Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Don't worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy (Photo credit: duncan)

If someone were to ask me what emotion, apart from love, has been a constant since you had children, I would be able to answer very quickly – worry. Of course, all the other emotions have been there to varying degrees at different times – joy, frustration, irritation, happiness – but one thing is always gnawing away – worry.  I’ll freely admit that I am one of life’s worriers – I can worry about things which wouldn’t even occur to most rational people as things you could even worry about. I am, as they say, a master at sweating the small stuff. That said, I am actually quite good in a crisis.  So by all means ask me about the big stuff but don’t ask me about the day-to-day stuff.  I am your classic over-thinker and this of course goes hand-in-hand with worry.  Although at least I can rationalise that if I am worrying over something so trivial, I really don’t have very much to worry about – if that makes sense.

Why am I wittering on about worry, you may well ask?  Well, I was thinking about the differences between child-rearing in the 60s/70s and now and as much as technology, media and scientific advances have opened up a whole new exciting world, they have also contributed to a general heightened sense of anxiety in society especially for parents.  For example, thanks to the internet, I can carry out almost every single daily activity – shopping, banking, bill-paying etc – without moving my backside from its best friend, the desk chair. However, the flip side of this is the information that is available to us at the click of a mouse. Say my child has a perfectly harmless rash, a hint of a sniffle and is a bit off his food – back in the day, our mothers would have assumed it was some non-specific virus, kept us off school for a day or two, fed us chicken soup and that staple, Calpol, and that would have been that – no worries. Nowadays, we google the symptoms (even though we know this is not a sensible course of action) and before we know it our child is suffering from some extremely rare flesh-eating virus that you can only pick up (except of course in our child’s case) from the depths of the South American jungle.  Cue – worry. Our mothers only had Dr Benjamin Spock for advice, we have every Tom, Dick and Harry claiming to be medical experts, diagnosing us and our children with things our parents never knew existed.

Every day the media is bombarding us with stories about this and that potential danger. We trust no-one.  We take no risks.  We are obsessed with “health and safety”.  Of course, awful things happen but awful things happened back in the day too.  It’s just that we are so well-informed now, over-informed some might say, and I’m not convinced this is a good or helpful thing.  To my mind, it is being so well-informed that has led to low level anxiety permeating society and nowhere is this more apparent than parenting.

Do you think our mothers worried endlessly about giving us fish fingers, spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight and what the long-term impact would be on our health.  No, they didn’t because they were none the wiser.  I’m not saying a diet that solely consists of the above is ideal nor am I saying before you all get concerned that this is what I feed my children (not every day, at least) but now everything we do or say is so wrapped up in worry and guilt about the long-term impact that it is easy to lose sight of what is really important – just trying to be a good parent who amongst all this media bombardment is still able to relax and enjoy being a parent.

Parents worry endlessly about whether their child is “normal”.  What is “normal”?  I don’t really know except I suspect that I am far from it – something which has been confirmed to me on many occasions by various members of the medical establishment. Our schools are constantly measuring and comparing our children to such an extent that it is easy to forget to embrace each child’s individuality and to accept that you really can’t be good at everything all of the time. Take me and sewing for example – useless is the only word to describe it and back in the day, I’m fairly sure that that is exactly how my teacher described it (this, of course, would never happen in today’s hypersensitive, politically correct environment) – so, I am needle-challenged or whatever. Does this bother me? Did this bother my mother?  Did she worry that perhaps this was a reflection of underdeveloped fine motor skills?  No, of course not, she was probably just annoyed that I got thrown out of the lessons for good after breaking the sewing machine three times in one lesson, before I had completed my very 80s Laura Ashley gathered skirt (the material for which she had bought). Take ballet for example, one of my younger sisters was a very talented dancer, I have two left feet.  Did my mother add my sewing ineptitude to my ballet ineptitude and decide I had real problems?  No, of course, not – that’s just me.  Nowadays, you could probably google those two things and come up with some condition – cue, worry. Before anyone accuses me of trivialising real issues, I am not doing this at all.  Of course there are many children with very genuine issues and concerns for their parents.  I am talking about non-issues, non-worries that we are so susceptible to now in our hyper-vigilant environment.  All too often these non-worries  are just muddying the waters of clear, rational thought and making it more and more difficult to ascertain what is a real issue and what is over-thinking, over-informing, over-speculating.

Of course our parents worried about lots of things – worry is part of the human condition – but I do think that there is a low level anxiety in society now that wasn’t there before and I worry (there I go again!) that this can only increase as we become more and more media and technology savvy.  What’s the answer?  I’ve no idea and I don’t have time to worry about it unduly – too many other things to worry about.  I’m just saying…

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The New Rules of Parenting…

Fireplace

Fireplace (Photo credit: John.Karakatsanis)

A good start to 2013 for me – it would appear that for the first time I am ahead of the parenting curve.  This is no mean feat – as a fully paid-up member of the Gina Ford generation, this does not often happen, if at all in my case. To what am I referring? “The new rules of parenting” in “The Times 2” today.

Let me explain.  My eldest son has been displaying some ‘interesting’ new pyromaniacal tendencies.  Up until a few weeks ago, he has shown zilch interest in fire except perhaps a certain disdain for it as he wrestles with his brother dangerously close.  However, recently, it is all about the fire.  He wants to light the fire in our sitting room all the time – first thing in the morning, lunchtime, evening and most irritatingly at about 10pm.  He not only seems to enjoy the whole fire-building process (very much a male preserve, rather like barbecuing) but he tends that fire and nurtures it in a way a mother would her baby.  I have watched this new obsession with some bemusement/amusement and a fair amount of anxiety, aware that it could only too quickly go horribly wrong.

We decided to allow him to follow this new obsession and my husband has very patiently built more fires with his son over this Christmas period than the 16 years I have known him.  So imagine the smugness (there is no other word for it, I’m afraid) that swept over me this morning when I turned to my newspaper and “A five-stage guide to bringing up boys and girls” by child development expert Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. There in black and white, under the section for boys aged 8-10, it says “…Help him to develop practical skills, such as lighting a bonfire (he will do it anyway, so we may as well teach him properly)…” Not only did I feel immediately comforted – my son is perfectly normal for his age and not showing worrying tendencies towards arson – but we, as parents, had responded appropriately – high five!

I have to say that this was about the only area in which we seemed to be succeeding and it would probably be fair to say that I am giving undue attention to one sentence in a long article. In the same section, referring to boys of the same age as my eldest, we are also told not to “go over the top in praising him in an attempt to boost self-esteem: he will feel smothered”. Now, please tell me that I am not the only mother who has days when she finds it very difficult to find anything to praise and I am very rarely in danger of going over the top with my praise.  Some days I am forced to praise him (in desperation) for things which one might normally praise a child of two or three for – eg putting on his shoes (not laces just velcro) or worse still, praising him for most unpraiseworthy things such as getting into the car without smacking or kicking his brother.  This is all part of that balancing out the scolding for bad behaviour (sorry, “boisterous behaviour”) with praise (which all the parenting gurus go on about) and which some days really does result in praise for the most ludicrous things.

As for my other son, he falls into the ages 4-7 boys bracket. In this age bracket we should “encourage his growing sense of humour…Telling a joke is a way that boys can experience some equality with an adult…” For me, one of my most dreaded moments is when one of my children says to me, “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”.  What follows is never a “joke”, as you or I might understand it, but a complete nonsensical string of words which I am expected to laugh at manically once delivered.  Something along the lines of “What did the egg say to the sausage – where’s the baked beans?”  – brilliant, hilarious, hysterical.  Those first jokes are quite excruciating but you do gradually see some comprehension dawning and then the endless round of “knock knock” jokes start.  In fact, currently when one of my boys says to me those dreaded words “Mummy, I’ve got a really good joke to tell you”, I find myself saying “who’s there?” before he’s even started.  Now, however that I know these jokes must be encouraged, I shall do my best to force the laughter and praise (but not over-praise) their attempts at humour.

What about my daughter in all this?  Well, apparently for her age-group, I should be letting her be naughty.  I may have totally misunderstood but I wasn’t aware that I had much say in whether she is naughty or not – she certainly doesn’t ask my permission. I have to agree with Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, though, that “a bit of bad behaviour shows a spark of creativity”.  That’s my excuse anyway!

TV or not TV…that is the question.

Normal service has resumed in our household.  Last week my eldest two were on a TV ban.  It seemed like a good idea at the time – after all, after the Xbox, the TV is really the only thing they genuinely feel affection for – but it became quickly apparent that the real person suffering the punishment was me. They suffered all the symptoms of addiction withdrawal – TV cold turkey – and spent most of the week kicking random objects (more often than not each other) and saying “I’m bored”.  I lost count of the number of times I used those platitudes (which I swore I would never use with my own children as they irritated me so much as a child) – “Only boring people get bored”, “all children have to learn to be bored” and “you have got to learn to entertain yourselves”.  In the end, I was as desperate for the TV ban to end as they were.

My children watch too much TV.  That’s a fact and I’m not proud of it.  I bet if you were honest with yourselves, your children probably watch too much too.  It is so easy to use TV as cheap childcare when you have a million other things you need to do.  My problem with the TV is not just how much they watch but what they watch.  There is so much rubbish out there.  My eldest seems to have a particular penchant for wrestling – I am not even going to pretend to understand the attraction but I am marginally comforted by the knowledge that nearly all his friends seem to share this same fascination – presumably it is a boy thing just as watching “Tangled” 15 times is a girl thing.  I have tried putting pin numbers on various channels so that he can’t access them but actually this is just infuriating because I can’t remember the pin numbers either and as a result I too am condemned to watching some Disney drivel or worse at the end of a long day.

My children look genuinely astounded when I tell them that we only had three TV channels in my childhood and that we never watched TV in the evenings – just watched children’s hour (Newsround, Blue Peter etc) . They look at me with a mixture of disbelief and pity – “What did you do instead, Mummy” – to which inevitably I resort to the old platitude ” we entertained ourselves’ or worse still “we played board games” (which I’m not actually sure we did really but it sounds good).  I think my eldest son thinks that my childhood was actually deprived – he really cannot comprehend such a level of distress and hardship as having only 3 TV channels.

The signs of excessive TV viewing have been there for a while and particularly the effects of advertising.  I was reading a bedtime story to one of the children a while ago and written on one of the pages was the word “bang” (door slamming I think) – I said “bang” with gusto and my son replied, deadpan, “and the dirt is gone”!  More recently, after a particularly long rant on my part about how lucky our children are, how much they have and how money doesn’t grow on trees etc, my eldest son piped up that he had a plan: put my gold necklace (I didn’t have the heart to tell him it was gold-plated) in an envelope, send it off and I would get cash in return – remember the advert?!  If only life was that simple.

One particular gem from my eldest son during coverage of the Royal Wedding last year really made me sit up and consider the impact of excessive TV viewing.  We had watched the marriage service on TV at home and then we were going to some friends for a celebratory lunch.  I told my boys that we could watch the rest of the wedding on the TV at our friends’ house – my eldest was particularly concerned at missing anything.  He turned to me and said in all seriousness,” But Mummy, what about the kiss – will that be in the next episode?”. Now if it hadn’t been quite amusing, I might well have gasped in horror that my son had actually confused real life with TV programmes to the extent that he is unable to distinguish between the two.  To be fair to him, he is not alone and in fact there are many adults who seem incapable of separating fact from fiction, TV from real life.  The curse of the soap opera baddie is the abuse he gets in the street from Joe Public who has failed to make the fairly simple connection that just because the person in front of him “plays”

English: TV receiver

English: TV receiver (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

X from Y soap opera, he is not actually X.

So what to do? Well, not watching any TV is not an option and anyway there are positives to watching some things and let’s face it, the TV is an integral part of our existence nowadays.  I would like my children to watch less and I do think their behaviour reflects the amount of and what they have watched on TV.  I think this is particularly true of boys – for example, the wrestling viewing definitely leads to rough and tumble with my sitting room as the wrestling ring (no idea what the terminology should be) and I have to admit to finding it intensely irritating that my son insists on addressing me as “mate” at the moment which I can only assume originated from some trash he has managed to watch on the quiet.  Although my children seem to watch a lot of TV and I am always trying to cut it down, I have to remind myself that for the majority of the day, they are out there with their friends or at school or playing sport and a little bit of downtime is a good thing. Actually one of my major problems with TV is not actually the programmes themselves (although as I said previously there is a lot of trash out there) but the advertising on commercial channels to which children seem particularly susceptible – but that will have to be another blog, another time.