Following My Preschool-aged Kids’ (Very Slow and Extremely Distracted) Lead

Little kids, like my 2-year-old and 4-year-old, have little concept of time and move at a much slower pace than most adults. One obvious reason for this is that their developing brains make them curious and inquisitive about all the new things they're encountering in the world. This necessarily slow-paced process of exploration and discovery can really slow you down when you're trying to get to work, school, or anywhere else on time. So how do you balance their developmental need to "doddle" when you're a super-busy parent trying to juggle work, kids, and all the other obligations on your calendar?      

My mother recently gave me a terrific new book for my 4-year-old daughter and 2 1/2-year-old son. It’s called Wait. Written by Antoinette Portis, it follows a woman and her young son on their weekday morning walk to a commuter train in the city. As the boy’s mother leads him by the hand along busy sidewalks, through a park, across a street, past storefronts and up the stairs to a commuter train platform, he keeps stopping to look at and explore different things—a friendly Dachshund, a construction site, the colorful menu on the side of an ice cream truck, a butterfly resting on a flowering plant. Each time he stops he says, “Wait.” And each time his mother urges him on, replying, “Hurry!” Finally, they get to the subway platform and run to catch the waiting train before it leaves. They are about to step onto it when the boy suddenly says, “Wait” again. His mother turns around to see a beautiful rainbow; she stops and picks up her son so that they can look at it together, letting the train leave without them. It ends with her replying, “Yes. Wait.”

I love the simplicity and minimalist style of this book. It communicates a familiar and oft-repeated message about contemporary life in a very fresh, illustrative, and non-patronizing way: Follow your children’s (slow-paced) lead from time to time and put other obligations aside to be in the moment with them.

This is, of course, easier said than done. One of the reasons I (and many others, I’m sure) often strive to be punctual and organized at the expense of my children’s curiosity and leisurely natural pace is precisely because I love them. Staying focused on my full-time marketing job and getting there on time means sustaining my career—and thus being able to pay for my kids’ clothes, food, toys and other creature comforts. It also means setting an example for them of what it means to be a dedicated, reliable worker, and teaches them crucial lessons about how to be organized and disciplined themselves, as well as the importance of having meaningful, challenging work. It always strikes me as ironic when my work and family life present conflicting priorities and people say things like, “Well, your children should always come first.” Whether I decide it’s best to keep my commitment at work or to put work aside and directly address my child’s immediate need, it’s always because I am putting my children first. 

This desire to be a good provider and a good example to my children is always in tension with their natural rhythms. Like the little boy in Wait, they get sidetracked when getting ready to go and leaving for— well, anywhere—and want to instead spend time playing with the tiny, random plastic horse some former resident left stuck in the baseboard of our living room, or telling me how Brittany at preschool ate Play-Doh, or putting on their sparkly dress-up shoes that they have no business wearing to school, or revisiting the soggy cereal they had no interest in 20 minutes ago when it was recognizably cereal and they were supposed to be eating it. Trying to get my kids out the door for school in the morning (or any other time of day, really) is an exhausting exercise in patience, persistence and redirection.

Sometimes I wrestle with the cost-benefit analysis of whether to slow down and giving them “doddling” room or leave the house on time. As important as routine and consistency is, I also believe that you need to give little kids (and yourself) a break once in a while. By continually rushing them and not allowing for any flexibility or pause, we risk doing a few things that can negatively affect their development:

  • Denying our children significant learning opportunities, such as that 5 minutes it takes them to tie their own shoe (or try) or get into their car seats by themselves;
  • Discouraging the freedom to be creative that allows for the emergence of natural talents and affinities, and for general self-discovery;
  • Teaching them to always value speed and discipline over patience and being in-the-moment;
  • Prioritizing the convenience of our employer, the daycare, the doctor, or whomever over our children’s need for calm and limited exposure to stress (excessive stress is linked to myriad problems, from stunted psychological development to physical illness).

I find that last page of the book so touching—the gentle, compassionate moment when the hurried mom slows down to enjoy the rainbow with her son, giving him her full attention and echoing his mantra in a kind of affirmative, validating gesture: “Yes. Wait.”

But the story’s moral not only addresses our kids’ sometimes overlooked needs, it also to speaks to our own. How many wonderful, unique moments are we missing out on by never slowing down (with or without kids)? How damaging to our own bodies and minds is the constant stress of rushing and agonizing over the fulfillment of never-ending, competing obligations? Taking the time to be fully present and focused on the moment may not be something we can do all the time—in fact, it takes a lot of effort and considerable restraint for me to do it at all—but should attempt whenever possible. It can be hard to slow down, because it flies in the face of our society’s insistence on ceaseless forward movement.

My kids’ invariably slow, meandering path to our front door reminds me of a quotation from the 1983 movie Reuben, Reuben that a good friend of mine used to evoke. The film’s protagonist, in response to a dining companion’s admiration for a man who learned to speed-read at such a rate as to successfully blow through War and Peace in 55 minutes, says, “I, for example, would like to read Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night as slowly as possible. In fact, I would pay vast sums for anyone to teach me to read books I love at a snail’s pace.” The message is clear: he is weary of people’s endless pursuit of speed and increased productivity in every aspect of life, and longs to slow down and fully experience its more agreeable moments—just like my kids. And they’ve both got a point.

What’s more, various scientific studies seem to show that slowing down and suspending our race for productivity for a bit (this New York Times column provides some great examples) can actually make us more productive at work and at home—how’s that for instructive irony? So, once in a while, I will take a moment to wait.


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