It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Busy, busy, busy

As a society, we take pride in our busy-ness. When asked how we are, we routinely reply “busy!”, to which our friend will nod sagely, for they, too, are busy. We may complain about our busy-ness, but, really? We’re very proud of it. Those who work to keep their lives free from unnecessary social and work-related clutter are often disapproved of. We mock people who are in bed by ten p.m. We tacitly understand amongst ourselves that not enrolling your child in two (three! four! five!) activities a week is inferior parenting. We race through our days at high speed, without a second’s space for reflection, renewal, for just doing nothing. Because we’re busy! Oh! So Busy!

And busy is good! Because busy proves that we are diligent, energetic, productive people! Busy people live full, rich lives! Right?

The Washington Post ran an interesting experiment some while back. They plonked a world-famous violinist, Joshua Bell, into a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in Washington DC to see what would happen.

Now, they stacked the odds against Mr. Bell, setting him there at morning rush hour. Had they put him there at evening rush hour, when people arguably have more time at their disposal, it might have come out differently. But, given how we so often complain we don’t have time for a proper family evening meal, what with all we “have” to do, I’m not so sure.

Here’s the bit that totally wrenched my heart:

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She’s got his hand.

“I had a time crunch,” recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. “I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement.”

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He’s the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

“There was a musician,” Parker says, “and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time.”

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan’s and Bell’s, cutting off her son’s line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

“Evan is very smart!”

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

Let’s hear that again: Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.


Doesn’t that just make you want to cry? What are we robbing our children of, every single day, with our much-vaunted busy-ness? What are we robbing ourselves of? And why should our children’s lives be impoverished because we must race like hamsters on a treadmill? Do we really need to work that extra two hours? Do we really need to sign our children up for all those activities? Why do we sneer at people who are in bed by 10, which enables them to get up easily in the morning and avoid that last-minute frantic charge to work?

Perhaps classical music isn’t “your thing”. But if your child wants to stop and listen, why not? Maybe you are very, very busy, with many Important Things awaiting you. But will the world really end if you were to pause for 90 seconds?


May 31, 2007 - Posted by | Developmental stuff, music, parenting, socializing


  1. This is a very interesting post. I’ve been thinking about the whole “too busy” idea lately too. With two kids, a house, and a full-time job, I’m as “busy” as anyone (though we do NOT do all the extra activities). I’ve always tried to let my kids stop and look at whatever they wanted to look at, but of course there are time when I’m just to “busy” for something. For instance, we hardly ever go for a walk after dinner, because we’re so “busy” getting the kids bathed and put to bed.

    Recently, I’ve decided that anytime my kids ask to go for an after-dinner walk, I’ll always say yes unless there’s REALLY a reason to say no. And this morning, as I was about to leave for work, LS was fascinated by small container with a hard boiled egg in it, which I had just placed in my work bag. She was fussing, and I realized it was because she wanted to see the egg. Instead of just saying my goodbyes and handing her off to hubby, I sat down with her and opened the container so she could explore the egg for a minute. She enjoyed it, and I got a much better start to my morning than if I had left with her fussing. And yes I was a minute late to work, but that’s OK.

    Comment by BookMama | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  2. I sent that article to everyone I knew and, like you, was struck by the fact that all the children wanted to stop, to listen. And all the parents were frantically trying to get moving, to not be late.

    How sad is that. Although I do think that there might (maybe?) have been more slack if it were the evening, where the super-parent pressure to never be late for work isn’t adding into the mix.

    Comment by sylvia | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  3. “Do we really need to work that extra two hours?”

    In almost every way, the answer to that question is “no.” Do we really need the additional income? Probably not. Does the world need people to work ten-hour days in order to keep functioning? Definitely not.

    But will employers accommodate a parent’s desire to work a shorter day, even if the parent is still fulfilling the job requirements? Regrettably, the answer is often no. My husband has managed to find a job where there is an ethos of leaving the office each day shortly after five – but that was only after being turned down by all the big law firms, along with everybody else with children, or even a dog. Apparently major law firms don’t want to hire people with pets, since that will mean they have to go home sometimes.

    I don’t think that serves the interests of anybody, including the firm – why burn out your employees? What’s the long-term benefit of that? But it’s a hard culture to fight, and the employee is often the person with the least power to do so.

    Thanks for posting this, though – the image of those children, craning their necks to see the musician play…haunting.

    Comment by bubandpie | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  4. Great Post. It is good to be reminded to stop and smell the roses, or in my son Thomas’ case, follow the ant.

    Comment by Peter | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  5. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But it’s just so hard to find the time to do all the stuff that catches the attention of your kids. Everythng catches their attention. I can’t find time for it all. I wish I could. (and 10 is a late bedtime for me. I need my sleep. heh) Wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t matter it you were late for work?

    (and by an odd coincidence, our posts for today were titled the same, but have nothing to do with one another)

    Comment by ktjrdn | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  6. Oh, Mary. Thank you.

    Comment by kate | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  7. I grew up with a mom and dad who not only made time for themselves, but also made time for my sister and me. My father was a wise and friendly soul who realized early on that the standard “American dream” didn’t guarantee a meaningful life. He chose to work part-time when I was born so that he would have more free time, and although thing were always tight and we were always monetarily poor, we were so rich in time together that I never felt as though we lacked for much, because we had each other. Neither he nor my mother were ever too “busy” for their children. I remember indoor picnics when it rained, long walks in the woods, nighttime walks on the dirt road followed by lovely bedtime stories, family breakfasts every single morning and family dinners every single night. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), my father would have stopped and let me listen to that musician; what’s more, he would have listened and enjoyed it as well.

    My father died two weeks ago, and although he left behind some debt that he was unable to pay due to the financial choices he made, I think he was still satisfied with those choices. I am as well – we can pay the debt, but nobody can take away the hundreds of wonderful memories we have of our time with him. The gift of time was the greatest gift he could ever have given us, and something I will pass down to my children as well.

    Comment by Kiera | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  8. Wow…I started to respond to Mary’s post and then I caught the last comment by Kiera…now I’m crying.

    How beautiful is that? You are a lucky, lucky woman there Kiera and my condolences on your loss.

    Right, Mary’s post…I have an acquaitance that immediately came to mind reading that post. She works full-time, is Chair of the Parent/School Association, Treasurer of the Community Association, runs a drama club on weekends and has both of her daughters in dancing, basketball and Girl Guides. (both girls also go to school all day)

    I often have wondered “How does she do it,” but lately, since I started homeschooling I suppose, I keep thinking “Why does she do it?”

    Comment by Sheri | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  9. Oh, Sheri, I think you hit the nail on the head! Not the “How” of it for so many families but the “Why”!
    Well said.

    Comment by Tater and Tot | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  10. I know, we equate busy with sucessful somehow, I feel lost on days when I’m not ‘busy’ when I dont have a schedule, no one to pick up, no appointments to get too, I guess it recognising the difference between when your child is dawdling because of something worth watching or dragging their feet because they can…! Lolly used to love any form of music as a toddler, especially something outdoors, I never enjoyed it but I did know she loved it and would stand with her in front of buskers etc! I didnt want to listen or watch myself but I did love watching her 🙂

    Comment by jenny uk | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  11. Very, very thought-provoking here, and well done, Mary. I can recall several times in which I’ve been guilty of this action. But more and more lately I’ve been going between the guilt of not doing enough activities during the week and giving the finger to overbooking my family.

    Thanks for this. It definitely makes me more aware for the future!

    Comment by Mama's Moon | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  12. My MIL sent that article to all of us…I too was struck with how the children wanted to listen. I’be been trying more and more to stop and do things (ie. watch the diggers, push my son on the swing a bit longer, read 3 stories instead of one). We chose to make it work so I could stay home with the boys–I want to enjoy that time, not fill it with business!

    Comment by Tina | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  13. What a great blog! I too am a ‘Mary P’ (a Nanny, British and all!) and love my job. I started my own blog a while ago, and honestly I love to write but I have barely written more than 5 posts in months becuae I just don’t know what to write, or more to the point, if anyone is interested… Now I can’t wait to get into it again, your blog is an inspiration. What a bunch of interesting and thoughtful posts!

    I will be back!

    Comment by Louise | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  14. We need that reminder to slow down! Hubby told me about this experiment….no one seemed to recognize the quality of the musician once all the stage props were removed.

    Comment by Tammy | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  15. What great comments! I wish we could all gather together over a coffee (or something mellower) and see where the conversation took us.

    As with everything else, there are always mitigating factors to consider. As bubandpie notes, employers are not necessarily respectful of their employees’ right to a home life – indeed, to a life outside of work at all. On the other hand, I’m not meaning to suggest that children need never defer their fleeting fascinations to more pressing concerns. There are always balancing needs within the family; the childrens’ are not more important than the adults, nor vice versa.

    I love Kiera’s experience of a father who made qualitatively different choices for himself and his family. That’s inspirational.

    What I am arguing is that this notion we have that “busy” is a virtue is utterly, utterly false. I firmly believe that busy is almost always a vice. It is almost always a reduction, almost always a devaluing, an impoverishment of our lives.

    Think about it. Not one of these parents could take even 90 seconds to stop and savour the music their children wanted to hear. Ninety seconds? No one is so important that they can’t spare 90 seconds. And for the refusal to pause for 90 seconds, they were robbing themselves of a moment of beauty – and teaching their children that beauty can be spurned. Busy is more important.

    We fill our lives with doing, doing, doing, and spend little or no time “being”, and then wonder why we’re so often so tired, so dissatisfied, why things have so little purpose and meaning. (Which thoughts, of course, make us uncomfortable – and so we hurryquick find something else to do to distract us…)

    I love Sheri’s summation of these super-busy super-moms (and -dads) – “Not how do they do it, but why?” Now that’s a counter-cultural thought! I think we should all chew on that for a while…

    Comment by MaryP | May 31, 2007 | Reply

  16. Whether it’s classical music or roses, we should never be so frantic that we can’t slow down a little.

    Kiera, I’m so sorry for your loss.

    Comment by ann adams | June 1, 2007 | Reply

  17. This is why I’ve been stopping along the way to daycare to teach Pumpkinpie about flowers this spring. There are lots to look at, and a few to smell.

    Comment by kittenpie | June 1, 2007 | Reply

  18. Tater and Tot – “Oh, Sheri, I think you hit the nail on the head! Not the “How” of it for so many families but the “Why”! Well said.”

    Mary P – “I love Sheri’s summation of these super-busy super-moms (and -dads) – “Not how do they do it, but why?” Now that’s a counter-cultural thought! I think we should all chew on that for a while…”

    Wow, high praise guys…thanks. Didn’t realize that when I wrote that, that it would strike such a chord…or even that it was counter-cultural, though I suppose it is.

    Then again, I’ve never been one to spend too much time inside the box. 😛

    Gonna try to flush out my thoughts and expand on my comment in a post of my own.

    Thanks again.

    Comment by Sheri | June 1, 2007 | Reply

  19. I’m really glad that my stress and “busy-ness” is only internal (as a grad student, though I feel compelled to try to finish ASAP so as to get a paying job after all these years of penury, I am, after all, completely self-paced.) And since my husband is a musician, we have a lot of just hanging around time with the beebee.

    However, this is a valuable reminder that all that stuff doesn’t really matter – it is about the journey, not about the getting there, and I don’t want to ever forget to enjoy every possible minute.

    Lovely post, Mary (and commenters! Especially Keira!)

    Comment by Heath | June 1, 2007 | Reply

  20. Mary P another very thought provoking post! I absolutely love your blog. And the commenters who add more thought provoking insight; this is a great place to stop and read.

    Kiera, I am sorry for you lose, but oh so grateful for your insight. Thank you for sharing your story.

    What great conversation starters you all are!

    Comment by ~Sheryl | June 4, 2007 | Reply

  21. I love this post. I have thought of it so often this week and talked to quite a few of my friends ‘of it.’ Sometimes I think you should drop the ‘in childcare’ part after Philosophy at the head of your blog.

    I just love your Philosophy. Full stop.

    Comment by mo-wo | June 11, 2007 | Reply

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