspiring as I'd hoped. Honoré investigates the double helix of time-sick parenting: pressuring children to become instant adults while hurrying them through their days, filling every moment with busyness and anxiety until there's not a single spacious hour left for contemplation or idleness. Literally and figuratively, we are rushing our children through their childhoods.
Honoré's book has me wondering about our family's time-sickness. My kids take the odd swimming lesson or dance class and host a few playdates, but they aren't especially overscheduled. (I picture Ben, typing on his college applications, under Extracurricular Activities: finger knitting, using Scotch tape.) We make time for family dinners, board games, and lying in the hammock with a book.
And yet our days are often frantic nonetheless, paced by a kind of frenzied dillydallying that feels, with respect to speed and slowness, like the worst of both worlds. (Perhaps childbirth itself should have been the first clue — dashing to the hospital only to dilate half a centimeter every few eons.)
"Do you feel like I rush you?" I ask Ben, and for an answer he offers a jokey imitation of me: "C'mon, Ben, c'mon. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon. Come on!" When? I want to know. "Always." Always? "When we're leaving for somewhere or just doing something. Like birthday cards." Birthday cards? He explains how we always leave them until the last minute, so he's stuck painting his complicated imaginary-flag watercolors and writing his painstaking messages ("Hav fun terning 6!") with me ticking nearby like a coffee-drinking time bomb. "C'mon, c'mon," he says again. "Finish your painting." I picture Picasso trying to complete Guernica while his mom hovers with a glass of sangria ("C'mon, c'mon, we'll be late for the party!"); I picture Tolstoy writing War and Peace while his mother holds a stopwatch and a plate of blini. Oy vey.
"You didn't rush me yesterday," Ben consoles, and that's true. He and his younger sister, Birdy, stood at our two-sided easel, slathering tempera into drippy and expansive works of great art. After she'd stood there dabbing and daubing for more than an hour, with her little smock hanging down to the floor and her fingers and cheeks covered in paint, Birdy took one step back from her thickly purple-and-brown painting, squinted at it like it was a Rorschach inkblot, and announced, "A hippo." Then she went back to work.
How joyful it was to be in such relaxed company, the children's creativity rising into the afternoon like bread dough. Later, the two of them sat together on the couch, Ben leafing through his dictionary and Birdy simply, well, sitting. "Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled," wrote Harvard Dean of Students Harry R. Lewis in a famous letter urging students to slow down, a letter Honoré cites. "It is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged, like the empty square in the 4 x 4 puzzle which makes it possible to move the other 15 pieces around."
But then there are the times you simply must rush, when you're late for a birthday party, shopping for the gift on the way, and your child would rather stand in Target's animatronic holiday display aisle, pushing every button on every "Jingle Bell Rock"-singing crocodile, than choose between Mousetrap and Mancala. Or maybe you'd love to let your kids watch for untold hours while the weary bakers at Stop & Shop add white frosting roses to a tiered wedding cake. But the chicken sitting in your cart really isn't about to roast spontaneously and offer itself up to the dinner guests who are arriving in — yikes! — 10 minutes.
Yet other times we fill our children's lives with senseless or selfish haste. We rush them into the café because we need a latte or out of the zoo because we're bored of the monkeys. Or we rush them simply because we forget not to, like the summer evening we're climbing up the hill from the pond, and when I look back at Birdy, chubbying her toddler self along, I see such a troubled look on her face it breaks my heart. She's sandy and tired, her flip-flops are coming off, and she's struggling to keep up with us. How have I become the parent who forgets what it's like to have short legs? "Take your time, sweetie," I tell her. "Here. I'll slow down with you." And this simple offer is received as a gift: She smiles, reaches up for my hand, and exclaims, like a caricature of relief, "Phew!"
But how does going for a swim turn into an occasion for anxiety in the first place? I think of the German word Honoré taught me: freizeitstress, which translates as "free-time stress." Hurrying your kids through the playground, the weekend, the family vacation. We know this phenomenon all too well.
In leisurely contrast, I can remember standing barefoot on a dark lawn in my nightie, a lit sparkler in my hands, fireflies answering its light with their own. I do not remember grown-ups coming out to nag me about bedtime or bug repellent or fire hazards. I'm not sure anyone even knew where I was — and I mean that in a good way.
In "Fall from Grace," a piece she wrote for The New Yorker in 1997, Noelle Oxenhandler mourns the loss of time that is "completely free of usefulness": "To lie in the backseat of the car, listening to the grown-ups' voices, while a parent's hands steer through the night. To play in the vacant lot at dusk, while through the lighted kitchen window a mother stands at the stove cooking dinner. The childhood experience of errands, the dreamy, slightly edgy boredom of waiting while the grown-ups dropped off mail, picked up the freshly pressed clothes, filled the car with gas. Wasn't this, too, a kind of luxury?"
For Ben, now, the luxury lies in row after row of colored wrappers. He's finally reached his candy decision, as if on his belly through the sand of a desert, but here it is. "These." He pays, triumphantly clutches his package of Bottle Caps, and skips to the door. But then he turns to me with a doubtful expression: "Can I just check one last thing?" And when I say, "Sure, sweetheart, take your time," a slow smile spreads across his face.