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Q & A
Q&A: Getting families out of the rat race Mary Jacobs, Sep 2, 2009
As kids return to school, many families are running headlong into hectic schedules and overcommitted lifestyles. But not every hour needs to be rush hour, according to Ann Kroeker, author of Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families (David C. Cook.)
Writing from a Christian perspective, she asserts that speeded-up lifestyles exact a spiritual toll—and urges families to get off the fast track. She spoke with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
This is the time of year when many families with children are looking at their schedules and saying, “Do we really have to do all this?” We don’t have to do it all. We have to make bold and courageous choices to live at a pace that fits our families. I think one step that everybody would benefit from is taking the time to figure out what their family’s “load limit” is. When have they reached capacity? Then you can start to make informed decisions about what fits for your family.
How do you know when your family has reached its “load limit”? Clearly, any signs of stress are telling. One year I found myself obligated to several things, and I started grinding my teeth. That’s just one of a long list of stress symptoms that a person could start to see in their lives. Another symptom is that you really aren’t connecting with your family anymore. If the most meaningful conversations you’re having are reduced to logistics—“Do you have your backpack? Do you have your paper?”—if that’s as deep as it’s getting, you may be living too fast.
Many parents have told me, “I don’t like this hectic pace, but if I want my kid to even have a chance to get into a good college or get a good job, I have no choice.” Is that true? When my kids were really little, friends said: “Don’t you have your daughter signed up for T-ball yet? It’s what you do before Little League, and if you don’t get your kids in t-ball, it’ll be too late.” So there’s this pressure, even when your kids are really little, that you are going to be falling behind if you don’t do everything. It’s very difficult to convince somebody that you can live a different way and everything will be just fine. We have this feeling we need to get our kids involved as early as possible in as much as possible to maximize their chance of success. But it’s not true.
I think we need to take the time to find out what the Bible says success is. What would God say is successful? To say that the only path to success is to pile on activities is probably stretching and maybe even inhibiting a child’s future success in, let’s say, his or her ability to become a creative problem-solver. Kids involved in organized activities all the time have everything figured out for them. They work with these parameters that are already determined for them by another adult.
They’re over-facilitated. They can play Little League softball really well, but most would have no idea how to organize a neighborhood pick-up game, for example. Yes! They get good things from all these activities, but what about how they relate to people? Do they really know themselves? When do kids think? When do we give them times to explore interests that may not be possible to find in an organized setting? What if they want to build something in the backyard or write a story or draw some pictures? Our first thought is almost always going to be, “Sign them up for art class!” That’s very different than a child sitting down and developing his own ideas on a piece of paper.
We think we have to do all this to get our kids into Harvard. Well, the former dean of students at Harvard sent out a letter to all incoming freshmen a few years ago, entitled: “Slow down! Get more out of Harvard by doing less.” Kids were coming in to Harvard totally burned out, with no real vision for their lives, because everything in their lives until then had been structured by other people.
Is there a spiritual cost to being over-hurried? Absolutely. In a sped-up world we have a very difficult time remembering the skill of being still. We forget the command in Psalm 46: Be still and know who God is. We all crave a connection with the Lord, but then we just zoom right past Him. Of course, God is with us in the midst of the mania, but we lose the ability to rest in God. We don’t observe a Sabbath. A lot of people have abandoned that for soccer meets and activities. The old sweet hour of prayer that used to be such a given in people’s vocabulary, that gets lost when we check e-mails first thing instead of checking in with the Lord.
What led you to write about this topic? When my kids were preschoolers, I signed them up for everything. We went to every concert and story time, they took gymnastics and music lessons—everything. We were always flying out the door. I knew something wasn’t healthy but didn’t think there was any other way to live. During that time, my husband had to have emergency heart surgery. He’s fine now, but at the time, it brought our lives to a complete and utter standstill. We had no obligations, no activities. Nobody called and said, “Can you be on this committee? Can you be at this meeting?” While he recovered, my little girls were just at home. They had time for free play, for their imaginations to expand. We were reading books and just hanging out and being together. They were suddenly blossoming in ways I had not seen before. I realized that was the kind of life I wanted to lead, and that was the person I wanted to be, instead of this wigged-out mom. So we committed to this slower lifestyle.
It’s hard. The temptation to speed up is everywhere. We have to be vigilant. My kids are teens now, and I think they would affirm this pace of life has been healthy. They don’t feel shortchanged at all. We have time to serve people, to love people, to be intimately involved in each other’s lives. We do a few things, but we do them well, instead of doing a lot of things half-heartedly.
How can a family begin to slow down? Where to start? First of all, pray. Ask God to give you some insight, to give you wisdom to see what needs to be changed. Find ways to become more aware of slowing down. For example, every time you’re driving, instead of speeding up, set the cruise control at or below the speed limit. That can be maddening, and let that turn into a reminder: I’m trying to slow down, to experience grace and joy in the midst of this life. Or every time you hit a stoplight, take a moment to pray and take a deep breath. Or get outside and experience something in God’s creation. Once a week go on a little family walk. Watch the sun set. Start a family devotion around the table or on the go. In my family, we pull out one verse in the Bible, read it, talk about it and we pray. Start by getting into some little habit that reminds you to slow down.