We have just returned from two wet weeks in Cornwall. However, the hardest thing was not the weather but the sad realisation that my four year old declared he was bored on the beach. "What do I do now?" he whined, "I want you to play with me". Despite having a fantastic imagination, and moments of wonderful independent play, what he really wanted was our attention. If we dutifully started building sand castles, he would watch and give instructions. I felt deeply ashamed, failed as a parent because I'd produced a child who could not play on the beach. What had I done wrong?
I'm learning that what I've done wrong is doing too much. The four year old is my first child and from discussions with friends we've seen that our first children are all the same - demanding of time and not as good at independent play as younger siblings. Having all arrived at motherhood from full time jobs we threw ourselves into our new roles, thinking we were being "good" mothers by responding to every need.
Today's children have so many distractions - television channels constantly playing programmes for them, toys which beep and stimulate, special clubs and sporting activities designed just to help them develop and "helicopter" mothers who hover over them squeaking enthusiastically about how well they are doing.
I was delighted to read an article by Joseph Epstein which eloquently summed up my feelings and reassured me that I wasn't the only modern mother who had fallen into the trap of over stimulating and fussing my child. He writes children have moved "from the background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centred on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments". Their parents "seem little more than indentured servants", the children given an inflated sense of their own significance.
Too late have I learnt this lesson. My second son is much more placid, having had less fuss as his older brother was taking up a disproportionate amount of time. It's very difficult for parents today. We are bombarded by books and programmes telling us the correct way to raise children and offered a plethora of activities and entertainments which it's implied are good for our children and which we, as good parents, should be providing. But I think that this is suitable example of where "less is more" and that a bit more of life like the good old days when children were seen and not heard and sent off to play with mud and sticks in the garden would be healthy.
That seems an idyllic scenario but there is a balance between giving your children some time and focus and them learning to entertain themselves. I worry that I have lost that equilibrium, distracted by the hectic schedules we give ourselves. When my four year old recently asked me to help build a train set and I refused, being busy cooking them something suitably nutritious, his response was "you always say later". Of course I felt guilty. In racing around trying to keep my children happy do I never actually give them some decent attention and sit down and play properly with them? Is that the real reason he's always asking?
As a modern parent it's a brave step not to opt in to all the extra curricular activities and stimulation. But having seen my child flounder on a beach, a place supposed to be a haven of pleasure for children, I think I am paying the price for today's world of instant gratification and will now focus on guiding them towards independence. Peversely, that actually means stopping and spending five proper minutes with them every now and then. I hope this will then give them the courage to do their own thing as well.