The Spirituality of Dawdling

“Come on, Asher, we need to go!” I say for the fourth time as my three year old crouches down near the bushes in front of our house to examine a creature.

“But I found something interesting, Mommy! Come look! It’s yellow with black dots and I think it’s a dragonfly.”

He’s right; it’s a dragonfly and it’s quite beautiful, but that doesn’t change the fact that if we don’t get into the car this second we’re going to be late. Still, I bend down with him and am amazed that he can identify a dragonfly, then ask if he’s ready to get into the car.

The dragonfly examination was the fourth stop on our way out the door. First he noticed an ant on the floor. Then he had to make his cat puppet tell him something very important. Then he needed one more drink of water. I keep telling him that we’re going to be late while realizing that the word “late” is meaningless to him. And there’s one simple reason for this: he lives in the moment, the illustrious NOW every spiritual tradition espouses as the key to a peaceful life.

As I sat with him crouched down in the grass examining this small miracle of nature, it occurred to me that we have yet another example of crushing a child’s natural and effortless spiritual wisdom: throughout childhood we’re teaching kids to be on time, to set aside the story they’re writing because it’s time for math, to interrupt their creative flow and their innate knowledge of how to fully embrace each moment. In short, we teach them to squeeze themselves inside the boxes of time, expectations, and shoulds, telling them that they need to learn respect, organization, and timeliness.

And then, as adults suffering from anxiety, depression, addictions, insomnia, OCD, relationship troubles, and a variety of other maladies, they find their way to spiritual texts and meditation centers only to learn that they need to unlearn everything they’ve ever learned. They need to learn to be in the moment. They need to learn to “stop and smell the roses.” They need to slow down. They need to pause and come to their senses. Somewhere deep inside I imagine a young child living inside these fractured adults screaming, “EVERY TIME I STOPPED TO SMELL THE ROSES YOU TOLD ME TO HURRY UP! ALL I EVER WANTED WAS TO ENJOY MY SENSES BUT EVERYTHING ELSE WAS MORE IMPORTANT!” And that inner child would be right to feel angry: what he knew without being taught had been wrung out of him and now he has to painstakingly undo the unhealthy habits and re-learn the knowledge with which he was born.

Isn’t there something terribly tragic about this? What are we doing to our kids? We’re squashing their natural intelligence. We’re teaching them adult rules too early in life. Is it important to teach respect and timeliness? Absolutely. But is it possible that these qualities and skills could naturally arise from a place of wholeness if we allowed our children the freedom to meander through their days, trusting their own sense of direction? Likewise, we tell kids throughout childhood that they need to be normal and “fit in” only to learn that, as adults, those who we respect the most are people who have broken the rules, think outside the box, trust their own voice and vision, and, as a result, are the innovators and artists pushing the edge of the envelope and inviting others to do the same.

Now, I must admit that, as a parent, it’s incredibly frustrating when a child dawdles, especially if you’re in a rush. The fact is that adults are on adult time and kids are on kid time, and when a kid on kid time takes the longest route possible to get from point A to point B, it takes a lot of will power not to lose your patience. On a purely practical level, I try to allow extra time before an outing; if it would take me five minutes to get out the door on my own, I allow for twenty minutes when I’m with my kids. And then I try to keep the big picture in mind: that my kids are on their own timetable, one that allows for wonder and discovery at every turn, and if that means we’re going to be a few minutes late somewhere, so be it. I don’t like being late and I certainly hope my kids learn that being on time is respectful to everyone involved, but I also know that at seven and three years old, it doesn’t matter if they’re a few minutes late to a friends’ house or to a homeschool class. What matters is that they emerge from childhood with their spirits in tact, their sense of creativity, awe and curiosity fully alive, trusting their ability to navigate their lives according to their own inner compass and following the muse of wonder, and that whether they become scientists, poets, writers, engineers, businessmen, or musicians, they take time to crouch down and witness the miracle of a golden-iridescent dragonfly or a clump of grass growing in a sidewalk crack.

Here’s to dawdling, to pausing, to puttering, to sitting, to taking time to smell the roses. Can you imagine what a different world it would be if we all mindfully dawdled just a little bit more?

8 comments to The Spirituality of Dawdling

  • Betsy (blm5126)

    This story made my think of my husband in a lot of ways. He was brought up to have an incredible appreciation of nature and hobbies. He would go hunting with his grandfather and father, which involves a lot of sitting and just being with nature. He would play in the creek in the back yard of his parents house and learned how to make dams, canals, and waterfalls. He would help his father with tools/building projects and eventually got the opportunity to put back together a 1965 Ford truck that his great grandfather gave him. His mother will just walk around the garden pointing out different plants and he somehow absorbed every piece of information she had. He notices the small things in life and appreciates them. Thankfully, I have started to absorb that from him and notice small things now too.

    As usual Sheryl, your posts find some way to resonate with me. Thank you for all that you do.

  • Maya

    🙂 I think it is possible to be both punctual and present, and there must be a way to teach our children both the responsibility of being on time and the joy of being in the moment. Maybe it’s a matter of reserving periods of each day for that exploration and freedom, but teaching them that outside of that time it’s only fair to others and good for one’s own productivity to meet certain time deadlines. At heart I am a dawdler who encourages dawdling, but it’s so tough to know where to draw the line with your kids. I am struggling with that big time now. My son is at the stage where he wants you to read him stories over and over before going to bed, for example. At a certain point, I have to say that’s enough and face the screams of protest. That point seems to creep later and later each night, which is no good for anyone 😉

  • Betsy: I love the way you describe your husband and his childhood. It sounds very similar to how we’re raising our boys.

    Maya: Yes, I think it’s absolutely possible to be both punctual and present and yes, it’s very hard to know where to draw the line with kids. The truth is that parents have their own needs, which don’t usually include extensive dawdling if we’re trying to get somewhere on time or get kids to bed. It’s a continual balancing act!

  • Kate Ralls

    This is so wonderful. Thank you for sharing. I am giving birth in less than 3 weeks and this is such a good reminder for me. 🙂

  • I’m dawdling right now…

  • Kate: If there’s ever a time to dawdle without guilt, it’s now, during these last few weeks of your pregnancy. Many blessings on your final stretch and your transition into motherhood.

  • Marybeth

    Great post–
    All kinds of dawdling these days at this end w/ a 21 month old!
    And it has frustrated me a bit at times for sure… in my head screaming ‘let’s go!!!’ My life pre-baby was one big ‘let’s go, go, go!!!’
    I remember in the last trimester of pregnancy how I dawdled (and waddled;). It was nature’s way of saying ‘slooowww it down’ in an almost forced way as very pregnant women can move very fast much less have the energy to do so!
    And then the 4th trimester, the continuation of that sitting, cuddling, bonding, resting–another chapter of another version of dawdling.
    I enjoyed all of it–and even miss it sometimes.
    I knew that it was all designed by nature to be that way.
    Not the time to start a new job.
    Not the time to move.
    Not the time to renovate a home.
    Etc, etc.
    So I have been trying to use the moments when my daughter spots the ants on our kitchen floor, waving to them, screeching to them ‘Hiiee!’ as an extension of that reminder of the importance of the moment and how it is nature’s way–it’s all supposed to be this way.
    I am also learning to not overcommit–I made this mistake on a few occasions and found it was a perfect set up for forcing a toddler into an adult-sized schedule. Wrong fit!
    Trying to find the balance.
    Summer is a good time to remember this–take pause, live in the moment and wave to the ants:)

  • So beautiful, Marybeth. What you wrote gave me chills :).