“Who says getting there fast – or first – is right? Burnt-out children and their teachers and frazzled parents are calling a halt to the cult of speed, and the result, writes Carl Honore, is a lifestyle revolution.
The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things. – Plato (427-347 BC)
Harry Lewis Is dean of the undergraduate school at Harvard. In early 2001, he attended a meeting at which students were invited to air their grievances about staff at the Ivy League university. One undergraduate kicked up a memorable fuss. He wanted to double major in biology and English, and cram all the work into three years, instead of the usual four. He was exasperated with his academic adviser, who was unable, or unwilling, to devise a schedule to accommodate all the courses. As Lewis listened to the student moan about being held back, he felt a light bulb flash above his head.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute, you need help, but not in the way you think you do,” the dean says. “You need to take time to think about what is really important, rather than trying to figure out how to pack as much as you can into the shortest possible schedule.”
After the meeting, Lewis began to reflect on how the 21st-century student has become a disciple of hurry. From there it was a short step to speaking out against the scourge of overstuffed schedules and accelerated degree programs. In the summer of 2001, the dean wrote an open letter to every first-year undergraduate at Harvard. It was an impassioned plea for a new approach to life on campus and beyond. It was also a neat precis of the ideas that lie at the heart of the “slow” philosophy. The letter, which now goes out to new Harvard students every year, is titled “Slow Down”.
Over seven pages, Lewis makes the case for getting more out of university and life by doing less. He urges students to think twice before racing through their degrees. It takes time to master a subject, he says, pointing out that top medical, law and business schools increasingly favour mature candidates with more to offer than an “abbreviated and intense undergraduate education”. Lewis warns against piling on too many extracurricular activities. What is the point, he asks, of playing lacrosse, chairing debates, organising conferences, acting in plays and editing a section of the campus newspaper if you end up spending your whole Harvard career in overdrive, striving not to fall behind schedule? Much better to do fewer things and have time to make the most of them.
When it comes to academic life, Lewis favours the same less-is-more approach. Get plenty of rest and relaxation, he says, and be sure to cultivate the art of doing nothing.
“Empty time is not a vacuum to be filled,” writes the dean. “It is the thing that enables the other things on your mind to be creatively rearranged, like the empty square in the 4×4 puzzle that makes it possible to move the other 15 pieces around.” In other words, doing nothing, being slow, is an essential part of good thinking.
“Slow Down” is not a charter for slackers and born-again beatniks. Lewis is as keen on hard work and academic success as the next Harvard heavyweight. His point is simply that a little selective slowness can help students to live and work better.
“In advising you to think about slowing down and limiting your structured activities, I do not mean to discourage you from high achievement, indeed from the pursuit of extraordinary excellence,” he concludes. “But you are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time, some recreation, some time for solitude.”
His cri de coeur comes not a moment too soon. In our turbocharged world, the hurry virus has spread from adulthood into the younger years. These days, children of all ages are growing up faster. Six-year-olds organise their social lives with mobile phones, and teenagers launch businesses from their bedrooms. Anxiety about body shape, sex, consumer brands and careers starts earlier and earlier. Childhood itself seems to be getting shorter, with more girls hitting puberty before their teens. Young people today are busier, more scheduled, more rushed than my generation ever was. Recently, a teacher I know approached the parents of a child in her care. She felt the boy was spending too long at school and was enrolled in too many extracurricular activities. Give him a break, she suggested. The father was furious. “He has to learn to do a 10-hour day, just like me,” he snapped. The child was four.
In 1989, David Elkind, an American psychologist, published a book called The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. As the title suggests, Elkind warned against the vogue for rushing kids into adulthood. How many people took notice? Very few, apparently. A decade later, the average kid is more hurried than ever.
Children are not born obsessed with speed and productivity – we make them that way. Single-parent homes put extra pressure on kids to shoulder adult responsibilities. Advertisers. encourage them to become consumers earlier. Schools teach them to live by the clock and use time as efficiently as possible. Parents reinforce that lesson by packing their schedules with extracurricular activities. Everything gives children the message that less is not more, and that faster is always better. One of the first phrases my son learned to say was: “Come on! Hurry up!”.
Competition spurs many parents to rush their children. We all want our offspring to succeed in life. In a busy world, that means putting them on the fast track in everything: school, sports, art, music. It is no longer enough to keep up with the Joneses’ children; now, our own little darlings have to outpace them in every discipline.
In the open-all-hours global economy, the pressure to stay ahead of the pack is more ferocious than ever, leading to what experts call “hyperparenting”, the compulsive drive to perfect one’s children. To give their offspring a head start, ambitious parents play Mozart to them in the womb, teach them sign language before they are six months old and use flash cards to teach them vocabulary from the age of one. Computer camps and motivational seminars now accept kids as young as four. Golf lessons start at two.
With everyone else fast-tracking their offspring, the pressure to join the race is immense. The other day I came across an advertisement for a BBC foreign language course for children. “Speak French at 3! Spanish at 71” screamed the headline. “If you wait, it will be too late!” My first instinct was to rush to the phone to place an order. My second instinct was to feel guilty for not having acted on the first.
When it comes to learning, however, putting children on the fast track often does more harm than good. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that specialising in a sport at too young an age can cause physical and psychological damage. The same goes for education. A growing body of evidence suggests that children learn better when they learn at a slower pace. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, professor of child psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recently tested 120 American preschool children. Half went to nursery schools that stressed social interaction and a playful approach to learning; the rest attended nursery schools that rushed them towards academic achievement, using what experts call the “drill and kill” style of teaching. Hirsh-Pasek found that children from the more relaxed, slower environment turned out less anxious, more eager to learn and better able to think independently.
Last year, Hirsh-Pasek co-wrote Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children REALLY learn – and Why They Need to Play More and Memorise Less. The book is packed with research debunking the myth that “early learning” and “academic acceleration” can build better brains.
“When it comes to raising and teaching children, the modern belief that ‘faster is better’ and that we must `make every moment count’ is simply wrong: Hirsh-Pasek says. “When you look at the scientific evidence, it is clear that children learn better and develop more rounded – personalities when they learn in a more relaxed, less regimented, less hurried way.”
Today, educators and parents around the world are taking steps to allow young people the freedom to slow down, to be children. In my search for interviewees, I posted messages on a few parenting websites. Within days, my inbox was crammed with emails from three continents. Some were from teenagers lamenting their hasty lives. An Australian girl named Jess described herself as a “rushed teen” and told me, “I have no time for anything!” But most of the emails came from parents enthusing about the various ways their kids were decelerating.
Let’s start in the classroom. At the end of 2002, Maurice Holt, professor emeritus of education at the University of Colorado, Denver, published a manifesto calling for a worldwide movement for “slow schooling”. In Holt’s view, stuffing information into children as fast as possible is as nourishing as wolfing down a Big Mac. Much better to study at a gentle pace, taking time to explore subjects deeply, to make connections, to learn how to think rather than how to pass exams. If eating slow excites the palate, learning slow can broaden and invigorate the mind.
“At a stroke, the notion of the slow school destroys the idea that schooling is about cramming, testing and standardising experience,” Holt writes. “The slow approach to food allows for discovery, for the development of connoisseurship. Slow food festivals feature new dishes and new ingredients. In the same way, slow schools give scope for invention and response to cultural change, while fast schools just turn out the same old burgers.”
Holt and his supporters are not extremists. They do not want children to learn less, or to spend the school day messing around. Hard work has a place in a slow classroom. Instead of obsessing over tests, targets and timetables, however, kids would be given the freedom to fall in love with learning.
Parents are also starting to question the academic hothousing that prevails in some private schools. Some are lobbying principals for less homework and more slow time for art, music or just thinking. Others are simply yanking their kids out and moving them into schools that take a less fast approach.
That is what Julian Griffin, an office broker in London, did. Like so many successful parents, he wanted to give his son what he thought was the best education possible. The family even moved, to be within walking distance of a top private primary school in south London. Before long, though, James, an artistic, dreamy child, began to flounder. Though good at drawing and making things with his hands, he struggled to keep up with the academic pace – the long hours in the classroom, the assignments, the exams. Most parents at the school found it difficult to make their children plough through the mountain of homework, but the battles were particularly virulent in the Griffin household. James began to suffer panic attacks, and wept when his parents dropped him off at school. After two years of misery, and a fortune spent on psychologists, the Griffins decided to look for another school. (…)
British state schools do not “hothouse”. So, in September 2002, the Griffins enrolled James in a public primary school that is popular with British state schools do not “hothouse”. So, in September 2002, the Griffins enrolled James in a public primary school that is popular with ambitious middle-class parents in south London. The school has been the making of James. Though he still has a tendency to daydream, he has discovered a taste for learning and now ranks in the middle of his class. He looks forward to going to school, and does his homework – about one hour a week – without a fuss. He also attends a weekly pottery class. Above all, he is happy and his confidence is returning. “I feel like I have my son back,” Julian says.
Disillusioned with the hothouse culture in the private sector, the Griffins plan to send their younger child, Robert, to the same school. “He’s a different character to James, and rm sure he could take the pace in the private sector, but why should he have to,” asks Julian. “What’s the point of driving kids so hard that they burn out?”
The cue to slow down often comes from children themselves. Take the Barnes family, who live in west London. Nicola, the mother, works part-time for a market research firm. Her husband, Alex, is the financial director for a publishing company. They are busy people with bulging diaries. Until recently, their eight-year-old son, Jack, was the same. He played soccer and cricket, took swimming and tennis lessons, and acted in a drama group. On weekends, the family trawled through art galleries and museums, attended musical events for children and visited nature study centres around London. “We ran our lives, including Jack’s, like a military campaign,” Nicola says. “Every second was accounted for.”
Then, one afternoon in late spring, everything changed. Jack wanted to stay at home and play in his room instead of going to his tennis lesson. His mother insisted he go. As they sped across west London, screeching round corners and surging through yellow lights to avoid being late, Jack fell quiet in the back seat. “I looked in the mirror and he was fast asleep, and that’s when it hit me,” Nicola recalls. “I suddenly thought: `This is mad. I’m dragging him to something he doesn’t really want to go to. I’m going to burn out my own child.'”
That evening, the Barnes family gathered round the kitchen table to downsize Jack’s diary. They decided he should do no more than three extracurricular activities at a time. Jack chose soccer, swimming and drama. They also agreed to cut back on their scheduled weekend outings. As a result, Jack now has more time to potter around in the garden, meet friends in the park and play in his room. On Saturdays, instead of collapsing exhausted into bed after dinner, he hosts sleepovers. On Sunday morning, he and a friend make pancakes and popcorn.
Shifting down a gear did take some getting used to, at least for the parents. Nicola worried that Jack would be bored and restless, especially on weekends. Alex feared he would miss cricket and tennis. Jack, however, has blossomed on the • lighter schedule. He is livelier, more talkative and has stopped biting his nails. His soccer coach thinks his passing is sharper. The head of his drama-group feels Jack has more zip.
The Barneses are now planning to cut beck on the.mother of all extracurricular activities: television. Television accelerates children’s move into adulthood by exposing them to grown-up issues and turning them into consumers at a young age. Because kids watch it so much -up to four hours a day in the United States, on average, they have to rush to squeeze everything else into their schedules.
In 2002, 10 leading public health organisations, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, signed a letter warning that watching too much television makes youngsters more aggressive. Some studies suggest that children exposed to violent TV or computer games are more likely to be restless and unable to sit still and concentrate.
In a world obsessed with doing everything faster, however, some will find it easier than others to bring up their children in a slow fashion. Some forms of deceleration come at a price not everyone can afford. You need money to send a child to a private school that takes a slow approach to learning. To make the time for home education, at least one parent has to work less, which is not an option for every family. Nevertheless, may ways to put a child on the slow track are free. Cutting back on TV or extracurricular activities, for instance, costs nothing.
Rather than cash, however, the main barrier to slow child rearing, indeed to slow anything, is the modern mindset. The urge to fast-track kids still runs deep. Instead of welcoming official efforts to ease the workload in classrooms, many Japanese parents make their children spend even longer at local coaching colleges. Across the industrial world, parents and politicians remain in thrall to exam results.
Rescuing the next generation from the cult of speed means reinventing our philosophy of childhood. More freedom and fluidity in education, more emphasis on learning as a pleasure, more room for unstructured play, less obsession with making every second count, less pressure to mimic adult mores. Grown-ups can certainly do their bit by curbing the urge to hyperparent and by setting a slow example in their own lives. None of these steps is easy to take. But the evidence is that taking them is well worth it.
Nicola Barnes is glad her son, Jack, no longer rushes around trying to do as much as he can with every single moment of the day. “It’s such an important lesson to learn, for children and adults,” she says. “Life is just better when you know how to slow down.””