I am on record as saying that I am no parenting guru, and that there are too many people trying to tell parents how to do their job. So why did I recently agree to give FQ magazine – “the essential dad mag” according to its website – my six top parenting tips? (And no, it wasn’t because they paid me!)
The thread that links all my work is that children want and need to expand their horizons: to have everyday experiences of freedom, adventure, exploration and responsibility as they grow up. It is the core of my vision of what a good childhood looks and feels like.
Most of my work to achieve this vision focuses not on parents, but on all the other people and institutions that influence children’s lives: schools, educators, residents, voluntary organisations, play and leisure services, charities, regulators, designers, planners, campaigners, local and national governments and the media.
The simple truth is that for this vision is to become reality, it must resonate with parents. Without their active support, everyone else will lose interest in the topic. The bottom line is this: if parents do not care about their children’s everyday freedoms, why should anyone else? (a point I made in a 2011 post written with UK play advocates in mind).
So parents’ views do matter to me. But I also think parents today have a hard time. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the right way to bring kids up. What is more, when things go wrong there is a long queue ready and waiting to judge parents, in both the mainstream and social media.
It is clear that many parents have a huge appetite for advice and guidance. However, it is nowhere near so clear – to me at least – that this appetite should be fed as freely as it is. I agree with sociologist Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, that one of the biggest problems facing parents is a collapse in confidence. The ‘experts’ should be more willing to tell parents that they are best placed to make the judgement calls – not the parenting gurus. (If you’ve read ahead, you’ll see that my final tip makes this very point.)
That said, parents are hardly irrelevant in children’s lives. Crucially, they are the gate-keepers of their offsprings’ experiences as they grow up. When it comes to day-to-day decisions, they are in the front line. Not for nothing are they near the centre of Bronfenbrenner’s ecosystem of child development.
Messages to parents have to tread a fine line. They need to offer useful information, arguments and insights. But they also have to come over as supportive, not judgemental or patronising. Speaking for myself, I want parents to feel that I am on their side, not wagging my finger.
Treading this line was at the forefront of my mind when I wrote my six tips for FQ Magazine – listed below. What are your thoughts? Did they strike the right balance? Did I miss anything out? Or should I not even have bothered?
1 Remember your childhood
Remind yourself of your favourite place to play as a child. The chances are it was somewhere away from adult eyes: somewhere you could call your own, where you felt in control. Talk to your parents’ generation about their childhood memories. You may be surprised at what you find.
2 Check the facts
When someone tells you “that’s too dangerous”, don’t just take their word for it. Did you know that no UK child has died of plant poisoning for over 20 years?
3 Free play: the magic ingredient
Give your children lots of time to play freely with other children, where you invite them to follow their imaginations, set the rules and come up with their own games. It is amazing how much they learn from each other (plus it’s often more fun for everyone).
4 Hold back
Practice holding back and letting children work out problems for themselves, while keeping a weather eye out in case they really struggle. It will help them build confidence, and help you learn what they can handle.
5 Take the long view
As a parent, it is often tempting to choose the easy option by taking control and doing everything for your child. But in this long run, this is counter-productive. Plus: do you really want your child to be the only kid in class who cannot tie their shoelaces?
6 Build your confidence, listen to your child
Children are different. Parents are different. What matters most is that parents are confident in what they do, and in tune with their child’s personality and character. Most children turn out fine, so don’t get too hung up on what the parenting gurus say.
Note: The tips above are in the form that I sent to FQ Magazine. The final published content – which you can read here – was lightly edited.