Most parents think of the birth of their children as an emotional high point in their lives.There is no adventure like it! But the majority will also say that turning themselves into relaxed, confident parents remains one of the greatest challenges of their adult lives.
Where I live in inner-city Sydney there’s been a rapid increase in the number of little children in recent years. Because I’ve so loved being a parent myself, I find this delightful. Yet as I watch newish parents, and listen to those I know personally, I see that a couple of critical cornerstones of parenting are becoming harder to apply.
I don’t think this is because they are any less useful but rather that they are somewhat out of step with how parents increasingly think about themselves in their non-parenting roles.
The first of these is establishing simple, predictable routines. I don’t mean by this that tiny babies should be pushed into a rigid schedule of feeding and sleep. In fact, I think that’s wrong and often damaging. But by the time the child (and parents) emerge from the cocoon of infancy into toddler hood and beyond, it is incredibly helpful to the parents, and soothing and stabilising for the child, to have predictable rhythms to most days’ events.
This might at first seem too hard for busy parents to achieve. It doesn’t easily fit with work schedules, nor with the increasing need parents have for their children to be flexible. This is where it can seem that generational needs really do clash. Parents may want their children to be able to stay up late some nights but not others, to snatch a rest in the car rather than in bed, and to eat meals late if that’s when the adults are ready. They may also want their children to tolerate intense attention at some times and little or no attention at others, without offering the skills and means for independent play. (A little backpack with a changing range of toys, geared towards imaginative play, is a lifesaver often missing even in well-off families. This takes thought – not money – and is one of the best possible investments for an enjoyable time for all.)
It is understandable why parents would rate a packed schedule and the flexibility it demands so highly.
It’s how we tend to live our adult lives, hurtling from one thing to another, multi-tasking madly and responding to what’s most urgent rather than what is most important. But while some children will adapt to this, many can’t. Tired, irritable or confused children leave even the most loving parents feeling edgy and helpless, creating a situation that can deplete everyone.
The younger a child is, the more they need a soothing rhythm to their days and nights. And the greater the benefits will soon be for the whole family. This includes lots of time for explorative play and exercise, simple meals, eating dinner by 5.30 or 6, early story and bed, and a long night’s sleep. Even teenagers will usually benefit from eating earlier and sleeping longer. In fact, at whatever age a child is cranky, demanding or “impossible”, it’s those routines and rhythms that need thoughtful attention – however inconvenient it might at first seem.
This emphasis on routine often clashes with the second of these parenting cornerstones, which is to avoid bombarding children with choices. Usually done with the best of intentions, this almost always creates tension rather than the desired independence. Cheerfully and confidently stating that it’s time to get dressed, eat breakfast, have a walk, a bath, dinner or a story, or go to bed, is realistic. It is also reassuring. Children will still have countless opportunities to develop and express their opinions. But they will do so far less anxiously when they know that the essential boundaries of their lives are consistent and predictable – and guarded by those who love them best.