All parents want to help their children to be both happy and reasonably calm, but it’s more easily said than done. 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 and 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 it be otherwise? The average age of first-time mothers has just tipped to the far side of 30. Whatever else they packed into the years before their first child arrived, there probably was 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 treat our very young children. We may also be trying to squeeze in optimum parenting around 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.
It is possible to take a longer view. But let me say at once how wary I am about expert advice when it comes to children. The truly confident, it seems to me, rarely have children of their own. Or they have children but also have a retinue of human wonders: partner, mother, father-in-law, lady next door and so on. In other words, they come from a different planet to the one I live on. My list is of the humbled parent variety: hard-won insights, for what they are worth.
Routine Tip #1: Establish A Routine
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. Any loss of spontaneity is absolutely compensated for by happier children.
Routine Tip #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 child-care centre after work, but make simple early eating (and bed) the top priority and let everything else wait.
Routine Tip #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, with or without bubbles and for five minutes or six. This also makes it possible to say, with conviction, “It’s time for your story and for bed.”
Routine Tip #4: When You Need To Say “No”, Do It
If you must explain, keep it brief: “It’s not safe” or “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 lack of interest.
Routine Tip #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. Over-talking is a symptom of our own anxiety; it adds to theirs. If they want more information, they’ll you ask for it.
Routine Tip #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 take time to look in long, slow detail at the natural world.
Routine Tip #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.