“Merry Christmas My Arse”- the challenge of good parenting in the festive season

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Christmas for me is a time of stress. Cards, buying stuff, wrapping stuff, tidying, organising, compromising… And I find it has an uncanny ability to bring out the worst in people and relationships. In my experience December builds up to the fever pitch of Christmas Eve where my partner does his best to provoke my wrath by deserting me to do his ‘last minute shopping’ while I resentfully entreat the children not to expect any mothering (other than sweets and TV) as I freak out attempting to ‘make everything perfect for Christmas Day’… Bedtime is late, full of regret and also the time that my resolve solidifies to spurn all of the expectations and social standards that lead me to place anything over communicating with and enjoying my family. On Christmas Day I’m too exhausted to put my resolve into action so I mostly throw toys, more sweets and TV at the children and hope I can get back into bed soon. Lame. That is what I hate about Christmas. But also what it’s really good for. For breaking you down into the lowest common denominator from which point you can reassess and blossom into a wonderful nurturing parent.

Now toys are good, kids can learn from toys, not just from their intended functions but they can learn how to cherish and look after things, how to share, more and more now how to cultivate a nice healthy collecting obsession… Which I think is fine (if your teenager has to blow all their money on buying things they at least have a greatly reduced budget for alcopops- and if they take care of their stuff they can sell it to buy gas in the undoubtably bleak future we seem to be lumbering towards). And kids films and TV are great these days, what with our easy access to classics from time immemorial and around the world I could probably entertain myself on a diet of nothing but kids films and programming for the rest of my life. I’m into computers for kids too, they’re fun, they can have their educational aspects, they can buy you five minutes and like it or not they are going to take a more and more central role in our children’s lives as they progress. But all this stuff can be a pernicious obstacle to us lavishing our innate and more cranial gifts on them.

Some days not only do I have to wrestle my kids attention away from their possessions but I actually find that on balance I’ll accept defeat because I’m losing this battle to maintain a gratifying home in the face of their tidal wave. I put the children to bed with extra stories and cuddles then retire to the living room (which I invariably didn’t manage to sort out to my liking anyway) and feel devastated. A whole day with my beautiful, wonderful children and we’ve not had a single valuable conversation. I could be anyone. Any cleaning, cooking, remote control wielding drudge. Today I have failed as a mother. Because I believe that a really good parent has to get inside those little skulls and knead and shape those little minds and personalities to be able to cope with the rigours of life.

On the best days I do this well. One of my interests is in science and it is so good for children. They’re actually engaged in scientific analysis all the time (“do all animals have eyes?”, “can a hot air balloon fly in space?”, “what are rocks made of?”) and by stopping whatever we’re doing and pursuing these investigations with them we can give them some invaluable life tools. First of all, the process of breaking down our own understanding gives them an interesting insight into scientific concepts and vocabulary and the fact that science is not just a school subject that can be ticked off the list at GCSE but something that the adult mind can grapple with too. Second of all I find that the answers are never simple, I might retract a statement or suggest a nuance to my argument which shows them the opportunity is there to get involved and push discoveries forward in their future. Thirdly you can propagate their research skills by referring to books and of course the Internet. Fourth, you’re giving them your full attention and making them feel important and cherished. But fundamentally what I really hope to pass on is a passionate curiosity. Because their lives will throw difficulties at them. They’ll have hard, relentless struggles- and in my experience one of the things that can help when you’re trying to claw your way out of a hole or rebuild your faith in humanity is an interest in science. I’ve been so down- and then I’ve seen some brand new pictures of Saturn and my heart is elated. I can’t believe how lucky I am to live in this age where things like that are accessible at the touch of a finger. I show them to my friends and get involved in an inspiring discussion with someone on the other side of the world. At the very least I might think it’s worth living till I’ve seen the next batch of photographs… Even just the fact that it is interesting can change and save lives. Never mind the fact that any one of our children could potentially be the next Jack Andraka (15 year old kayaking and Glee fan who invented a test for pancreatic cancer that is a hundred times more sensitive and a fraction of the cost of it’s predecessor. He conducted his research… on Google, by the way). You don’t have to be a genius, if you have a preschooler they’re almost certain to know less than you do and if you have a computer there is no question you can’t explore and, you know, you just might learn something exciting or enjoy watching that childish mind developing and sharing some real communication with you. I better put a word of caution in here though actually… Don’t get over excited… I can confirm that 3 year olds don’t necessarily relish the information that if they’re lucky their remains might be fossilised or that the Sun will one day explode engulfing our planet in fire and vaporising it (bizarrely my insistence that scientists would have sorted us out a brand new home way before that happens didn’t make my kid feel much better)… It took me those two clangers to work out where the balance of academic truth and sensitivity to his innocence and emotion lay with my son (although I think a good reference may be The Wicker Man quote “rotting bodies are a great stumbling block for the childish imagination”).

Another area I think it’s increasingly crucial to get involved in with modern children is what they are consuming on screen. It’s particularly precarious at Christmas with the abundance of fantastic but potentially insensitive films shown as well as the strain parents find themselves under which may encourage us to either not pay enough attention to what our kids are watching, make less conscientious decisions about it or even find ourselves tempted to sit down and reward our hard work with something we know is pushing the boundaries of what’s good for them. It is with great reluctance sometimes that I turn over from the Marvel epics and Harry Potter but, when even PG’s seem unable to resist at least an element of pure horror these days and, with the childish mind being so acute at internalising those kind of images I think it’s important to be on guard. And furthermore in my opinion the kind of complex adult relationships explored have even more potential for damage. Whilst I think that the Disney dichotomy of good and evil is simplistic to the point of making real people (including themselves) impossible for children to understand and the inevitable absolute triumph of the hero an unrealistic expectation to instill in a person I think that a lot of what is coming out of Hollywood at the moment is liable to destroy their faith in humanity and relationships and prevent them conducting themselves well in their personal lives. What does a kid get out of the Spiderman series? Our hero is indirectly responsible for his uncles death, murders his best friends father, his love life is an absolute train wreck and the safety of his friends and family hinges on him lying and bearing the burden of his alter-ego all but alone… It is way too nuanced and there are too many erroneous conclusions that an inexperienced mind can come to when faced with this kind of ‘realism’. What I have not addressed of course is the peer pressure our kids are facing- and us too, as parents. And I do think that normality is a valid argument. Is on screen violence ever good for children? Possibly not… Is isolating your children from their peer group, by not allowing them to experience any of the things that their friends are, good for them? I don’t think so. But by doing your homework (there are so many app’s and websites dedicated to parents reviews of films- Common Sense Media have great resources in the App Store, or http://www.kids-in-mind.com online), being willing to step in and turn something inappropriate off despite protestations from young viewers and taking an active role in seeking out compromises I think it’s possible to achieve a fair balance of letting children get into the things they’re interested in and minimising damage. As far as superheroes go the 1960’s cartoons tend to be far tamer than anything made since and often based around the exact same characters and story lines so your child can hold their own in conversations with others who’ve had unrestricted access. Another option is to distract them with things you know are really captivating from your own experience. In my house calls for switching back on to something I deem unsuitable are quickly extinguished by putting on One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing or even some music because mine and my partners enthusiasm is infectious to the children and the promise of a genuinely shared experience can be even more attractive than the promise of breath taking CGI.

Parents have never been so challenged in our efforts to guide our children’s development. At the same time as our time is being consumed with barrages of possessions, increasing bureaucracy, smaller homes and the proliferation of advice and opinion on every aspect of child rearing that leaves most feeling inadequate… Our children are being assaulted with stimulus: 3 dedicated channels on 13 hours a day just on Freeview, so many toys, advertising everywhere, unbounded sophistication in their peers… Their childhoods are never going to be like ours. All we can do is our best. And for me that means just offering up as much time as possible and being as aware as possible of their individuality. Don’t use yourself as a reference, don’t use their friends. Listen to them and think about what’s going in there, have fun as much as possible and keep your fingers crossed.

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