Newspapers often carry articles discussing ‘studies’ into methods of parenting. These are generally written in a critical style and will, over time, offer contradictory advice. This weekend there were reports of a government advisor who believes that children whose parents enrol them in too many organised activities lose the ability to think for themselves and are therefore unable to cope with living independently when they are older. I sometimes wonder if these advisors have children themselves. I can see that, taken to extremes, any method of parenting could be detrimental. However, most parents listen to what their kids want and offer gentle encouragement or admonishment. If a child is active, whether through organisations or free play, it is likely to be because this is what the child wants.
Over the years my three children have tried so many different sports and activities that it can be hard to remember all the things that they have done. They have attended regular training sessions for ballet, gymnastics, swimming, football, horse riding, hockey, cricket, golf, taekwondo, judo and archery, They have joined rainbows, brownies, guides, beavers, cubs, scouts and explorers. They have attended weekend drama schools, taken piano lessons and joined badminton and ping pong clubs. There have been activity camps with climbing, kayaking, raft building and caving. They have even chosen to go on week long residentials where they could race karts and quad bikes. Some of the regular activities were enjoyed for a year or two before the time was needed to fit in the next interest, others they still attend regularly.
There have been periods when they were younger when it did feel as if we had no time to sit down and just relax. The logistics of getting each child from school to activity after activity meant packed teas eaten in the car and homework being done as they waited for a sibling to complete a lesson. I did not, however, insist on them doing any of these things apart from the swimming lessons (they had to keep these up until they could swim a good distance with a strong stroke). All activities were started because they heard about how amazing it was from a friend. They would try a couple of classes and, if they wanted to continue, would be enrolled for a term. Once paid for I insisted that classes were attended regularly, but when the bill for the next term came in they were always given the choice of continuing or leaving. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of uniforms, kit and sports equipment that is no longer used.
Alongside these organised activities we did a lot of walking and cycling as a family. We also went swimming together each weekend for many years. Our village abuts the estate of a large house with grounds open to the paying public and a large, exciting adventure playground. We would buy season tickets for this each year and the children would regularly meet up with friends to play. They were always free to go out around the village but more often chose to have friends back to our garden which we had turned into a mini playground for them. Quiet moments were rare.
Far from taking away their independence the experiences they have gained from taking part in so much has given them the confidence to face new situations and challenges. They know that they can have a reasonable attempt at most sports and are used to going to new places and working with people they do not know. It has not always been logistically possible (or necessary!) to drive them everywhere so they have got used to travelling under their own steam and, as they have got older, have learnt to use public transport. My eldest child is now capable of organising herself.
I do not hover over my children constantly but I do like to know where they are and what they are doing. I also like to support them in their interests and encourage active participation in support of clubs they belong to. I take an interest in their lives and feel they will be happier if they leave their laptops regularly and participate in something more active and sociable. They are of an age where this cannot be forced and they value free time so it is particularly pleasing that they still choose to take part in a good number of activities.
To suggest that parents should organise less for their children and allow them to play free or get bored ignores the alternatives available to the modern child. When the majority of houses contain multiple computers and televisions a child is as likely to switch on and tune out rather than run around outside. There are also fewer and fewer parents who are happy to have their child run free. I have lost count of the number of parents who have voiced concern to me over the years that I have expected my eight or nine year old to walk the few hundred metres home from school or the village hall unattended (even in the dark!), or who has complained that my child was being noisy, boisterous or engaging in rough play whilst out with friends. When my son fell out of a tree he learnt a valuable lesson. Yes, he could have broken his neck, but that could happen on the stairs at home.
My hackles will always be raised when unasked for criticism and advise are offered. If parents are to do their job then they must be allowed to make decisions based on how their kids are and how best to encourage them to be good citizens. There will always be extremes – parents who ignore their children almost entirely and those who make every decision for them – but most parents that I know encourage but do not force. I think that my kids are amazing. I hope that most parents think that of their kids. They are also individuals and will react in different ways to the same treatment, just as adults will. If the government is trying to parent the nation then I would advise them to learn a few lessons in parenting themselves.