Let me start this post by saying I’m a crap parent.
I lose my temper sometimes, I hear myself saying some of the same things my father used to say, and I don’t fill my weekends with activities for our kids. However, I’m hoping that the absolute love I have for my children will help them forgive my failings as a dad in the years to come.
I am literally the last person you want to take parenting advice from, so bear this in mind while you read on. I’m not offering parenting advice, I’m offering my perspective on how applying certain principles helps me keep my sanity and hopefully gives my kids some useful tools as they grow up.
Birthdays and Christmas
When I was a kid I must have spent hours pouring over the Littlewoods catalog imagining what it would be like to own all the amazing toys in the kid’s section. We weren’t a poor family, but money was tight. Christmases were still always exciting when I was young and I never felt like I’d missed out on anything, despite never getting the haul I imagined would have made me happy. I guess this is the point. Whilst I lusted after an Aladdin’s cave of stuff I always got one “main” present — usually LEGOs — and a number of smaller presents. Would I have been happier with more things? No. I’d have been overwhelmed.
I’ve seen this with my oldest son. He’s had Christmases where he received endless presents from various family members. We’d be knee deep in wrapping paper on Christmas morning. And yet, months later I would find toys and games still in their boxes, unopened.
We’ve allowed the narrative of Christmas consumerism and memories of our own denial to inform our choices when it comes to buying our kids presents. We want them to have a happy, memorable day and it seems reasonable that spending money on stuff is a good way to achieve it. In the event, all we’re doing is teaching our children to equate happiness with accumulation of stuff. The same has become true for birthdays. Love and happiness can be achieved through more stuff.
This year for Toby’s fourth birthday we decided to try something different. We asked family to contribute to a single “main” present — a bike, and specified on his party invites that we’d prefer people not to bring presents.
We asked Toby what he wanted for his birthday party — his answer was a list of food items, mainly pizza (cooked in the wood oven in the garden). Around 14 children came and most didn’t bring gifts. Toby had a brilliant time and didn’t ask once about presents although he did eat his own body weight in olives.
I’m not good with clutter, and I say this as someone who is constantly fighting my own clutter demons. Having lived through the endless drifts of plastic crap that my 12-year-old generated as a younger child, I was determined for our house not to become some kind of broken toy dumping ground.
The strategy we’ve employed is actually quite simple. We have a system based on four boxes and three rules. We use Ikea fabric boxes kept in an Ikea bookcase turned on its side.
1 . Only one box can be used at a time. So if the railway track is being played with, it has to be cleared away back in its box and back in the bedroom before another box can be bought out.
2. If Toby wants a new toy, it has to fit in one of the boxes. This means that if there’s no space, something has to be donated to the charity shop or nursery.
3 . No toys are left in the lounge overnight. Parents need an adult space. And in the absence of a separate playroom, the living room needs to feel like a room for adults once the kids are in bed.
Yes, there are always exceptions to these rules. We don’t include cuddle toys for example — since these tend to share his bed — nor do we include books or craft materials. I would never set a limit on books, although we do encourage Toby to cull books he’s grown out of.
We’ve also stopped buying kids magazines that have plastic toys stuck to the cover. These things are instant landfill and although Toby occasionally asks for them, we explain that they are bad for the planet and only lead to disappointment when they break.
What does this mean for Toby and how does he feel about this? Well, like any child he asks for toys from time to time. Sometimes we buy him things — especially if we feel that he’s done something noteworthy (like using the toilet for the first time), but beyond that, we probably buy him far less than many of his peers.
We try to be intentional in our purchasing decisions for Toby — going for quality over fad. Lego is a firm favorite and it makes me so happy to hear him enacting complex stories with this and other toys in his room.
We’ve never allowed Toby to use an iPad or smartphone. Occasionally we might show him a video or image of something as part of a conversation, but so far we’ve avoided letting him use mobile devices.
When it comes to TV, like all kids he’d happily watch it all day long. We tend to limit his viewing to one or two programs in the morning and a couple in the evening. We really notice the difference when he watches more than a couple of cartoons on the trot. He becomes grumpy and whiny. In contrast, his mood remains good on days when he spends more time playing with his toys or messing around in the garden.
There’s a lot of research about the effect of screen time on children. The link at the end of this post details some research that shows a link between reduced academic achievement and screen time. Much has also been written about the effect of parent’s device usage on their kids. Basically, if we want our kids to learn how to be intentional with screens, then we need to adhere to the same principles.
So this is the bit where I think other parents might judge me adversely.
I’m not a fan of spending my weekends ferrying my kids from one activity to the next. As you’d expect, I have a couple of opinions on this.
Firstly, I think a child is happy if their parents are happy and want to be with them. I want my kids to enjoy the things that I enjoy — cooking, walking in the woods, camping, making stuff.
When our children are young, they want to do stuff with their parents. We should enjoy this all too brief period in their development and see it as an opportunity to give them some of the skills and memories that they will be able to return to when they reach adulthood.
I don’t have a problem with kids being bored. Boredom can be a powerful and useful part of a child’s day. With the availability of distractions and entertainment, in recent times we’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that every moment of our lives must be filled. This has been exacerbated by mobile technology.
Adults struggle to spend time in their own company without the pacifier of their devices.
In the lift, we reach for the phone, on the train platform we reach for the phone, and as much we have lost the ability to be still and contemplative, so we think that our kids need constant entertainment.
We went on (our first ever) family holiday this year. Our plane was delayed on the tarmac and we were stuck in our seats for four hours.
All around us kids were glued to iPads and phones. After an hour all (and I do mean all) these kids were kicking off and getting shouted at by their parents.
Toby spent the entire time playing with his dinosaurs, creating a little world on the fold-down table. Definite smug parent moment.
Kids need to know how to cope with boredom and parents need to do things with their kids that they can all enjoy and learn from. There will no doubt be times when I have to sit by the side of the pool waiting for swimming lessons to end or watch a film I’ve no interest in seeing, but there will also be walks in the woods, garden building projects and baking afternoons. I want my kids to understand that as much as they are loved and cherished, I do not exist to keep them entertained. That’s something they can learn to do themselves.