Yes, Henrico, we have slow kids

Thank you. My faith in parents has been restored.

I was beginning to think that all 21st-century children were growing up tethered to electronic toys from birth, cutting their teeth on Baby Einstein videos and graduating from diapers straight to Gameboys – and that parents today popped techno-gadgets into toddler hands the way we once popped pacifiers into their mouths.

So it was heartening to hear the response to "Raising Slow Kids" (March 1 Citizen), and to learn that there are plenty of parents out there who are members of the resistance. Moms from Sandston to Short Pump wrote about the constant struggle to unplug their kids – and about their belief that doing so is better for them.

Monica Hopkins, the mother of daughters in the second and seventh grades, said that she is not only raising slow kids but sending them to a school founded on slow principles. At the Richmond Waldorf School, she said, the emphasis is on daily art and music lessons, and technology is not used.

At the Hopkins home, there is no TV (although the family watches an occasional show on the computer) and the girls do not play video games. "Less is more for our family," says Hopkins. "Our girls can communicate with others, kids or adults, and think for themselves. They use their creativity to keep themselves busy."

Of course, "keeping the kids busy" often requires help from parents, as more than one mom pointed out.

The mother of an eight-year-old and six-year-old wrote to say that "it is almost a full-time job keeping our son off the electronics." Among the household rules: screen time cannot exceed two hours daily, cannot commence until chores are done and must end at least an hour before bedtime. In summertime, the children must read at least an hour before playing with electronics.

Exceptions are allowed for illness, outdoor temperature over 90 degrees, and long car trips. But there are no exceptions to one rule: absolutely no handheld games at the table, whether at home or in a restaurant.

"The reason I say it is almost a full time job enforcing the rules," wrote the mom, “is if I am going to ban the electronic babysitters, I am going to have to fill in quite a bit." Many times, she has read or played board games with the kids when she preferred to nap or read a book.

"Or, Dad plays ball in the yard with them when he would rather be watching hoops on TV," she said.

"[But] putting their needs before your own is the ultimate trade-off of parenthood."

Another parent, whose children love reading and the outdoors, wrote to share her experiences after buying her daughter a Nintendo for Christmas.

Her eight-year-old has always been an excellent student, said Patrice Jones. But she now plays Nintendo every morning before school and every evening after homework and chores are done. Although she hasn't fallen behind in school, Jones has noticed some "disturbing" occurrences since her daughter acquired the game habit.

"She is forgetting things. She has left books and important papers at school," said Jones. "She says I never told her things, when I have not only told her once, but at least twice."

Eventually, Jones had to resort to temporarily confiscating her daughter's Nintendo and her son's Innotab. "I call this phenomenon 'sucking their brains out,'" she wrote. "In other words, these games have taken their brains away at times -- especially the part that houses memory."

Fortunately, her children are young and respond relatively well to such disciplinary tactics, said Jones. "I shudder to think about the pre-teen and teenage years.

"But we are still the parents, so rules will come at that age, too."

The single mom of a preschooler agreed that slow parenting is relatively simple in early childhood, but said she worries about the pressures to come in elementary school.

"I already understand the challenges facing parents who want to raise smart, well-socialized children in this techno-crazed society we seem to live in," she wrote, noting that she is "horrified" to hear of children who engage in non-stop TV or electronic play at day care, in the car, and again once they are home.

"Good grief," she exclaimed. "Who are these parents who give separate TVs to the kids?"

Being a single working parent, she wrote, she strives to model a "slowed-down" lifestyle, believing that is the best way to instill good values in her daughter. As the two get ready for preschool and work in the morning, they listen to the radio. When they reunite in the afternoon, they take their dog for a 45-minute walk through the neighborhood.

"She gets to tell me about her school day lessons and books they read that day, and we get to socialize with our neighbors," she wrote. "In the evening, she's in the kitchen with me talking more about her day while I get dinner ready . . If time permits after dinner and before her bath, she may get to catch one of her favorite shows . . .[and at bedtime] we always, always read a book."

While mom watches an occasional TV show, she said, her daughter can't help but notice that her priorities are reading and being outdoors. "I have no hope for parents who may want to reduce the time their kids use electronic devices, but [are] constantly checking their smart phones – even while driving – constantly surfing the web, and glued to the TV for hours," she said. "These parents are basically saying 'Do as I say not as I do.'"

The mother of boys ages nine and six, Tracy Henry wrote to say that she would welcome a support group for parents of the unplugged persuasion. "I am desperately trying to raise my boys in the spirit of the 'slow kids movement,'" said Henry. "It is indeed a counterculture and a true challenge."

The family's single TV is "sequestered" in an isolated room and can only be turned on by parents; there is no cable. "Our home is decorated with Tinker Toys and Legos in various stages of build," Henry wrote. "In the evening, our family reads together."

The down side, she said, is that none of her friends share her ideas about child-rearing. And while she describes her children as smart and popular, they want to fit in with their peers – which can be difficult when lifestyles are so different. "We are currently in a struggle," Henry wrote, "to decide whether we want to introduce our first gaming system into the family."

To sum up, slow kids feedback centered around two themes.

First of all, in slow homes, screen time is a special treat or privilege doled out by parents – not an entitlement that a child can turn to at the first hint of boredom.

Secondly, the earlier a child is introduced to the slow way of life (preferably in the preschool years), the easier it is to enforce limits, and the more the child benefits. Unplugging children becomes progressively harder the longer they are allowed to wallow routinely in electronics, and the longer they are exposed to school and outside influences.

But if you're reading this as the parent of a TV- or game-addicted older child, don't think it's hopeless.

In my next column, I will provide examples of both parents who have raised children slow from birth, and those who have "detoxed" older children (typically, after schoolwork began to slide).

Meanwhile, if Tracy Henry's idea of a support group interests you, e-mail me (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)) with contact information and I will forward it to her. At the very least, a few like-minded parents could get together, share ideas and support each other.

And with any luck, who knows? Perhaps Henrico will one day be known as the birthplace of the slow kids movement.
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The American Youth Harp Ensemble will present “Harp! The Herald Angels Play!” at 3 p.m. at Seventh Street Christian Church, 4101 Grove Ave. The concert is for the entire family and will feature over fifty harpists and singers, ages 7-18, performing beloved holiday classics. The Virginia Choristers will open with a choral prelude at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for seniors and children. For details, call 837-9355 or visit http://www.americanharpensemble.com. Full text

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