“Don’t read any parenting books. Just follow your instincts.” Why I think this is bad advice.

October 14, 2013

I am surprised at how often I meet people who turn their noses up at the mention of parenting books. I can never quite understand why, or what their objections are. It seems to be based on an assumption that parenting books will lay out a set of rules that are impossible to follow, or that are wrong, or will put more pressure on you as a parent.

Yet reading parenting books has been life-changing for me, not to mention my child.

?????????????Let’s just clear one thing up: Gina Ford, since hers is usually the name mentioned to me by people objecting to parenting books generally, is not the only parenting author in existence, and not all books follow her approach. And by approach I don’t just mean the parenting methods themselves, but the idea that a book can give you a blanket set of rules to follow, with which one must succeed or fail.

Alfie Kohn puts this well in his book (which I would highly recommend), “Unconditional Parenting“;

“What follows will not be a step-by-step recipe for How to Raise Good Kids……. Very specific suggestions (“When your child says x, you should stand at location y and use z tone of voice to utter the following sentence…”) are disrespectful to parent and kids alike. Raising children is not like assembling a home theater system or preparing a casserole, such that you need only follow an expert’s instructions to the letter. No one-size-fits-all formula can possibly work for every family, nor can it anticipate an infinite number of situations. Indeed, books that claim to offer such formulas, while eagerly sought by moms and dads desperate for a miracle cure, usually do more harm than good.”

I think the assumption that all parenting books are indeed like the ones Kohn describes here has caused many parents to boycott them altogether. But in doing so we miss out on the one thing that can really make us better parents – knowledge. And books provide knowledge. Without knowledge, how can we make informed decisions? Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do. Shouldn’t we read up a bit so we have some idea of what the heck we’re doing?

There are a lot of books out there, and some conflicting advice, I know. But I think it’s easy enough, once you get started, to become a discerning reader and separate the wheat from the chaff. I start by looking at who the author is, where they’re from, what they do, what they have studied. It gets pretty easy to read between the lines. Does the book give any insight into child development and psychology, or is the emphasis on quick fix solutions for parents? Is the book’s information backed up by any reference to research, evidence or studies, or the work of a particular psychologist? (here’s another hint about Gina Ford – she doesn’t measure up too well in any of these departments).

But why all this information, complicating things? Why not just follow our instincts?

What do we really mean by ‘instincts’? Some of our natural instincts can get us a long way as parents – responding to our baby’s cries, for example. But the thing is, we basically learn to parent from our own parents, so many of our ‘instincts’ are in fact merely behaviours and responses that we have learnt from them, that were hard-wired into us when we were children ourselves.

Now, we might think our parents did a great job. This may be so, but it’s a great assumption to think there’s nothing more to learn, nothing to improve on. That nothing more is known now that wasn’t known back then.

When my child cries and screams and makes a fuss about something I think is trivial, my instinct is to tell him to shut up and stop making such a silly noise or else. Yet reading has informed me that this is not a good response for many reasons.

When my child ‘misbehaves’ my instinct is to punish him. Yet reading has informed me that punishment is a bad idea.

These instinctive responses are so deeply ingrained in me from my childhood, I feel I’ve spent much of my parenting life fighting against them, holding my tongue when the words my mother used to say to me pop into my head. It’s very hard to change these in-built responses and without the knowledge I have gained from reading I would never even have known I needed to make changes, let alone how to make them. Parenting responses can actually be rather counter-intuitive, and a little knowledge about children and what might be going on in their heads is kind of necessary. Relying solely on our instincts is a bad idea.

Why be content to just carry on doing what our parents and grandparents did before us? To keep passing old methods down from one generation to the next? As with anything in life, how can we ever acquire new knowledge and improve things without paying attention to research, new information, new insights?

Perhaps our society wouldn’t be so stuck in the old conventional methods if more of us would read some of the many excellent parenting books available. There’s a wealth of information and knowledge out there. To ignore it is to bury our heads in the sand, to short-change our children, and to miss out on the one opportunity we have to be the best parents we can be.


Getting over it

September 9, 2013

My child was playing football with his friend in the street. They’d only been out there a few minutes, but it was time to go to his swimming lesson. When I announced this my child objected strongly, saying he hadn’t had a chance to score a goal. I said something to the effect that this was unfortunate, but we had to go now. At this he started screaming and crying. “I want to score a goal!”

It crossed my mind to let him score a goal quickly, but I decided against this. It might not happen quickly, it might not really be the goal he’s upset about anyway. And besides, he needs to learn to deal with disappointments, things not always going his way. Though seemingly important to him, in that moment, it was a relatively minor thing, so seemed like a good chance to practice feeling those emotions, allowing them to run their course, then moving on.

And that’s exactly what he did.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling very patient that morning. I was irritated by the fuss he was making. I knew I needed to validate his feelings, say something sympathetic, but just didn’t feel able to. The wrong words kept coming into my head. So I decided to just keep quiet, don’t speak.

I glanced at him in the rear view mirror as we drove to the pool. He’d stopped crying, but he looked so hurt and sad. I’ll have to say something, maybe have a hug with him when we get there, I thought.

But then half way there he suddenly piped up. Just started chatting to me in his usual chirpy way, as if nothing had happened.

My silence had been enough. Although no words of validation or sympathy had been spoken, neither had any of disapproval or anger. He had been allowed the space to experience his feelings without judgement, scorn, disapproval, or any attempts to persuade him to feel differently. He had been allowed to cry and express his feelings. This was all he needed.

After all the times I’ve experienced this type of scenario, I’m still surprised at just how quickly he moves on. There was really no need for me to worry about whether or not I needed to let him have what he wanted, no need to get upset or annoyed or worked up about it. It wasn’t a catastrophe, just a brief moment of frustration for my child, one of many life will throw at him.

thoughtful boySome might interpret his ability to get over it so quickly as an indicator that he wasn’t really upset in the first place. But this seems a very negative attitude, a very low opinion of children’s natures. Why would he pretend to be upset when he wasn’t? Because he wanted to manipulate me into letting him have what he wanted? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Children’s feelings are real to them. It doesn’t matter how silly they might seem to us as adults. And we need to let them be. Crying is not bad behaviour.

He didn’t get what he wanted anyway, so I don’t think my failure to scold or reprimand him for his behaviour was indulgent. Just respectful. Respectful of his feelings, of his age, and of his journey on the path to emotional regulation.


Punishment or limit setting?

August 15, 2013

One of the main concerns raised by parents when introduced to the concept of punishment free parenting is that it means there would be no limits or boundaries. If children are not punished when they do the wrong thing this must mean they are simply allowed to run riot and do whatever they like.

This is of course a major misconception. Punishment free parenting does not mean parenting without limits or boundaries. It just means what it says; parenting without punishment. The problem is parents not knowing how to set limits or boundaries without punishment.

But I don’t just mean parents who stick to the old conventional parenting methods. On the other side of the coin I think there’s a danger of being so fearful of issuing a punishment that we can fail to set limits where they’re needed.

scooterWhat I’ve come to realise is that the big difference between the two approaches lies not always in what we do, but in how we do it. Here’s an example:

My child is riding his scooter up and down our street. I’ve given him a clear point, say a lamp post, to which it is safe for him to go, and at which point he must turn around and come back each time.

The limit setting:
“Don’t you go past that lamp post. Turn round at the lamp post.”
The warning:
“I told you not to go past that lamp post. If you do that again I’m taking your scooter away for the rest of the day.”
The follow through:
“Right, that’s it. Give me that scooter. It’s going away until tomorrow. I told you not to go past the lamp post. That’s naughty!” Parent angrily snatches scooter from child, and ignores his cries and tears, continuing to scold him as he cries, or possibly sending him into time-out or to his room until he ‘stops this noise’ or ‘has had a think about his behaviour’.

This is clearly a punishment. But obviously we can’t allow a child to continue to breach the boundary. So what can we do?

The limit setting:
“You need to turn around and come back when you get this far. It’s not safe to go any farther down the road in case a car comes round the corner. What do you think would be a good marker; the lamp post or this red car?.”
The warning:
“It’s really fun scooting down the road. I bet you wish you could keep going for miles and miles. I need to keep you safe, so you must turn round at the lamp post like we agreed. Can you remember to do that? We’ll have to put the scooter away and find something else to play if you can’t. Would you like to draw a finish line or a Stop sign with your chalks?”
The follow through:
“I won’t let you scoot past this lamp post. I must keep you safe. We’ll have to put the scooter away and find another game to play. Perhaps we could take your scooter to the park tomorrow where you can go further?” Child cries. “I know, you were having fun on your scooter. I won’t let you scoot where it’s not safe, so I’ll have to put it away for now. Let’s have a big cuddle. You’re feeling upset now.”

In both scenarios the end result, in practical terms, is that the child’s scooter is forcibly removed for a time, against his wishes. But there’s a world of difference in how the child experiences things, and what they learn.

In the first scenario the child is given no reason for the limit, and is not involved in any way in setting it. It is simply issued as an order. And the warning is issued as a threat – if you don’t follow my orders I’ll make you suffer. The follow through puts all the emphasis on the child’s behaviour. They are ‘naughty’, it’s their own fault that they now feel upset, and as such have no right to express it. They perceive that their parent doesn’t care about their feelings and is not on their side. They learn that they are a bad person, that their feelings don’t matter, and that their parent is willing to cause them pain in order to control them.

In the second scenario the parent presents themselves as an ally. The emphasis is on caring about the child – about both their safety and their feelings. The child learns that they are loved, that their parent takes their feelings and wishes seriously, but that they will do what has to be done to keep them safe, and are serious about certain limits.

It’s true that sometimes children will just deliberately push boundaries. This is normal and does not make them ‘bad’, so there’s still no reason to punish them. All the more reason to emphasise that we care about them enough to hold those boundaries and keep them safe. And this is best done by showing empathy and affection whilst still maintaining limits. There could be other underlying issues that my child is storing up that’s causing him to push my buttons in this way. Perhaps he just needs to have a good cry and is looking for an excuse to have one.

Enforcing a limit is not the same as issuing a punishment. It’s how we set it, how we speak and respond to our children that makes for a healthy relationship. Empathy and love rather than anger and rejection send an entirely different message and lay the foundations for a much healthier, happier relationship to build on for the future.

With thanks to my gentle parenting neighbour for her positive inspiration for this post.

Children or dogs?

July 23, 2013

How often do you hear parents threatening to go without their children in an attempt to get them to come with them? I’m sure I hear it every day. “Bye then, I’m going”. Yeah, right.

So the other day, when I was walking along the street and heard someone call out “Come on. I’m going then. Come on….”, I assumed it was someone talking to a child. The next moment I saw a dog run in front of me and jump into the back of a car. I looked round to realise I’d actually overheard someone calling to their dog.

My mistake. But a mistake easily made I think in a society that still allows the smacking of children, talks about ‘training’ babies, dishes out rewards for “good behaviour” like doggy treats, and expects children to sit still and be quiet in impossible situations.

dogWe often see signs in public places saying things like, “Please keep dogs under control”. The other day I saw one saying, “Please keep children under control”. Whether or not it was necessary in this particular place for children’s activities to be restricted is not the point here. The choice of words conveys a certain attitude I think. How about, “Children must be kept on a lead” or better still, “No children allowed”?

The government’s proposed new Anti –Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill seems to go with this idea that children are merely a nuisance. Replacing the ASBO with an Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA), children can now be served with this injunction if they are deemed to be behaving in a way that can cause “nuisance and annoyance”. A rather wide definition of anti-social behaviour don’t you think? Can I serve my child with this injunction when he wakes me up in the night? Has a melt down? Leaves things all over the floor?

Ok, I’m being silly now, but this bill raises some real concerns. The Children’s Society and the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, along with 24 charities wrote a joint letter to the Times expressing their concern that these measures will “serve as another barrier stopping children playing outdoors with their friends in the street, the park or other public spaces, further jeopardising the physical and mental health of children”. They point out that the Association of Police Officers “has suggested that the new threshold is too subjective and could unnecessarily criminalise children for simply being children”.

Children can be noisy, they tend to want to run about a lot, they like climbing on things and, well, their agenda just isn’t the same as that of adults. Frankly, it’s time we just got over it and accepted that curtailing, and even punishing, their natural behaviour, really isn’t good for their long-term health and well-being. Children are not dogs, they are human beings, they are part of our society, they have needs, and they deserve a little more consideration and respect.


Homework Clubs: Taking the home out of homework, dropping the pretence.

July 9, 2013

I was highly amused when I recently discovered the existence of a ‘Homework Club’ at my child’s school. The club, which is offered to children in years 4 – 6 (ages 8 – 11), involves children staying behind together at school once a week to complete all their week’s homework. The benefits, I was told, is that this allows children to get all their homework out of the way in one go and not have it ‘hanging over them all week’, and reduces family conflict at home caused by parents having to nag children to do their homework. 

Why did I think this was so funny? Well, for me, it basically shoots itself in the foot. 

Young Boy LearningI thought one of the main arguments put forward by homework advocates is that homework helps to create links between home and school, and encourages parents to support and take an interest in their child’s learning. So how exactly does the Homework Club achieve this, I wonder, when homework’s not even being completed at home? 

The answer is, it doesn’t. Instead, it drops the guise and reveals homework for what it really is – nothing more than extra indoor, desk-based schoolwork for kids to do in addition to the hours they’ve already put in as part of the normal school day. 

The Homework Club basically admits that there is no such link sought between home and school via homework assignments, that homework puts pressure on children, and that homework creates family conflict. Great. 

This doesn’t seem to me to leave much to be said in favour of homework other than that perhaps it is necessary for children’s learning and achievement. But this doesn’t stand up either. There is no evidence that homework at this stage improves academic performance. Studies have repeatedly failed to show any correlation between homework and academic achievement. 

When I looked into this further I found that these clubs seem to be all the rage, used at many schools, and advocated by many, even those seemingly against the notion of homework. 

French president, Francois Hollande, banned homework last year, not because he felt children needed more free time, but because he felt it created inequalities between pupils with a supportive home environment and pupils without this advantage. His answer; homework clubs, and lengthening the school week. This in a nation where children already spend longer hours in school than those in many other countries. Not surprising, I think, that France’s education system and student achievement doesn’t come up looking too rosy in international comparisons. 

Work should be done at school, rather than at home” says Hollande. Yup. Tend to agree with that one. But I’m not in favour of extending the school day either, which is effectively what homework clubs do. 

Professor Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education at the University of London published a book back in 2004 entitled “Homework: The evidence”, which highlights how studies have repeatedly failed to show any conclusive link between primary school homework and student attainment levels. 

“Homework can also create anxiety, boredom, fatigue and emotional exhaustion in children, who resent the encroachment on their free time,” she says. 

Yet she too is in favour of homework clubs. Erm, homework club is an encroachment on free time, is it not? 

What bugs me throughout all of this is the underlying assumption that the more formal learning we can cram into children’s lives the better, and that this is the only form of learning, the only ‘worthwhile’ activity for children to be doing. 

Yet too much too soon does not create a lifelong love of learning. What’s more, children, particularly at primary school age, benefit from learning in so many different ways, and that includes spending time outdoors, free play, family time, and pursuing other interests and activities of their own choosing. Having time to just be children. 

David Blunkett, when he introduced homework guidelines back in 1998, was right to bemoan the fact that 50% of children were spending more than 3 hours a day in front of the television. But recommending more homework in answer to this showed a sadly narrow view and understanding of what constitutes worthwhile activity for children, how they learn, and what is important for their development and well-being.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers voted at their conference in 2009 in favour of the abolition of homework in primary schools. 

But this, along with Gove’s scrapping of Blunkett’s homework guidelines last year, seems to have made no difference. The homework tradition is already too embedded in our culture. Schools continue to operate under the false assumption that homework is necessary for maintaining standards, and to pander to the misguided expectations of pushy parents who mistakenly judge the quality of a school or a teacher by the amount of homework that is set. 

Yet pandering to the needs of children should take priority over this. And more time spent engaged in formal learning, whether at home or at school, is not one of those needs.

Sign the petition against homework in primary schools.


Book giveaway – “Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood” by L.R.Knost

June 27, 2013

Whispers_Through_Tim_Cover_for_KindleI first became aware of L.R.Knost’s writing when I came across her blog at Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources – full of great articles and sound advice for parents – so I was very pleased when she contacted me asking me to take a look at her new book, “Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood“, which was released earlier this month.

As the title suggests, the book moves through all the stages of childhood, from newborns right through to teens. But it focuses not just on how we communicate with children, but on our attitudes, perceptions, approaches and listening skills. 

Common problem areas such as dealing with tantrums, whining, teenage backtalk, tattlers or tell-tales, and lying are all covered, as well as many other areas like the importance of play and how to weave it into our daily routines, baby signing, and taking care of ourselves as parents. 

Here are some of my favourite passages:

“Parents, choose your words wisely, carefully, thoughtfully. In the same way that violence begets violence and anger begets anger, kindness begets kindness and peace begets peace. Sow words of peace, words that build, words that show respect and belief and support. Those are the seeds of a future filled with goodness and hope and compassion, and aren’t those the things we really want for our children, after all?” 

“Consciously, intentionally , and consistently living out how we want our children to turn out is the most powerful and effective character training there is. The lessons they will take into the future will consist far more of how we treat them than what we teach them.” 

“As parents, our actions will always be reflected in our children’s behavior. Children learn what they live. No amount of lecturing can undo the powerful impact on a child of their parent’s own behavior and choices.” 

“Parents who are focused on control often find the idea of an interactive response rather than instant, unquestioning obedience from their child to be an uncomfortable concept. It’s in that exchange of thoughts , though, that children learn how an adult thinks and that they begin to internalize the belief systems and values parents ultimately want their children to take into adulthood.” 

“The punitive parenting approach focuses on the child as the problem and attempts to solve the problem by ‘fixing’ the child through intentionally unpleasant external forces. The gentle parenting approach focuses on the child having a problem and attempts to help the child solve the problem through connection, communication, and inviting cooperation.”

Do any of these passages resonate with you? Are there any ‘problem areas’ you’d like more help with? Leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy of the book!

LindaL.R.Knost, is an independent child development researcher and founder and director of the advocacy and consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources. A mother of six, her children range from 25- years down to 25-months-old. Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages and Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood are the first in her Little Hearts Handbooks series of parenting guides. The next book in the series, The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline is due to be released November 2013. Other works by this award-winning author include the children’s picture books A Walk in the Clouds, Petey’s Listening Ears, and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series for ages 2 to 6, which are humorous and engaging tools for parents, teachers, and caregivers to use in implementing gentle parenting techniques in their homes and schools.

This post is part of the Virtual Book Tour for the launch of L.R.Knost’s newest release Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood. Click here if you’d like to check out all of the other stops on the tour! 


The latest brainwave from Liz Truss.

June 17, 2013

light bulbA nation of parents let out a collective cheer of relief last week at the welcome announcement that the government proposals to increase child to staff ratios in childcare settings had been scrapped. Liz Truss, the woman behind the deeply unpopular idea seemed to lie low for a while. But now she’s back with another so-poorly-thought-out-it’s-actually-quite-funny idea; this time for parents to run after school clubs to make life easier for, er, parents.

?!

“Many parents want to work longer than 9-3” she says. OK, so if all parents are working full time, a vision this government seems hell-bent on making a reality, who are these parents that are available to run after school clubs??

Oh, of course, that would be the part-time working or stay-at-home parents who no longer receive child benefit, and can’t claim help with childcare costs under the new scheme that discriminates against them. Sure, they’ll be willing to give up the time they want to spend with their own children in order to care for the children of full-time working parents. I don’t think so Liz.

And let me just clarify something; Liz Truss’ title is ‘Children’s Minister’ right? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m guessing that means her job is to represent the interests of children. So where do they figure in all this? Have their needs even been considered while the government all fall over themselves in an effort to accommodate full-time working parents and sideline the rest?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; schools are supposed to be about education, not childcare. They’re 9-3 because that’s long enough for the children. Anything longer is too long, especially with the ridiculously young age our children have to start school in the UK.

So how about  you do your job, Ms Truss, and start thinking about what’s best for children? Surely they’re the group of people here that are most in need of someone to look after their interests? They’re the ones whose own small voices are not heard and who need someone to speak and advocate for them and for their needs.

I await with interest Liz Truss’ next idea.


Pressing pause

June 13, 2013

I recently went to hear Dr Dan Siegel speaking at a conference on “The Mindsight Approach to Parenting”. The focus of his talk was unusual I thought. He talked, as I expected, about the mind. But here’s the thing; it wasn’t about my child’s mind. It was about mine.

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning about how babies’ brains develop, why toddlers have tantrums, what children can and can’t understand at certain ages, how children develop and manage their feelings, and why they might behave in certain ways etc etc. And I reckon I’ve also learnt  a fair bit about how to  respond to and treat children accordingly. So I know about validating feelings, being empathetic, not using punishments, the need to stay connected, what probably is and isn’t the right thing to say etc etc. I even write a blog about it.

So why, I often ask myself, do I sometimes hear words coming from my own mouth that I know are the opposite of what I should be saying, that I know will only make things worse, that I know will hurt my child’s feelings, that I know are not modelling the kind of person I want my child to be? It’s as if there’s some other person inside me saying these words on my behalf, but without my approval, and against my wishes. What the hell?

That’s where my own brain comes into the equation.

When I was preparing for the arrival of my child, I was having a conversation with someone about how I might deal with difficult behaviour. (Of course, I had some very clear ideas, all of which have been long forgotten). “They really can take you places you didn’t know you could go”, this person told me. And she didn’t mean nice places.  I thought this sounded a little, er, negative. Now I know exactly what she was talking about.

Never, before becoming a parent, had I experienced that moment when my patience is so completely drained, my anger and frustration so aroused, and I just totally lose it. It’s quite sudden, like a bomb exploding. I think all parents must know what I’m talking about – at least all the ones I’ve spoken to do, which is in some way reassuring.

So, what to do about it?

Prevention

When things go wrong, the plus side is that we can learn from them. What situation or set of circumstances led your child to behave in such a way that made you snap? Is there any way to do things differently next time?

If something’s a daily battle, do something about it. Try a different strategy, a different approach. Is your child going to magically change their behaviour in this same situation tomorrow? Probably not. Change the situation not the child.

See my posts here and here for some approaches, and strategies on gaining cooperation.

But to some extent, I think we have to accept that despite our best efforts and intentions, we all lose it occasionally….

pausePress pause

OK, so the prevention bit didn’t work this time and you’ve totally lost it. Press pause.

The important thing to understand is that it’s impossible to parent when we’re in a reactive state. The rational, thinking part of the brain simply isn’t functioning properly. Until you’ve really calmed down, don’t even try to respond.

Don’t speak. Anything you say is unlikely to be helpful at this stage. More likely to be the opposite. Don’t let those words come out of your mouth that you’ll later regret . Button it.

Dr Siegel also suggests putting your arms behind your back to help suppress any urge to push, pull or otherwise be more rough with your child than you would like.

We need to be able to recognise when we’re in this reactive state in order to then be able to stop ourselves saying or doing things that we know to be inappropriate and unhelpful. When a child behaves in a way that makes us really mad, we might need to take some immediate steps to keep them safe, but we don’t always need to say or do anything else right away. Wait until you’re both calm. Often your child is more likely to be in a state of mind to listen and learn later on as well.

Make a repair

If the pause button doesn’t work and your anger gets the better of you, it’s important to do what Dr Siegel refers to as ‘making a repair’. A repair to our relationship and connection with our child. When we yell, are rough with, or say unkind things to our children, we lose that connection with them, and when connection isn’t there, the things our children do that make us mad are more likely to keep happening.

So when you’ve calmed down, go to your child and apologise. And make this unconditional. “I’m sorry I yelled, but you made me really mad” won’t cut it. Just apologise. Admit that your behaviour was not OK. You can talk about your child’s behaviour, if you need to, later. It’s OK to admit to our children that we’re wrong sometimes. Nobody’s perfect, and saying sorry and making amends is important. Surely this is a lesson worth teaching?


The Health and Safety Excuse; another restriction to children’s play

May 14, 2013

There is a care home on our route home from school. They have large gardens, and a pair of gardeners visit every week. On the very edge of the garden, against the low wall, they have created a heap of leaves, grass and hedge cuttings.

queen of the worldMy child has found that by climbing onto the wall, which is about two feet high, he can then step onto this pile of cuttings and climb to the top of it. It has become one of his rituals on the route home from school, along with climbing on another higher wall to get behind a large cable box and sell imaginary ice creams.

With Spring finally upon us, he has been delighted to find his ‘mountain’ of cuttings has grown considerably, and continues to do so each week. Not a naturally confident climber, he is very pleased with himself when he reaches the top.

“Look at me Mummy, I’m a mountain climber”.

On a recent occasion, he had just descended from his mountain and was standing on the wall next to me, when two workers from the care home approached us.

“You alright?” one of them asked.

I interpreted this as a polite way of saying “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” but responded literally,

“We’re fine thanks. He likes climbing up this pile of cuttings.”

“Well be careful because we can get in trouble with Health & Safety” she responded.

What?!

“It’s OK, I’m watching him”. Hopefully they interpreted this as it was meant; a polite way of saying, “Piss off and stop making a fuss, I’m his mother and have decided the risk is minimal, he’s just a child playing, and I have no intention of asking him to climb down”.

Now technically, it’s their wall, and the pile of cuttings is on their property, so they could quite legitimately ask me to prevent my child climbing on either, on these grounds. This, I think, would be pretty mean-spirited of them, and perhaps it was a consciousness of this that led them to try to hide behind ‘Health & Safety”. Or was their response just typical of the wider attitude these days? And that’s what really bugged me about the incident.

Would everyone please stop using Health and Safety as an excuse for placing unnecessary restrictions on children’s freedom to play?

My childhood was spent climbing goodness knows how many walls, trees, piles of cuttings, sand, gravel. Everything was a playground; I can’t recall any incidents of being reprimanded for climbing on someone else’s wall or pile. Such pettiness didn’t seem to exist then. So where is it coming from?

Is it because the norm is now for children to be protected from the tiniest risk, so it’s no longer common place for them to be seen climbing on walls or piles of cuttings? Because it’s not just organisations themselves waving the Health and Safety banner; parents seem to have picked up on this drift and are saying no to anything that might lead to the tiniest bump or scratch. Yet, in doing so, we deprive our children of the opportunity to learn about risk, to test their abilities, to use their imaginations, to have fun, to play, to be children.

Here’s an extract from a statement issued by the Health and Safety Executive last September,

Key message: ‘Play is great for children’s well-being and development. When planning and providing play opportunities, the goal is not to eliminate risk, but to weigh up the risks and benefits. No child will learn about risk if they are wrapped in cotton wool’.

HSE fully recognises that play brings the world to life for children. It provides for an exploration and understanding of their abilities; helps them to learn and develop; and exposes them to the realities of the world in which they will live, which is a world not free from risk but rather one where risk is ever-present. The opportunity for play develops a child’s risk awareness and prepares them for their future lives.

….Key message: ‘Accidents and mistakes happen during play – but fear of litigation and prosecution has been blown out of proportion.’”

Yes, that’s right. This is from the HSE. So there’s really no excuse for hiding behind Health and Safety.

I wonder if those workers from the care home have asked the gardeners not to block the pavement with their car, causing my child and I, and others walking home from school with small children, to have to walk on the road; a considerably more prominent risk to safety and breach of the law than a child climbing up a pile of leaves and twigs? But no, of course they haven’t. Because they’re not really concerned with Health and Safety. Their response was just a response to today’s trend – children are no longer permitted to climb on walls or anything else. It’s just not the done thing anymore, except, it seems, by radicals like me. And that’s very sad.


More reasons to unplug kids from technology

May 3, 2013

An article appeared in The Guardian this week with a nice picture of two kids cooking together in a kitchen. But the picture belies the content of the article, which is all about the dangers of hidden advertising on children’s apps. What struck me about the article was the way the author talked quite unconcernedly about children’s apps and the scale of their popularity. Her sole concern was with the advertising, not with the apps themselves.

The way she described some of the apps seemed quite illuminating too;

“Dirtgirlworld, a game played on smartphones and tablets, teaches children how to grow food from scratch and cook up tasty meals”

Really? How? I’ve never looked at this app, but I very much doubt it does anything of the sort. Where does a child’s experience of the texture, smell, weight or taste of the food come in? (I was particularly amused that she actually used the word ‘tasty’) The sense of passing time in learning how long it takes to grow things from seed, the anticipation, the sense of responsibility for daily care, the sense of achievement at creating something, and the satisfaction of eating it and sharing it? Where’s the social interaction in the kitchen with parents or siblings? The opportunity to connect with parents?

I confess I’m a little out of touch with these things. Perhaps there’s a tree climbing app? A den building app? When it snows I expect there’s a sledging and snowman-making app. There must be so many things my child could do without ever having to leave the house.

Recent grumblings in the press about in app purchases, where children left unattended with tablets and smartphones are prone to inadvertently spending lots of their parents’ money, are another example of how we’re happy to complain about problems associated with our children using these apps, but not about the apps themselves. Something must be done to prevent this happening, everyone says. Game manufacturers must be stopped from manipulating our children and conning us out of our cash. I agree. Here’s my answer: unplug the whole bloody lot and send the kids outside.

The simple fact is that computer games cannot replace real life experiences.  As with TV, parents kid themselves that these things are educational and beneficial. But time spent in front of screens is time wasted. There are a myriad of better things for kids to be doing in this short, precious time in their lives.

If the dangers of in app purchases, advertising and addiction aren’t enough for you, not to mention the small matter of the compromising of normal child development and emotional well-being, have a think about this one:

Children are safer playing out than on the internet, according to a new report by the NSPCC. In an article in the Telegraph last month, the author of the report, Lisa Hawker, is reported to have said,

“Parents are perhaps unaware that when your child is using a computer or mobile phone they may be at greater risk of being hurt or harmed in some way than if they are out and about in their local park. The changing nature of the way we live our lives means that actually your chances of meeting someone who can harm you is now much greater through the internet or your mobile phone than through a stranger you might come across in the street or the local park.”

The report talks about online dangers such as sexting, cyberbullying, and exposure to sexual and other inappropriate images.

How many reasons do we need to persuade us to keep our children from becoming screen zombies?

Child-iPhone-300x168Emma Cook’s article in The Guardian is at least honest in questioning how healthy it might be for her kids to be glued to these devices for so many hours of their leisure time, and admitting to her own responsibility for this as a parent. The article concludes with some fairly sensible suggestions around how parents might manage their kids’ relationship with technology, but the part I didn’t go for was the idea that because we have to accept that kids are growing up in a world full of technology, we need to embrace it; somehow meaning we just allow it and don’t worry about it as long as we engage with it with them and set a few limits. As I’ve said before; I don’t subscribe to this argument.

It’s easy to learn how to use this stuff. Really easy. 2 year olds like Emma Cook’s daughter can tell us that. So what’s the hurry? Children are not going to be somehow disabled or left behind if they start using it later. I didn’t use a mouse or keyboard until I was pushing 30 and I seem to be doing just fine now. And it’s all changing so fast anyway. By the time our children are adults, who knows what all these devices will look like or what they’ll be able to do? So having learnt to use something at age 2 isn’t going to give you any advantage later on. But on the flip side, all the things you missed out on which you could have been doing instead could be a disadvantage.

Everything in moderation? I agree. But I’m not seeing a great deal of moderation reported in the media right now, and quite simply, this is not how childhood should be spent.