Do what you love with your kids

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

At the last inventory, my cookie cutter collection was close to hitting the 100 mark. It includes the letters of the alphabet, an entire gingerbread family and a particularly impressive Eiffel Tower that makes the dough look great, but always burns the final product. Some of my cutters are looking a little rusty these days, but the collection has seen us through countless days of play dough creations, rainy day baking and birthday party preparation. Baking with my kids has always been our go-to activity when we’re grumpy, at a loss to find something to do, or simply because the tins need filling. Diane Levy won’t be going through her cookie cutter collection any time soon. Her games and puzzles cupboard however, is a sight to behold. When I’d choose to put baking on the agenda, she’d get out the Scrabble, Monopoly and thousand piece puzzles. Anyone who can spend an afternoon playing board games or doing puzzles earns my never-ending admiration.

I recognise they are great family activities that teach lifelong skills, but I struggle every time someone brings out a dice. It was okay when my children were little and I could cheat my way through Snakes and Ladders, making sure the game never lasted longer than 15 minutes. These days I can’t cheat – my kids seem to beat me at just about any game going. “If we are to play wholeheartedly with our children, it’s got to be something we enjoy doing,” says Diane. “My primary position was, ‘I don’t do paint, I don’t do play dough and I don’t do kiddie baking’,” remembers Diane. ”For me personally, those three things were more trouble to set up and clean up afterwards, than the amount of pleasure the children got out of them, or the amount of free time I got because I had set them up. Those were the three I stuck to with my children and with my grandchildren – I haven’t varied my position.”

But at the same time, Diane didn’t want her children to miss out. Outsourcing and delegation are viable options when it comes to teaching our children new skills and keeping them entertained, says Diane. “Painting, play dough and kiddie baking are really lovely things for children to have the opportunity to do. The way I thought about it was that those things got outsourced to kindy. That was where they did their painting and their play dough. Baking was done with delight by their paternal grandmother.” Another way to outsource, says Diane, is to swap with friends. Our children are nearly a generation apart but, had Diane and I had young children at the same time, we could have done the perfect swap. Hers could have popped around to my place to get their fill of baking, and mine could have stocked up on board games at hers. Everyone would have had a lovely time and no mothers would gone prematurely grey in the process.

“We had a go at horse riding, we had a go at ice skating, and we had a go at skiing. In all those things, we proved to be far less competent than our children and that proved to be a delight.”

As always, Diane is a proponent of what she calls ‘low-energy parenting’. “When my children were toddlers and wanted to paint, I’d give them a huge brush and a pot of water and they’d paint beautiful pictures on our outdoor blackboard that then evaporated. They’d paint the side of the house – which got cleaned – and they’d paint the driveway. “But we did pretty much everything else with them, even though we were often really, really, bad at it”. And there lies one of the great joys of being a parent. “One of the wonderful things about having children is you get to have adventures and try things you would never do in the absence of a child,” says Diane. “We had a go at horse riding, we had a go at ice skating, and we had a go at skiing. In all those things, we proved to be far less competent than our children and that proved to be a delight.”

When it comes to spending time with your kids, Diane offers some things to think about. “Ask yourself these three questions – ‘What skills and fun do my children need? Which are fun for me?’ Grab those. ‘What are the ones I can tolerate?’ Do those with a degree of grace with no whining and grizzling (on your part). ‘What are the ones I can’t stand?’ Delegate those if you can.” When their children were at high school, Diane and her husband Vernon worked out a great division of labour when it came to helping with homework. “Vernon did history and geography, those I was always dreadful at. It gave a whole new meaning to, ‘Wait until your father gets home’. It meant, don’t worry, help will be at hand. “I helped them with English, maths and science. Of course, there were times when Vernon was out of town and I’d have to work out how to help them, but it was never with the same joyfulness of doing the things I loved.

“We tend to believe grown-ups have to be the teachers. But children learn very well from someone just two steps ahead – that’s a lovely way for children to learn.”

“Of course it’s easiest if there are two of you, and you have complementary skills or talents, and that’s not always the way of the real world.” The idea is to delegate, outsource and swap, says Diane. Think holiday school programmes or after school activities. “Swapping is particularly good, because there is an element of cost involved with outsourcing,” says Diane. “If you’ve got a friend who loves to bake and you love to go bike riding, arrange a swap.” She also points out that it’s not just adults children can learn from. “We tend to believe grown-ups have to be the teachers. But children learn very well from another, slightly older child. That’s a lovely way for children to gain new skills.” Giving our children a glimpse of the rich variety of opportunity the world can offer them is a positive part of childhood. “

We are indoctrinated to think that every child has one major thing that they are going to have a passion for and excel at, and everything else will come right. That, in my experience, is not right,” says Diane. “If there is that kernel of genius or passion, it is our responsibility to foster it as much as we can. “However, most children don’t have a major passion. They can be interested in a lot of things, passionately excited about some things or simply calm children who have quiet enjoyment. So I don’t think it’s our job as a parent to break our necks finding that one kernel of genius. “I think it is our job to prepare our children for a life that involves a wide range of skills – social, domestic, academic, cultural, sporting and recreational – and, preferably, we should have an enjoyable time doing so.”