Friday 7 January 2011

What children really want

Now that heat has been restored to the house, my brain is defrosting enough for me to blog again. Here is the first of the holiday insights I had:

As parents, we often over complicate things. We imagine that children want expensive toys, when they're perfectly happy turning a carboard box into a den. We believe that unless we take them to expensive theme parks or zoos, they'll be bored. We feel the need to control what they're doing so that they're kept safe and don't bother other people. We think they need to bath everyday because the books said bathing helped babies settle well and we just stuck with the routine. We think they need to have three well balanced meals a day at roughly regular times.

But here's the thing. While discipline and healthy eating and safety and cleanliness are all important things, every once in a while it's ok to let it all go to hell in a hand basket. What's more, 'treats' like going to funfairs and meals out aren't necessarily what kids want.

What they want is the freedom to be, without the constraints of over zealous parenting.

Where we spent Christmas is the perfect place for children to experience the freedom that most kids just don't have these days. My children would get up, occasionally change out of their PJs and into shorts and Ts, reluctantly submit to an application of sunblock and then bolt out the door in search of their friends. They'd spend hours at a time out of our sight and without my knowledge of where they were, but with my knowing that they couldn't have got too far and were probably with someone I knew.

On one particular occasion, I found them four houses down in someone's else garden, high up in a tree. The tree was directly above a brick wall, which would have made for a fairly unpleasant landing place had they fallen out of the tree. The tree also had some kind of electric box on it for lights, another potential hazard. When I found them, my youngest child was hammering the tree with a large piece of metal. My normal mother antenna flicked on: Danger - could fall out of tree. Danger - could land on wall. Danger - could electrocute self. Behaviour - hitting someone's tree and potentially causing damage. Danger - could hit someone with metal. Behaviour - had they asked permission to climb the tree?

I knew the family whose tree it was, not that I could see them anywhere. I was about to start asking them to get down when my son turned to me and said: 'Could you leave now please?'

And I realised that sometimes, you just have to let go and let them be. They came to no harm. Neither did the tree and the people who's tree it was didn't bat an eyelid.

The kids would come back home when they were hungry. They were allowed fizzy pop (creme soda - vile green stuff with way to much sugar and artificial things in it) albeit in limited quantities. They got cleaned once a week despite having black feet and rings of dirt around their necks. They swam for hours and hours and hours. They learned to do forward rolls and forward flips and dives. We always had someone watch them swimming - I couldn't let go that much - but they were allowed to do outrageous things on piles of floating tubes that had me clutching my phone ready to call an ambulance, without saying a word (or at least not often).

They played impromptu games of football and rugby with a bunch of random kids and grown ups - whoever happened to be passing by. They flew kites and got them tangled. They played board games to escape the sun - and yes, they did play on their nintendo DSs that they got for Christmas a little more often than I would have liked.

They explored rock pools on beaches and pretended to hunt for pirate loot. They skimmed stones. They collected shells. And my eldest even managed to swim right across the river unaided, although my husband was on lifeguard duty on a canoe.

In short, they were free to be. And they loved it. We've had some lovely holidays, but never before at the end of a holiday have I had two small boys sobbing - I mean body shaking sobs with rivers of tears - about having to leave.

So parents if you're planning your next big expensive holiday, packed with activities and outings, I suggest you choose somewhere relatively safe where kids can play, ideally with other kids, and let them explore and be free. The sneaky plus side of this is that you get to chill out and read books (more on this in my next blog post). A win win.


nappy valley girl said...

I agree - those sorts of holidays are the ones where they really develop. Funnily enough there was an article in the NY Times yesterday about exactly this - giving children the freedom to play without adults and create their own little worlds. I guess we've just had a fairly 'organised' holiday (skiiing) but in the summer the boys spent time with their cousins in Anglesey and it was all about running around a huge house and making up little games. I would much rather they did that and enjoyed it than hauling them round some theme park.

I'm glad you had a good time - and time to yourself.

Tasha Goddard said...

Sounds wonderful (and rather like my childhood).