Lots of public parenting goes on in summer. Family groups spend hours on the beach or hanging out with friends. These are probably some of the best times of the year for many families. Less rush, fewer demands, looser schedules bring an ease that benefits parents as much as children.
But, watching, I see that even in these easier weeks many parents are struggling with some really basic issues. How could this be otherwise? The average age for first-time mothers has just tipped to the far side of thirty. Whatever else they packed in to the years before their first child arrived, there probably was precious little time spent with children. And, even if there had been, spending time with other people’s children hardly begins to prepare you for the awesome task of raising yours.
Listening as well as watching, I see that one of the huge issues for parents of young children is the vexed one of maintaining routines and keeping children relatively calm and happy. We live in a wondrous world that is also rushed, competitive and tiring. We ask too much of ourselves. We feel frazzled. This makes us more rather than less confused about how to keep our youngest children calm and happy. We may also be trying to squeeze in optimum parenting after paid work. No wonder then that we often do what seems easiest in the short-term, what gives us a few minutes respite or what ‘seems to work’, even when it really doesn’t.
A short list of absolutely basic suggestions follows, though let me say at once how wary I am about expert advice when it comes to children. The truly confident, it seems to me, always have no children of their own at all, or they have children but also have a “marvellous” partner, mother, father-in-law, lady next door and so on. In other words, they came from a different planet from the one I live on. My list is of the humbled parent variety: hard-won insights, for what they are worth.
1) Establish routines. And, with few exceptions, stick to them. Even quite big children flourish when there are rhythms to the day, every day. External order really does help children to ‘order’ themselves internally.
2) Have dinner early. The principle of ‘nursery tea’ at five or six o’clock also signals that bed is only an hour or two away. This is tricky if you have to collect from a childcare centre after work, but make simple early eating (and bed) the priority and let everything else wait.
3) Limit the choices you offer. Keeping to the rhythms of the day it works wonderfully to say, ‘It’s time for your bath,’ rather than inviting your two-year-old to decide whether she would like her bath before or after dinner or with or without bubbles. This also makes it possible to say, with conviction, ‘It’s time for your story and for bed.”
4) When you need to say “No”, say it confidently. If you need to explain, keep it brief. ‘It’s not safe.’ ‘We have had enough treats today.’ Setting limits helps to make a child feel safe, especially when it’s done without anxiety or guilt. Douse tantrums with disinterest.
5) Talk less. I hear people overloading their children with long explanations that veer between the confusing and the boring. “Talk less and listen more” works for all relationships; children are no exception. Often our over-talking is a symptom of our own anxiety; it adds to theirs. If they want more information, they’ll ask for it.
6) Do lots together that’s sensual and physical. Sand, water, mud; building houses from pillows and rolling on the floor; anything that involves the body and engages the senses will delight children and wake them up imaginatively. Also give your children time and opportunity to look in long, slow detail at the natural world.
7) Do everything you can to maintain your own good humour. This means limiting stress, getting enough rest, dropping housework standards, doing only what’s essential or fun. The less tired you are, the easier it is to deal with whatever crises arise. In the end, the greatest gift you will ever give your children is the quality of your loving presence. To achieve this, you must also care for yourself.
8) Practise love. Whenever, however, affirm, cherish, protect – and love.