Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ignoring My Kids

You Do Not Always Have My Undivided Attention

I read this article a few weeks ago about the notion of "Free Range Parenting."  Apparently, some parents have been making headlines recently with a parenting approach that some would argue isn't really parenting at all.  The notion behind "Free Range Parenting" is you give your child or children a significant amount of autonomy at a relatively young age to encourage independence.  Critics of the philosophy obviously see this as neglectful and dangerous for the children.  I've read a lot about various modern-day parenting philosophies, but this was the first I'd heard the term "Free Range Parenting".  While I don't agree with all it seems to entail, I do find some of the concepts intriguing and have found myself incorporating them into my daily interactions with my own kids.  Let's call it "Free Range Parenting Lite".

Before I ever seriously considered staying at home with our kids, one of my biggest concerns was always being able to provide them with enough activity.  I figured they had so much going on at the daycare center they were at, if they stayed home with me they'd be bored out of their minds.  This was still a concern I had when I decided to transition to staying at home and continues to be something I contemplate almost daily.  How much could I be stunting their development by forcing them to spend numerous hours with me as often their sole source of interaction?  Even I get bored with me after a while.

My Dad made a seemingly casual (to him) comment that really struck a chord with me just before I started staying home.  After mentioning that I hoped the kids wouldn't get bored spending time with me at home, he pointed out that for the most part, my sister and I were left to our own devices when we were younger and seemed to turn out fine.  Sure, my Mom was around and it wasn't like she had no clue what we were up to, but for the most part she let us be and we found ways to entertain ourselves (imaginative play as they like to call it these days).  Besides, she had other things to worry about - laundry, meals, cleaning, feeding the baby pigs, etc.  Oh, you didn't have baby pigs that needed to be attended to when you were growing up?

I think I've mentioned this before, according to Jennifer Senior in her book All Joy No Fun, the actual term "stay at home parent" is a relatively recent phenomenon.  In the '50s & '60s, women who didn't work out of the home (which were most of them) were called "housewives", implying that their first priority was to look after the home.  Even my Mom, in the '80s, was considered a "homemaker".  She actually was part of a group of "homemakers" that would meet regularly for coffee to swap recipes and cleaning techniques.  I remember they would usually take a weekend in December where they would all go to the "big city" to get their Christmas shopping done.  I'm seriously considering starting up my own "homemaker" group if anyone is interested.

So I took my Dad's comment as advice, and coupled it with what my friends in the marketing biz always like to preach to help guide my philosophy toward structuring (or not structuring) my kids' day - "keep it simple, stupid".  My Dad also told me he thought the fact that I already had thought about how I would foster my kids' development while I was at home with them was an indicator that I was already on the right track.  To paraphrase Dawn Dais for her book, The Sh!t No One Tells One (which has become one of my new favorite parenting books), bad parents don't worry if they are being bad parents.

When I put this approach into practice, I realized that practicing my "free range parenting lite" actually involved me somewhat consciously ignoring my kids (gasp!).  This has been a challenge, because it will often still leave me feeling like I should be doing more to actively engage them, especially at this delicate age of their development.  However, there are a few reasons I think it is good for both them and me, and those who have to interact with me (i.e my wife).

Why I think It Is Good for Them:

On some levels, giving your kids autonomy is definitely a good thing as it promotes a certain level of independence.  When our oldest transitioned into the preschool room at her daycare, the directive we received from her new teacher was to encourage her to be as independent as possible, especially when it came to doing everyday tasks like getting dressed.  It obviously takes kids a lot longer to dress themselves, and the clothes they pick out might not always be appropriate, but it gets them headed in the right direction and bolsters their confidence when they finally get it.  You do have to draw the line somewhere though at a young age, like using the cutlery.

I also think/hope/pray that any positive behavior modeling I am attempting to do for my kids will inevitably resonate with them.  For better or worse, I am the coolest person in the world to my kids right now (after my wife of course).  I'm also the person they spend the majority of their waking hours with.  So if they are going emulate behavior of someone, it's likely going to be me.  This can provide serious pressure in that you always have to be mindful of your actions and your language.  But to me, this also helps with the notion of keeping things simple.

Let's take music.  Most of you know I'm really into music, and want my kids to be into it as well.  At this point, instead of spending a ton of time and energy in attempting to teach my kids various instruments, or shelling out money to hire a professional to teach them, I figure it's enough if I occasionally, but consistently pull out my guitar to strum a few chords or sit down at the piano to plunk a few keys - and not just kid's sing-a-longs (I love it when Isla asks me to play a song she doesn't know).  I figure if they see me enjoying (and at times struggling at) making music, one day they too will want to make music.  Sure we'll get them some formal lessons at some point, but for now I think the exposure works just as well.

Similar with encouraging them to be active.  I like to run and bike, and as much as possible, and sometimes against their will, I will put one or two of my kids in the jogger stroller/Burley and have them accompany me.  At times there are tears of protest, but those usually subside after a few blocks or when they eventually fall asleep.  I figure if I want them to be active, I don't have put them on an exercise plan.  I just have to show them that I like to exercise and make it a priority in my life and hope that they will as well.  We'll wait on the strength and conditioning for a few years.

This has seemed to work for us so far - the kids love music and they love to be active.  And I have to believe this works on all kinds of levels.  Want your kids to enjoy eating healthy food?  Eat healthy food (and like it).  Want your kids to like books and reading?  Read to them, obviously.  I've actually started to intentionally "read around" my kids more in effort to show them that I like reading for my own personal pleasure as much as I enjoy reading to them.  Want your kids to do drugs (or not)?  Do drugs (or don't).  Obviously they won't pick-up on all positive (or negative) behavior you attempt to model, but I would venture a guess that the likelihood of them not modeling your behavior is a lot less then them developing other behaviors that you don't model, especially positive ones unfortunately.

I've also decided that it is okay for our kids to complain about being bored.  Our four year old started throwing around the "B" word last fall (I think before I even started staying home), and at first I got really concerned about how the next fourteen years were going to go.  And I questioned if she really knew what the word meant.  But then I stumbled upon this great article about "The Disease of Being Busy", where the author flatly stated that he wants his kids to experience periods of boredom because that is how life works.  I also then found about this other article about the correlation between boredom and brilliance.  Now, when Isla says she is bored, my response is, "Great!"  Your kids will be bored.  I do not believe it is our responsibility as parents to constantly entertain, or even intellectually stimulate our kids.  

Why I think It Is Good for Me:

Obviously by intentionally ignoring my kids from time to time it has allowed me opportunities to hold on to some of my own interests.  As I mentioned in a previous post, one thing I was adamant about was retaining my own personal identity as an individual through parenthood and not being completely defined through my parental duties.  Continuing to pursue those interests as much as possible and as time allows has been a great outlet and probably helped me hang on to some of my sanity.  I would encourage all parents, especially new ones, to try to make sure they are holding on to some of their interests and hobbies throughout parenthood so they at least having something to go back to when the kids leave the house.  Or, when the kids get old enough, they will have passions and interests that can be shared within the family.  I'm already looking forward to the day when I'll be able to run 5Ks with my kids (and hopefully still beat them).

I also think taking this approach now, while the kids are still relatively young, will help me be a better supporter of their own independence as they grow older and want to be more independent.  Having worked in the higher ed environment for a number of years, I've definitely seen the effects (mostly negative) of "helicopter parenting" and how it has inhibited some students' ability to develop their own independence and sense of self.  I want to support my kids as they grow, but I know that they will need to fail at times in order to grow.  My parents took a similar approach with me during my adolescent years, and I'm thankful that they did.  If I don't allow my kids to start growing on their own at least a little bit at this age, it will become more challenging for me to step back, and probably for them to step forward, as they grow and mature.

Lastly, I've become more comfortable saying "no" to them, without always having a good reason.  The other day Isla asked me if she could play with the Play-Doh set that Havi go for her birthday (in our house a gift for one child is typically used more often by a different child).  The Play-Doh set had "disappeared" because it was not cleaned up following its last use (I don't know if our kids grasp the concept that we do this, but it helps keep some of the toys at bay on a small level).  I wasn't really thrilled about the prospective of taking it out and cleaning it up again after they played with it for 30 minutes and moved on to the next thing, so I told her no.  Was this selfish?  Yeah, it was.  But I explained to her that she had a number of other things she could play with and Play-Doh was often a mess to clean up, so we weren't going to take it out at that moment.  Maybe not the best justification, but it felt okay to say "no" to one of their requests, as small as it seemed.  I figure if we can't get comfortable saying no to them now on occasion, it will become increasingly harder to do so as they get older, get better at poking holes in our reasoning, and the requests become more demanding, and likely larger and more expensive.  

Why I Think It Is Good for The People Around Me:

Part of the allure of staying at home was the idea that along with spending more time with my kids, I'd also be able to take care of some of the day-to-day necessities of home life - cooking, cleaning - to make things less stressful around the house.  By allowing the kids to fend for themselves occasionally, it allows me time to get these things accomplished, and hopefully provides good modeling to our kids.  We try to get them involved with some of these tasks whenever possible/logistically feasible, so they hopefully start to understand that clothes don't magically clean and fold themselves or dinner doesn't just get dropped off at your doorstep (most nights).  When I'm at home with my kids, if I'm not actively engaging with them in something, a bulk of my time is spent doing things I view as constructive - cleaning, meal prep, blogging(?), etc.  My hope is that if they aren't helping (or trying to help while actually hindering), they are at least recognizing that I'm doing a task that needs to be done and something they might be responsible for doing some day.  Contrary to popular belief, I don't spend all day sitting around and watching trashy daytime TV - it's usually just half of the day.

So that's why I ignore my kids sometimes, and would encourage you to do the same.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  Try it.  I'm sure they will be okay.  As long as it is not to the extent of being neglectful, like leaving them to forage for their own meals, it is promoting independence and hopefully sparking their brilliance.  If you are questioning if you actively engaging your kids enough, think about what approach your parents took with you growing up.  If you think you turned out fine, then you probably have a good basis to start from.  Odds are you don't even remember those years, and your kids likely won't either, so take a break and go do something constructive or that you find fulfilling.

If you leave your kids alone, they may get into Mom's make-up bag.
They probably did better than I would have.

1 comment:

  1. Just wait until they can make parades in the gravel alley with the baseball bat!