Slow Parenting, Fast Playing

The presence of crocuses pushing through the damp hard earth is considered by many a true sign of spring.  A splash of color poking through a bleak winter landscape is a reassuring sign of hope.

After a long Seattle winter of persistent drizzle and gray low-hanging skies, the reappearance in my neighborhood of children playing outside is another welcome harbinger of longer, sunnier days to come. I couldn’t help but smile this weekend as I watched roving bike packs of kids dart in and out of homemade obstacle courses. The children squealed with delight as they chased each other, liberated in their free play over dry pavement.  As I passed by, I spotted the strategically placed “children at play” signs and I thought, how true.

children at play

Honestly, I had never noticed the bright yellow diamonds dotting the streets at regular intervals. My son assured me they had been there for quite some time. I realized with dismay that I had overlooked the signs because I had not slowed down enough – in the proverbial sense – to notice.  I found myself nostalgic for the carefree days when my own children had unstructured play time rather than their now over-extended weekends of organized sports and group project meetings. I found myself wishing for more “slow-down time” for my kids and it made me recall the work of author Carl Honoré, who coined the term “Slow Parenting,” a few years ago.

Honoré is generally credited as a spokesperson for the Slow Movement philosophy which encourages less structured activities and more free play as a gateway to a happier, healthier life. Honoré acknowledges the societal pressures that make parents feel that if they don’t provide a constant stream of learning opportunities; their kids will be disadvantaged as adults.  He is the author of several books including, The Power of Slow: Finding Balance and Fulfillment beyond the Cult of Speed, and Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

Carl Honoré TED Talk

Last week, Linda wrote about the parent referendum feeling that the college admission process fuels. Honoré provides great context on how our culture feeds this concern early on. In our own local public school district the publicity and fundraising efforts extol us to contribute private money so that our children can compete in a “cognitive, digital and global world.” Imagine the hyper-ventilating that must go on when the parent of a 5-year-old is subjected to this message from the first day of Kindergarten.  Is it any wonder that parents seek to make their children’s childhood  productive?

Parenting is challenging and gives us the opportunity to have a constant inner-dialogue of doubt. However, we can give ourselves a break by knowing that nature will take its course as well and we don’t need to provide a perfect, structured childhood. We don’t need a parent intervention to affirm what our gut already tells us. It is good for parents and children to slow down and play.

Carol Lewis Gullstad

March 25, 2013

Who’s Applying, Anyway?

It’s the time of year when high school seniors anxiously check the mail (and email) daily for responses from colleges. A large envelope –perhaps with a big “Welcome” or thumb’s up image emblazoned on the cover—usually means good news, while a smaller envelope hints at rejection.
At the same time, these kids are bombarded with tweets and Facebook posts spreading their friends’ happy news.
collegeWhile the process is more automated, and perhaps more competitive, than when I was college-bound, the general idea is the same: kids spend four years of high school shoring up their grade-point averages (GPAs), standardized-test scores (often enrolling in prep classes and retaking the SATs and/or ACTs several times), school-activities and volunteer-work resumes; and writing insightful, provocative admissions essays.
Most apply to three levels of schools: long-shot or “reach” schools, which accept only a small portion of applicants and maintain high standards for GPAs and test scores; “likely” schools that generally accept students with similar grades, test scores and experiences; and “safety” schools that, in general, would gladly admit a kid of that caliber.
So, for many, what arrives in the mail—at least in the kids’eyes—sets a direction for the future, and serves as an important success or devastating failure.
However, we adults know that college acceptance is just the beginning of a long road, not the end, and that rejection is just an opportunity for a different route.
Or do we?
On university websites and college-industry blogs, in magazine articles and college-admissions conferences, and even during the new Tina Fey film, Admission, one frightening theme has become clear: many modern parents take the process too personally, and become excessvely involved in the process and its outcome.
Of course, it’s easy for a parent to feel invested in the college conundrum.
To create nurturing environments, we fill playrooms with educational toys, DVDs and books; we ensure our kids spend minimal time on “screens”; we screen their internet usage, take them to children’s museums and science centers, ship them to stimulating camps and plan remarkable vacations.
Most of us spend 13 straight years (and more, if you count preschool) helping our children get to school on time, with full bellies, clean bodies and clothes, homework completed and permission slips signed.
We literally clock thousands of hours driving them to sports practices and games, music and dance lessons and performances, youth-theater shows, chess clubs, debate competitions, study groups and tutors. Some even pay thousands for college-admissions counselors.
We don’t want to think about how much all of that costs.
So, why wouldn’t we believe that the end product – a smart, talented, high-achieving child – demonstrates the fruits of our labor (in both senses of the word)?
Why wouldn’t we feel that our child’s college search serves as the culmination of our 17- or 18-year training regimen?
In a blog post earlier this month, Rebecca M. Gruber recounted an interview with writer/director/actress Tina Fey about her latest (and well-timed) film, Admission. When asked about parental involvement in the college-admissions process, Fey replied, “People think it is a referendum on their parenting, [that] it’s about how well they did. It’s a dangerous trap that we all fall into.”
Along those lines, after browsing some of the college-admissions websites and online articles, I came up with some key points:
1.     In most cases, you are not applying to college; it’s your child’s turn. “ ‘We’ are not applying to college,” advises Kat Cohen, an admissions counselor and blogger for the Huffington Post. “While you are significantly involved in your child’s process, your child will get herself into college and she needs to be empowered to do this.”
2.    Not gaining entrance into a first choice or top-tier school does not equate failure for the student. He or she just wasn’t what the school thought it needed to round out its incoming class.
3.    Not gaining entrance into a first choice or top-tier school does not equate failure for the parents. Even if you did a stellar job during the child’s first 17 or 18 years, you are not responsible for the outcome of the admissions process.
4.    If your child is destined for a “highly competitive” college, he or she earned that acceptance. Try not to puff out your chest and think of it as your success. Yes, you should be proud of your child for attaining his or her goal, but don’t lose sight of whose goal it was, and who attained it.
5.    Your child is not necessarily destined for success and happiness if he/she was accepted at the first choice school; nor is he/she definitely headed for misery and failure if forced to attend a fourth or fifth choice. Kids can be unhappy and/or disappointed with their dream schools, and pleasantly surprised by also-rans.
The website College Parents of America ( includes spot-on advice. Among the site’s sage tips: “Although, as parents, we always want to make things better for our children, your student must come to his own terms with the news he receives. As difficult as this time may be, this is one of many steps toward independence and maturity that your child will face in the coming years.”
As for my own children, the first two have survived the college-admissions process.
Both sat in the driver’s seat and “owned” the outcome. We encouraged and supported them throughout, and were surprised by their final choices. The first later questioned his decision (which was whether or not to play collegiate football) and considered switching schools, but ultimately decided to ride it out. The second will embark on his college experience this fall.
Both boys are works in process, and we shall watch with interest – and from a slight distance – what the future holds for them.
–      Linda Williams Rorem, 18 March 2013
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Pressure on Kids in Sports

I was itching to get off the sideline and into “the game.” I have enjoyed watching my kids compete in club and high school athletics for many years from the bleacher vantage point. I have been supportive, serving in a variety of roles such as team mom, fundraiser and publicist. However, I was ready for a team of my own.  When the opportunity arose I “leaped before looking” and took the gig as a high school tennis coach.rackets

I loved coaching my kids in 6-10-year-old youth soccer, softball, baseball, basketball and tennis. At that age kids are eager to learn. They are excited to try new skills and easily brush off errors. It’s all about the snack after the game and parents are very supportive. By high school kids are harder on themselves and parents are anxious.  The pressure mounts on kids, and parents are eager to see progress and performance. High school athletics is an emotional universe away from the carefree days of hit and giggle ball.

What I’ve learned through the tryout phase and pre-season is that most kids are harder on themselves than any coach or parent.  They are eager for feedback. They want to please and improve. They want to develop a relationship of trust with their coach. After a tough match I stood with an athlete as she asked me what she could have done differently. All athletes want to win and losing is hard, but she was ready for feedback. During our conversation her father walked up and immediately provided a critique of her game. The athlete flinched, the moment disappeared and the student was no longer ready to learn.

The dad was very well-meaning and he was a great supporter of his daughter, but the timing was not good. The last time I coached I was not a parent and this recent situation was very insightful. Here is what I’ve learned from my athletes about being a better sports parent:

  1. Immediately after a game comment on the effort, not the result.
  2. Wait for your child to initiate the conversation after a game. If they won, they will most likely want to talk right away. If they lost it may take an hour; it may even take a day. Be patient.
  3. Don’t make your child feel guilty about the money and time you have invested in their sport. As a parent you had free will to decide this.
  4. Kids try their hardest and do their best based on what is going on in their life at that moment. Nothing more, nothing less.
  5. Your children love to have you come watch them play. They may not want your feedback.

It’s so much easier to see what to do in a game when you are not in the action. Who knew my time as a coach would give me so many parenting lessons.  I wish I had done this sooner.

Carol Lewis Gullstad March 11, 2013

Dirty Girls, Part 2

Earlier this year, a long-ago neighbor tracked down our family on behalf of her parents, who hadn’t seen my folks in more than 40 years. She searched for my dad through his former employer (not knowing he had passed away in 1982), and ended up reaching one of my brothers several steps later. Soon after, Marianne and I reconnected via Facebook.

Marianne and I lived near each other for about two years, starting when we were less than three years old. So, my memories of our interactions are sparse, at best. However, when we were “chatting” via Facebook’s instant messenger last month, she relayed her mom’s assertion that we were soul-mates who “loved getting dirty.”

I do recall that the lot next to our home was under construction, and Marianne, two neighbor boys and I loved running up and rolling down a huge mound of dirt that seemed to stand on that lot for months. (In truth, the mound probably wasn’t taller than my mother’s head, and most likely disappeared after a week or so.)

At any rate, it was a simpler, easier time, and our moms did allow us to roam the neighborhood unsupervised, and to play in that pile or dirt, which probably was quite muddy at times.


That’s not something you often hear girls doing today. I know that in my own family, while my boys spent hours playing in the sandbox, digging for worms in the yard, making mud-pies and building sandcastles at the beach, my daughter kept her hands clean. (However, the above photo proves that she at least placed her feet in dirt.)

Since then, the boys enjoyed outdoor sports such as running, biking, football, baseball and lacrosse, in which they certainly came in contact with dirt, but Caroline has preferred spending time in dance studios and choir rehearsal rooms.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, while all my children are very healthy, my girl does get sick a bit more often than the three boys do.

After chatting with Marianne, I wondered if it’s true that girls don’t get as dirty today, and if so, what impact that has had.

So, I Googled “Kids playing in dirt,” and came up with several interesting facts about dirt-play and its connection to good health.

  • “There is some thought that getting exposed to things, even parasites and different microbial elements in the dirt, might actually improve the overall immunity that a child develops,” states Dr. Aoi Mizushima of Providence Medical Group Family Practice in Portland, OR.
  • Mary Ruebush PhD, author of Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends, counsels that our immune systems—like our other muscles—must be exercised so they can develop and become strong enough to fight illness and disease. So, when a child is exposed to dirt, he or she actually is strengthening the immune system. Ruebush writes that “not only does [eating dirt] allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses… but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”

The current assumption is that some degree of dirt-play does promote good health.

In my Google search, I found a wonderful blog post by Katie Fox, former editor of Simple Organic, who extolled the virtues of playing outdoors, in less-than-sterile environments. She noted that playing in dirt:

  1. Is good for your brain.  Bacteria found in soil can activate neurons that produce serotonin, which is a natural anti-depressant.
  2. Can boost kids’ immune systems. Research shows that early exposure to the microbes and bacteria in dirt help prevent disease.
  3. Helps stave off ADD, depression and obesity. A documented disorder, “Nature-deficit disorder,” results from not playing outside enough.
  4. Lowers blood pressure and stress, and thus leads to happiness. Children who play outside laugh more, so they are less stressed and more happy.
  5. Increases ambition. Children who play outside are more adventurous, more self-motivated and better able to understand and assess risk.

Taking it one step further, several researchers claim that our current obsession with cleanliness has led to an increase in allergies and other autoimmune disorders.

“The recent entry of products containing antibacterial agents into healthy households has escalated from a few dozen products in the mid-1990s to more than 700 today,” notes Dr. Stuart B. Levy, of the Tufts University School of Medicine.

Dr. Levy explains that antibacterial products were created for medical purposes, to prevent transmission of disease-causing microorganisms among patients in medical offices and hospitals. Scientists worry that the over-use of these products in households helps make bacteria cross-resistant to antibiotics.

If these anti-bacterial agents “alter a person’s microflora, they may negatively affect the normal maturation of the T helper cell response…[and] lead to a greater chance of allergies in children,” Dr. Levy continues.

My mom used to say that by not keeping the house spick-and-span, she helped make us healthier. In fact, the six of us rarely missed school and are all, by and large, healthy adults (my oldest brother died of lung cancer, but that’s another story).

I suspect the same is true for Marianne.

So, let’s give ourselves, our young girls and our granddaughters (God willing we should have them, and not too soon) permission to get down and get dirty.

Linda Williams Rorem, 4 March 2013
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