Let's Play Happy Families

18th July 2014

From ballet class to riding lessons to letting them run riot at home, keeping children happy – and stimulated and fulfilled – is the sacred cow of family life. ‘Overcompensation,’ say those in the know, calling into question the work/life balance that leads to parents who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Forced to work long hours to pay increased living costs, they’re also blamed for damaging their children and stunting their emotional development by their absenteeism. But, asks Claire Moulds, what about the parent/child balance?

Ask any of my friends with kids, where both parents work, and it’s not the child who is suffering but the couple’s relationship – because if there is less quality time than they’d like during the working week for the children, there is, in most cases, next to no quality time at all for the parents. In fact, the average couples now spends just 15 minutes of ‘quality’ time together a day. Is that really enough to keep a relationship alive?

When we are constantly reminded of the importance of having a stable family unit to a child’s development, why is so little emphasis placed on ensuring the long-term future of the mother-father relationship? After all, if your relationship revolves almost exclusively around who needs to pick up/drop off which child and whose turn it is to empty the bins it’s surely only a matter of time before the cracks develop.

A generation ago parents thought nothing of going out one night a week and having fun while someone else minded the kids, of having a weekend away together or even sending junior off to Grandma and Granddad’s for the week. Now though parents are taught that, when they aren’t at work, their child should be with them constantly and that their needs come before everything else.

Just look at the outcry earlier this year when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge chose to go to the Maldives for a week without baby George. Kate, in particular, was criticised for leaving her baby behind for some ‘me time’, reinforcing the fact that in the eyes of the world the umbilical cord is never truly cut and mum is ‘on duty’ 24/7 for the rest of her life. Was George emotionally damaged by being left with his doting grandparents for a week as some have implied? Or was the reality that the Middletons got to spend precious time with their little grandson and to lavish him with love and cuddles?

Little Prince George accompanied his parents to Australia in May – but his mother was the target of much criticism for leaving him at home when she and his father went to the Maldives on holiday a few weeks earlier…

One friend of mine won’t even clean the house while her daughter is awake, as she feels the child should have her undivided attention at all times. But what does this teach children?

When I was growing up all the mothers on the street adopted the same approach: ‘go out and play with your friends while I get the jobs done’. Did this scar us for life? No, it taught us that being a grown up meant being responsible for more than just us, that our parents needed to prioritise – sometimes we’d be top of the list and sometimes we wouldn’t – and, crucially, it taught us to be self-sufficient as we learned to occupy ourselves.

And it’s not just Mum and Dad that are suffering from this trend towards a child-centric society. My Facebook news feed is awash every weekend with parents taking their children to a steady stream of attractions, events and classes as they strive to make up for being at work during the week. Simply being at home together as a family is no longer enough. ‘Quality’ time has to involve a trip out somewhere, money being spent and an activity that is aimed almost exclusively at the child. The idea of their son or daughter simply entertaining themselves is, to this generation of parents, unthinkable.

But is this approach actually good for a child? Between a steady stream of activities at nursery/pre-school to keep them engaged and occupied all week to a succession of activities with Mum and Dad at the weekend with exactly the same aim, we are raising children who a] believe that life revolves entirely around them and b] have absolutely no idea how to fill their own time. When we were young we were left to our own devices to occupy whole days. Children nowadays are so used to being on a packed schedule that even a ten minute gap is met with ‘but Mum, I’m booooooorrrrrrrred.’

My youngest niece is a prime example of this parenting approach. Having grown up being ferried to a steady succession of swimming, tennis, sailing, piano, drama, netball and hockey lessons she is so used to having something to do that, when confronted with free time, she’s at a complete loss. As a result her immediate response is to seek attention from someone and, if that fails, she resorts to the TV, computer or iPad. If these things aren’t available to her she genuinely does not know what to do with herself!

As parents contemplate the long summer holiday and strive to fill every minute of it with as many trips out, activities and playdates as possible maybe it’s time to take a moment to reflect on the benefits of ‘free time’ both for them and their children. After all, if a child can’t tap into the power of their imagination now, where will the authors, artists and playwrights of the future come from? And it’s not just children that would benefit from going ‘off schedule’. Look at any family’s calendar and it is crammed with activities and appointments that parents need to drive their children to and from. Freed from the role of chauffeur, and with fewer commitments in the diary, parents can finally block out time for each other, rather than ‘date night’ having to be booked two months in advance because one or other child has something on every night and every weekend until then. The concept of time alone together has taken on an almost hallucinatory quality for many contemporary parents…

The truth is, we’ve elevated children to such a position that nothing else matters and parents feel compelled to sacrifice everything on the altar of Mum and Dad, including their relationship. If you’re not devoting every minute of your life to your kids and they are not your sole focus then you are a ‘bad parent’. Ironically, one of the main messages to come out of our pre-marriage lessons at church – a concept that so many people see as ‘outdated’ – was that parents should focus their efforts on their relationship with each other as if that’s loving, happy and secure then your children will draw everything they need from that. Sadly, too few couples seem to implement this approach, the result being that on a rare night out together all most parents can find to talk about is their children!

Until common sense kicks in and we realise that families need time together, parents need time together and individuals need time to themselves (the equally forgotten them/me balance that affects Mums in particular with 51% regularly going whole weeks without even a single minute spent relaxing on their own) I will continue to try and cajole the friends who’ve never gone anywhere without their children in the five years since they became parents (even though Grandma lives ten minutes down the road and is more than happy to babysit) and the friends who have never left their children for a single night, even though the eldest is now nearly eight, to stop being parents, even for just a few hours, and to remind themselves who they are as a couple. After all, children won’t be at home forever and, when they fly the nest, what will be left of your relationship if you don’t invest time and effort in it now?

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