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My son is slow...and slow is good

My name is Eloise and I have a slow son.

There it is, I said it.

I can’t tell you exactly when I first noticed this fact. Perhaps it was when as a toddler he would lose focus in the middle of singing a song I was recording for his grandparents, eyes widening and mouth dropping open mid verse. “It’s a gecko… Mummy it’s a gecko”. You could watch the video here but then; you’d lose focus too.

Maybe you too are a parent of a space cadet. Perhaps you know the feeling of talking and talking assuming he is listening or assuming she is tracking.

I remember a road trip some years ago, at dawn across the beautiful South African Karoo on our way to my mom’s house.

“We should arrive late afternoon” I say in response to Juliette’s gathering of the needed information. “We’ll probably grab breakfast on the way,” to Sophia’s planning ahead. “What do you think of that, Judah?”

Nothing from Judah in the back. “Judah…”

“Anakin’s a bad guy,” he says with sudden passion.

The definition of a space cadet: One who deals with reality in a way consistent with being under the influence of (“spaced out on”) drugs. In our case the drug of Star Wars.

You and I have many stories of the futility of rushing any small child. Getting them to focus on what needs doing before we leave the house can be straight up psychological warfare.

One incident stands out in my mind.

Judah was about five and I was hustling to get a big load of groceries done. By the time we were loading the car my patience was wearing thin, three-year-old Juliette was hangry and six-year-old Sophia was absorbing my tension as she so intuitively does. But Judah was with the Jedis.

“Judah, watch out!” I warned as he flung open the car door within millimeters of the shiny luxury sedan in the bay next door. “Would you please just focus! What are you thinking?” It was meant to be rhetorical.

“I was thinking,” he answered anyway, “that we are so lucky to have all this food to take to our house.”

Stopped in my tracks. Again.

It has occurred to me that perhaps, my son isn’t dealing with reality from way out in space but from a more profound, better-connected place than what I consider urgent .

What if slow and distractible is good?

What if slow and distractible is rich and creative?

“He’s not slow!” said Clinical Psychologist Mark when he met Judah for the first time.

“On the contrary, his brain is rocketing forward to the next fifteen things he’d like to discuss with this adult whose undivided attention he has.”

That’s nice, I think, but how in the world does a rich creative thinker (read space cadet) function in an education system or a working world that values focus and efficiency of thinking?

What did you do when a teacher subtly (or not so subtly) suggested you ‘solve’ your daughter’s distractibility or a professional suggested medications so she could focus better?

What if short-term improvement in mental focus and resistance to distraction comes at a cost to developing creativity and rich thinking?

Three truths that changed my response to my space cadet and might do the same for you:

1. Slow thinking can be better than quick thinking.

Researchers call space cadet thinking: INSIGHT.

‘Insight involves the sudden recognition that connections exist between elements of a problem.’ explains my guest on this month’s Wonderfully Wired podcast, Fernette Eide of the Dyslexic Advantage.

By ‘sudden’ they don’t mean quick! In fact, insight comes slowly and well, after the brain has focussed actively on a question at hand and is relaxed and… distracted.

It’s not only Dyslexic brains that use insight. You know it as the moment you sit up in bed in the middle of the night because you suddenly remember the name of the girl from college that married that rugby coach your husband was referring to at supper.

‘Eureka!’ shouts an old mathematician in the bath as the water rises when he gets in. Archimedes was his name and he’d been trying to figure out how to calculate the volume of an irregular object for ages. It was only when his brain was “bath-time-relaxed” that a novel ‘insight’ suddenly arrived.

Remember my boy on a road trip? Judah’s conclusion on Anakin’s character, undoubtedly invoked by the morning star twinkling over the barren Karoo landscape, was a matter Judah and other Star Wars fans had been pondering for some time.

The point is this: What insight loses in time efficiency, it gains in rich, valuable thinking.

In fact, slow thinking is evidence of an incredible gift our quirky thinkers have, one that seems a little mystical to step by step analytical thinkersThe ability to see the way forward when information is missing or unclear is called Dynamic Reasoning.

2. More time pressure means less insight.

Once I had decided that slow thinking was actually valuable, I realised that many of the conditions Judah learns in, discourages such thinking. Worse, as his teacher I was discouraging it by projecting the pressure I feel on to him, to: spit out an answer, get on with it, stop dawdling, pay attention.

The Drs Eidde warn, ‘The harder you try to solve some problem using insight, the less likely you are to succeed.’

I don’t need to accept Judah’s way of thinking simply out of kindness or patience but to hear the eventual rich thought!

Our sons and daughters have so little time for slow reflective thinking! We feel that good parents are the ones that offer tons of activities and opportunities, leaving almost no time for brains to relax enough to ‘click’ the things they need to grasp.

By the time they are teenagers we tell ourselves that ‘idle hands are the devil’s playground’ and that keeping them busy is the best solution.

What if it isn’t?

Just think how this understanding would change the way we see screen-free disconnected times for our big thinkers.

3. More distraction means more creativity

Finally, there is a body of evidence that proves that tight mental thinking and absolute focus without distraction (called latent inhibition, you know, the stuff teachers dream of having in a student) is actually not great for creative achievement. “In fact, one study looking at Harvard students showed that nearly 90 percent of those who showed unusually high creative achievement scored below average in latent inhibition” say the Drs Eide.

The best definition I know of creativity is the ability to combine two seemingly unrelated things in a way that results in something completely new. Our main aim isn’t to raise a good worker for an industrial age anymore, it’s to release innovative flexible thinkers in a world hungry for their ability to solve its problems.

It seems to me that the space cadets we are trying to rush and bully into focus have an extraordinary advantage over the fast, focussed thinkers!

If only we’d stop hurrying them.

I have a slow son.

I’m so lucky.

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