Relax and enjoy your kids

I would like to apologise on behalf of the ‘industry’. As parent educators, we like to give advice and warn parents about dangers but maybe we have inadvertently made this whole business of parenting seem far too hard. I am sad if we have over-emphasised fussing and fretting about secondary issues. It may have gotten in the way of something much more important – a cardinal rule of parenting is relax and enjoy your children!

Ian Grant, co-founder of The Parenting Place, used to say, “Children are not God’s punishment for enjoying sex too much. Children, in fact, are his way of blessing us.” They are fun. They are lovely. We should be able to look at them and feel a little gooey, even when they are not achieving every social and scholastic milestone some book says they should be. Even if your children are competing to be the worst kids in your district, could I urge you to at least go through to them while they are asleep and drooling on their pillows, and go, “Aww! Aren’t they cute! Especially when they are unconscious.” It would be an absolute tragedy if parents got so distracted by all the ‘parenting stuff’ they missed out on the simple pleasure of enjoying children. Kids are a lot of work and worry but they are still a very reliable source of grins and pride.

So, I’ll say it again – relax and enjoy your children. The relaxing is definitely linked to the enjoyment. I am sure uptight and anxious parents do not enjoy their role and I am equally sure their kids do not enjoy them. I am not suggesting that anyone should become slack and irresponsible, far from it. I actually think parents serve their children far better when they serve them less. For some of you, if you did less, your parenting would actually improve. There’s a risk in firing advice like this out – there may be some parents who genuinely need to be stepping up and doing a lot more. Your automatic guilt reflex might be telling you that you are a neglectful parent, but if you are bothering to learn about parenting from this magazine rather than from the Kardashians, I suspect you are very diligent and, quite possibly, too diligent.

Like many things in life, it is a matter of degree. I knew a man who had a compulsive disorder that compelled him to wash his hands, over and over again. Washing your hands is good – it may be the best way of preventing disease – but it is not good if you wash and wash until your hands are red and cracked. In a similar way, some good parenting practices could actually become harmful if they were pursued too vigorously. Take, for instance, getting involved in a child’s education and activities. Compared with kids whose parents have no involvement, they have huge benefits – better behaviour, more friends and they do better at school. But more does not necessarily mean better. Psychology professors Holly Schiffrin and Miriam Liss published research (Insight into the Parenthood Paradox: Mental Health Outcomes of Intensive Mothering. Journal of Child and Family Studies, Volume 22, Issue 5, pp 614-620) that showed children of over-involved parents feel less competent and less independent. By university age, the children of ‘helicopter parents’ had “higher levels of depressive symptoms and decreased life satisfaction”. It is certainly possible to give your children too little attention, but it is also possible to be over-involved.

The same research showed something else – mothers who believe their lives should revolve around their children were more stressed and less satisfied than those with a more relaxed approach. Holding back lets children develop their own skills in problem-solving. It increases their confidence and gives them the idea that we think they are competent. It also means we get a break, and parents need breaks. There is a case to be made for benign neglect. Yes, lock away poisons, make them wear seatbelts, get them innoculated and worry about drugs, but do let them have unstructured, unsupervised play. School-age kids do not need 24 hour monitoring. Children’s books from a generation ago seem bizarre – youngsters playing with each other and having adventures for hours without an adult anywhere in sight. Where are Dora the Explorer’s parents? Even today in Scandinavian countries it is still the norm for children to be home alone for hours or out playing with friends, but in our country it could be considered criminal neglect.

Frank Furedi in his book Paranoid Parenting says that British culture had lost something – a trust that other adults will treat our children well. I think that is true of New Zealand as well. “Across cultures and throughout history, mothers and fathers have acted on the assumption that if their children got into trouble, other adults – often strangers – would help out. In many societies, adults feel duty-bound to reprimand other people’s children who misbehave in public.” When he was a little boy growing up in Papatoetoe, the late David Lange used to get out of bed, go to his neighbours’ house and get in to bed with them on some mornings. Today, that sounds so creepy when, in fact, it should sound lovely.

Today adults feel distinctly uncomfortable having any contact with children lest they be thought child molesters. Furedi quotes a Families for Freedom survey that showed 89.5 percent of parents had a sense of foreboding about their children and a top fear was that their children would be abducted or abused – a fear that has been amplified by much well-meaning advice from parenting experts and authorities – and yet it is contrary to statistics that suggest ‘stranger danger’ is very small and decreasing. The downstream effect? Many parents will not allow their children to be unsupervised and are reluctant to trust their children with others. I have spoken to grandparents who have been heartbroken that their adult children won’t trust them to care for their grandchildren. Unless your parents are crack addicts, your kids are probably going to be okay.

Another area you could relax in is your child’s education. Be an encouraging coach, but if you get stressed about their grades and homework, you could be teaching your children to hate school. Pushing them too hard can backfire. A love of learning is so much more important than top grades. Another area of unnecessary anxiety is the expensive preoccupation about getting kids into a ‘good’ school. Research consistently points to the home being the most important factor in education, not the school. Yes, schools vary, but your child will probably get every opportunity for an excellent education at the school closest to your place. This leads to another thing parents should lighten up about – kids can get themselves to school. Half of Auckland’s 260,000 school-kids are driven to school. The difference in traffic congestion between term and holiday times are unbelievable. Children do not die from walking or catching the the bus. If it is raining, they will still not die, especially if they have a raincoat. However, they will die in a few decades’ time from diabetes and heart disease deriving in part from habits of inactivity.

Here’s another thing you don’t need to worry about – “What will other people think?!” If your toddler wears odd gumboots and secondhand clothes – who cares? Chances are it will not bother your neighbour one little bit (unless they are his gumboots). If your house gets messy while you have babies – who cares? If you find a leash works well for you in controlling kids in the supermarket – who cares? If your boy wants to drop out of rugby and do ballet – who cares? If your teenager wears ridiculous clothes he thinks are cool – who cares? I’ll tell you who cares – they care, and you care, but if anyone else cares, it should not bother you. Over my years, my ideas about parenting have been more shaped by the late Erma Bombeck than by the current crop of stress-mongers masquerading as experts. One of her classic lines was, “If you can’t make it better, you can laugh at it.” She was tapping into the older wisdom of ‘a merry heart doeth good like a medicine’ (Proverbs 17:22). So much of our life as parents refuses to fit neatly into the patterns prescribed in parenting seminars, and a good response to that is humour, not despair.

Your child is peeing off the balcony as your in-laws arrive? Laugh. He comes home from school wearing someone else’s shoes? Laugh. The baby vomits down your back as you are about to go out? Laugh. Your child greets the doctor with the private nickname your family has for him? Laugh, but not in front of his face. Honestly, parents, relax! Being a mum or dad is tough enough, don’t make it extra tough by loading expectations and work on to yourselves that not only make your life harder, it may even work against the welfare of your child. Some concluding thoughts from Erma –

If I had my life to live over

I would have invited friends over to dinner, even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.
I would have eaten popcorn in the ‘good’ living room and worried less about the dirt when you lit the fireplace.
I would have burned the pink candle that was sculptured like a rose before it melted while being stored.
I would have sat cross-legged on the lawn with my children and never worried about grass stains.
I would have cried and laughed less while watching television, and more while watching real life.
When my child kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, “Later. Now, go get washed up for dinner.”
There would have been more I love yous, more I’m sorrys, more I’m listenings, but mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute of it, look at it and really see it, try it on, live it, exhaust it, and never give that minute back until there was nothing left of it.

Excerpted from Eat Less Cottage Cheese and More Ice Cream: Thoughts on Life by Erma Bombeck.