A recurring theme in my thoughts is why my eldest child is not good at playing by himself – it’s something I’ve written about before in The Shame of a Modern Parent.
“My Bob used to be out in the garden all day at his age, I had to call him in for his dinner” someone said to me recently, and I wondered why my children do not do this.
I came up with two theories, both involving it being my fault.
Theory One – Nurture: T, the first born, had two years of fuss and attention and so still demands it whereas B, the second born, was fed, changed and put into his pram and so is placid and able to play quietly and absorbed by himself. J, the baby, is also content to bottom shuffle around playing with what she finds.
But is this due to Nature or Nurture? Were my children born with these temperaments or were they created by the different situations of their early years? Although my parenting principles were the same, the practicalities of having one, two or three children meant I did things differently. I’ve decided that all first children should come with siblings. Nothing distracts your attention more than another child and I do think it’s healthy that a mother does not always come running to a child’s demands – but it’s very hard not to when it’s just you and them.
Theory Two – T is reluctant to play by himself because I encourage him to stay near me. Last week we were out at a small rural garden centre in the play area. T disappeared into a maze of paths between some small box hedges and my automatic reaction was to call “stay where I can see you!”
I later thought to myself, if I don’t encourage my son to go exploring between box hedges in a place like that, is it surprising that he doesn’t feel inclined to go off and play away from me?
In modern times we panic if we don’t know where our children are at every moment. Are there more dangers or are we more paranoid? This is something discussed in a chapter of Liz Fraser’s A Spoonful of Sugar: Old Fashioned Wisdom for Modern Day Mothers, in which Liz’s Granny shares advice on parenting from her day.
There is a lot of good advice in the book, a return to the basics rather than fussing and paranoia. But Granny does say “times have changed and you mustn’t feel too bad about being more cautious.” There is a difference, Liz writes, between real risks, like more traffic and perceived risks, like there being more child snatchers. Traffic is now more dangerous but we perceive there to be more snatchers because we hear more about them. “Hearing more stores on the news about muggings does not mean there are more muggings”.
I feel sad for T, he’s a confident child but not confident to leave a certain radius of me – because I won’t let him. Liz’s advice is to “try to give our children more space to be by themselves in order to learn what’s safe, in such relatively safe environments”. Here I’m wondering if I’m confusing the issues of playing independently and playing away from me, but I do think there is link. He is still young to be going off on his own, but the incident at the garden centre has made me consider that I might be giving him mixed messages about independence.
If we keep our children too close to us in fear, will they ever have the courage to explore? Tonight we were talking about the story of The Secret Garden and I wondered, would the modern child follow the robin through that door or has our anxiety numbed any sense of curiosity?