In recession, more parents 'slowly' spend quality time with their kids

This article originally appeared in New Jersey News
April 19,2009

There are some hidden benefits that adults and kids are reaping from this economic situation….

Last year, Dana Slomkowski fer ried her preschoolers to horseback riding lessons, gymnastics and dance class. On errands to the store, she routinely bought small toys. If her 4-year-old daughter decided to wear only dresses, Slom kowski bought more dresses.

But life for the Slomkowskis has changed since the recession. Now, the children have one activity each. Gone are pricey vacations and long day trips. And if daughter Rory wants a new dress, she raids her piggy bank.

At first, Slomkowski felt guilty about the cutbacks. But now, she believes, her family is better off.

“We have more time, we talk. We may not go anywhere, but at least we’re all home together. Now I’m big on, ‘go outside and play,'” says Slomkowski, 39, a Manahaw kin stay-at-home mom whose husband works at IBM, where there are pay freezes, including no cost of living adjustment this year.

Slomkowski has inadvertently become a “slow” parent, the term for a global child-rearing movement that touts slackening the pace of family life and scaling back on material items.

A backlash against “helicopter parenting,” Canadian journalist Carl Honoré named the “slow parenting” trend five years ago. But since the recession, it has become a new lifestyle for families like the Slomkowskis, who never heard of “slow parenting” but have embraced its values.

“Instead of parents loading so much on the kids, so many activities, so many things, they have to realize they can’t do it all. And the kids have to think about what they really want because they can’t have everything,” she said. “Even if things get better, I don’t see changing back to the way we were be fore.”

The frenetic, ultra-competitive mind-set of so many middle-class families — eager to buy the hottest toys and shell out for multiple activities — has become increasingly unaffordable.

“When parents have less money, the option of striving madly for their kids becomes less of an op tion,” says Honoré, author of “In Praise of Slow,” published in 2004, and “Under Pressure: Rescuing Children From the Culture of Hy perparenting,” which came out last year.

“The economic and social model that is falling apart — fast profits, fast growth, fast consumption — it was about doing more and more, faster and faster. And it even applied to parenting,” says Honoré, who lives in London, where there are slow parenting seminars and meetings. “People used to feel obligated to give their children the best of everything, so they can be the best at everything. But, around the world, they’re see ing that’s not the best policy. Parents are realizing that what really matters is how to make the best of what you’ve got.”

The “slow” label has yet to enter the public consciousness in the U.S., but the zeitgeist is definitely there, says Mary Hickey, deputy editor of Parents magazine.

“We’ve seen this thing for quite awhile and the recession is accelerating it,” says Hickey, of Montclair. “What we’ve heard from readers is that they’re looking inward to the family unit as a source of happi ness, and that’s not something you need to put a price on. Instead of enrolling their 2-year-old in the best preschool, they’re thinking, why not keep them at home a little longer?”

According to the NPD Group, which tracks consumer spending, there are several signs that families are spending less on children. In the U.S., toy sales dropped 5 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. Fewer families are taking their children to restaurants, where visits with kids dropped 3 percent. Two chains that catered to tween girls, such as Club Libby Lu, where girls were given glittery makeovers, and the pricey Limited Too clothing stores, have closed since November. The Limited Too switched over to the lower-priced Justice chain.

A climate like this is ripe for a “slow revolution,” predicts Honoré, who didn’t create a philosophy so much as name a trend. His catch phrase is a play on the “slow food” movement, which started in Italy in the late 1980s as a reaction against processed, inorganic foods, and then caught on in the U.S. A grassroots “slow parenting” movement is also gaining momentum in America.

Last year, two Austin-based moms founded the “Slow Family Living” blog. Their “manifesto” urges an end to parents’ obsessive quests to enrich children, no mat ter the expense.

“Instead of paying for tap lessons and hauling your little kid to classes, why not just get a board and have them tap outside? If your child wants to play soccer, does he have to join a league? Just get a ball and kick it around in the back yard,” asks Slow Family founder Carrie Contey, a clinical psychologist and West Milford native. Along with co-founder Bernadette Noll, an Austin mother of four who grew up in Denville, Contey hosts slow family retreats and classes. The two plan to hold some in New Jersey this summer, but haven’t cho sen a location.

The Grund family of Montclair has been living “slow” for awhile, although mom Grace Grund, a slow food advocate, was only dimly aware of the slow family phenomenon. But the economic downturn has prompted even more scaling back for Grund, who owns Terra Tea Salon in Montclair.

Although her four children — ages 10 to 17 — were already limited to one or two activities, she’s not as eager to chauffeur them around on demand. “We’re reducing the number of times we’re driving places,” she says. “Before, there would be a soccer game here and a play date there and we would try to accom modate them. Now, we’re thinking about time and gas. It’s very much about, ‘our family unit is what’s im portant.’ We sit together for din ner.”

Hickey says that tough times have had at least one payoff for families.

“They want very much to teach their kids some good lessons about money, about the differences between needs and wants,” she says. “They want to take something good out of all this.”