Sofia Berman, Swedish co-founder of Sassy Mama Dubai and mum of Adam, three, and Edward, four
Like most expectant mothers, I was hell-bent on never letting anything remotely dangerous or non-organic – that hadn’t been tested and certified by at least two independent labs in Switzerland – get within 10 feet of my precious little boys. I’m obviously not going to bore you with details of all thethings I once said I’d never do and now do daily; because we are all guilty of the same thing, right?
One of the things that didn’t make my red-alert list was technology. I honestly never really thought about it being a bad thing. But as a lucky mother of two healthy and very active – paediatric code for ‘insane’– little boys, the management of TV, iPads and smartphones had started to concern me. I think that my generation, born in the 1970s (and no, I’m not going to tell you which year!), harbours an over-belief in technology as being ‘our friendly little helper’. We can order our flights online, Skype with our parents and listen to any music we want at the press of an icon. All good, right? Well, I’m wondering how equipped we as parents are to guide our kids when it comes to good and bad technology. Or rather, whether we use it in a good or a bad way. And whether it’s assisting with brain development or turning all that grey matter to mush and causing all sorts of behavioural issues. Uh-huh, we mamas are all desperately looking for someone in Switzerland to give us a list with columns of pros and cons!
I’m not firmly sitting in either camp, but the idea of challenging kids to think for themselves sounds like the right thing to do, don’t you think? And so this mama set out to unplug her little rascals for 10 days. And here is how it all went down…
A typical day in our house starts with brekkie followed by us trying to make the kids look presentable before setting off for school. No TV in the kitchen or anything like that, we are Scandinavian after all. We also took the iPad away from the boys more than a year ago because it just triggered teary arguments and cracked screens, so the main challenge for us to unplug was kicking the good ol’ evening telly habit. Easy you might think?
Wrong. The kids usually watch an hour to an hour and a half of TV before bed, and they were going to fight to keep it that way. Day one of our little experiment was a complete disaster; I thought I was doing the right thing when I told the boys that we were going to hang out instead of watching TV, but I ended up succumbing to classic mama-type lies, such as: “The TV is out of battery”.
There was crying, repeated requests to go to the store for batteries, as well as general shouting, and they weren’t able to focus on anything apart from their lack of TV. Great. And personally I felt nothing short of evil. My husband on the other hand, thought the whole idea was great, which I put down to the fact that he generally gets home just in time to switch the TV off… and that’s on a good day.
But then, on day four, something changed, or maybe they just gave up? Either way, my eldest said: “Mamma, today we are not watching TV, we are practising the alphabet instead.”
The impossible had happened.They were both happy, reading books and writing letters on a chalkboard, while watching me cook. I felt like Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, humming away to myself. Oh yes, I was a wholesome mother and all was well with the universe.
For the next six days this carried on; we came home from the park at 5.30pm, had dinner, they took a bath and then we just hung out in the kitchen; talking, reading, writing and doing all sorts of non-techy things. The boys didn’t even ask for TV once during that time.
And you know the best bit? Sitting in the kitchen kind of gets old after about an hour, so bedtime had never been easier. What better reward is there on this Earth?
The kids were happy once the 10 days were over and I presented them with the ‘holy screen’ again, but nowhere near the high-pitched hype I had predicted. Although my family is back on the tech, I dare mothers out there to turn off the telly for a week. It’s not as bad as they might think; it’s actually kind of… great. Go on, hate me for it!
The expert view
Julie Mallon and Elizabeth Baines, Nurture To Sleep (www.nurturetosleep.com)
“While technology is a reality of the modern world and has many obvious benefits, these also come with great risks. Studies have shown that it affects the way children’s developing brains absorb new information and can lead to Continual Partial Attention (CPA); that state we enter when forced to divide our attention between multiple tasks, constantly paying some attention to several things and yet never giving full attention to any one task.
“Scientists have shown the negative effects of multitasking for children; it can result in trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, and more stress.
It also can’t be a coincidence that obesity rates have tripled alongside the advent of technology, as electronic devices increasingly replace outside play and human interaction. Young children require three to four hours a day of physical activity and human ‘touch’ in order to develop properly. According to the late anthropologist Dr Ashley Montagu, infants who are deprived of this amount of human touch and play exhibit more agitation and become depressed in early childhood.
“Technology is here to stay but we must realise the importance of immersing our children not only in technology but in a stable moral community.”
Heidi Raeside, British blogger (Tuesdayschild.me) and mum of James, three, and Teddy, two
Bringing Up BÉBÉ, a book by American-living-in-Paris Pamela Druckerman, about the principles of French mothering, intrigued me from the moment I heard about it. I related to many of its ideals, like the importance of a woman retaining her feminine allure and relationship with her friends and husband. Although I am a full-time mum – already kind of against the French-style studied in the book – any spare time is filled, no fulfilled, by my blog. Otherwise, I pretty much live for the boys; we play together a lot and are all very affectionate.
French parenting, according to this book, is quite laissez-faire. French mums have a ‘cadre’ structure, within which the children clearly know the rules (things such as always saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ are very important), and everything else is free for them to ‘explore’. Little naughties can be overlooked as children being children. There’s a lot of focus on the way and what they eat for dinner (for example, only one small snack around 3pm, then four courses for dinner, with vegetables being the first).
French mums do not interfere with their children’s education or stress about how quickly their little ones are developing. They hardly play with them and will mostly be seen reading or doing something solitary at the park, as opposed to running around with them (as I usually would).
French mums take good care of themselves and watch their weight. They also ‘understand’ that their husbands are not capable of domesticity in the same way that we are, and choose not to battle their laziness or mistakes. (The more I read the more my eyebrows arched!)
There was so much to cover in testing the approach and, to be fair, a lot of it we already do. So I chose to experiment with a few practices that I had questioned would work in real life…
First up was taking them to the park and sitting to read a magazine – never happened. They whined and tugged at me and once even just sat next to me for a whole 15 minutes. This is obviously because they are used to me mucking in so much and it made me question that. I think I do need them to run off and fall over and get up again and make friends with kids on their own, and so on. So I had mixed reviews on that one.
I already talk to them a lot about the food they eat to get them excited and to expand their vocabulary, but I made an extra effort during my experiment. Alas, vegetables, even at the start of dinner when they were hungry, did not work at all for my youngest, who actually threw a buttered runner bean at me! Back to hiding the greens in his meals then. I’ve always baked with the boys, but we tried some of the book’s recipes and I introduced making pancakes every Friday morning together, which they loved and we’ve kept it up for three weeks now.
One thing I found interesting was the idea of calming a tantrum by telling stories about when you were a child. I have actively taken this on as a tactic now and can affirm that it totally works, well for me anyway.
Drukerman advocates the ‘pause’, to teach children to wait for things. I tried this, to great effect, and even my fiery two-year old started to get more patient as a result.
Some of parenting Druckerman-style is no fun and I don’t necessarily want a child who is quiet throughout dinners and doesn’t want to play with me.
I love the fluffier bits of the ideal – the glam mum, the baking weekly and the importance of manners with strangers – but even those are unrealistic for us half the time.
I still stand by the idea of a structure where children are relatively free from constantly being told ‘no’, but where they know your limits as you’re very serious about the battles you choose (seat belts, being kind, and so on).
I was becoming more busy with my blog while experimenting with this book and it helped me assuage some guilt and reminded me I need my own interests, if only to have something other than children to talk about with my friends and partner, as the book advises. And I’m trying to stop nagging my husband for any shortfallings around the house, but that’s a work in progress!
The expert view
Carmen Benton, LifeWorks personal development trainer
“The French-style parenting discussed in Bringing Up Bébé tends to share observations that are generally authoritative in nature, which I believe is the most ideal parenting style. However, it is important for each family to find their own style and alter it to suit their own needs, rather than take on a ‘French’ style of parenting.
“As Heidi – and the many hundreds of people who have reviewed this book online – found, some of the observations cause you to challenge the often common over-parenting that parents can become trapped in, which can be helpful.
“I would hope this book would not encourage parents to become more detached from their children, or require their newborns to become independent too early. However, used in the right way, I think it could encourage parents to allow their older children to become more independent, less pressured, and more healthy in the foods they eat and the games they play.”
Charlotte Butterfield, British freelance journalist and mum of Amelie, six, Rafe, four, and Theo, one
A whole 11 minutes had passed without one of my three children pulling on my arm and telling me that one of the others had called them a poo-poo head. In that time, I drank a whole cup of tea while it was still warm and read the second chapter from the book my husband had bought me for my birthday, last October. And, unlike the other rare occasions when I had allowed myself a decadent 11 minutes to enjoy a hot beverage and read words that weren’t a shopping list, I didn’t feel a smidgen of guilt, because according to the Idle Parenting technique I was trialling, guilt doesn’t exist.
As a working mum, self-reproach is a fairly constant shoulder buddy of mine. When I’m working I feel I should be with the little ones, and when I step away from the laptop and do a jigsaw, my latest deadline is never far from my thoughts. Tom Hodgkinson, author of The Idle Parent, writes, “There is no ideal mother; make your own rhythm and be confident about it. The babies will be fine.” And you know what? They are.
The term ‘idle parent’ is a bit misleading. I had grand ambitions of lounging decadently in a robe while my offspring busied themselves, but the title actually refers more to your mindset. By relinquishing control, the children are given the space to just be themselves. The author’s anti-consumerist stance leads him to declare that all toys should be banned, as should TV. I never went as far as to pack away the plasma, but the hours the little ones spend slack-jawed in front of it have certainly decreased. Where Hodgkinson suggests cavorting down country lanes or jumping in muddy puddles, we did our best with lots of park and beach visits, and we’ve practically lived in the garden for the past month. We bought three plastic balls from a supermarket and each day after school we played a game where you kneel, and then lie down if you miss a catch – it kept them entertained for nearly an hour at a time. I also found loads of old herbs and baking supplies, so the kids took mixing bowls into the garden and made cakes and potions, which they loved so much we’ve done it five times now.
The ethos behind Hodgkinson’s approach is simple – basically, leave them be. As an antidote to helicopter-style parenting techniques, the Idle Parent is a gentle parent, just sitting back and letting the kids evolve at their own pace. I’m normally quite an anxious parent, so to hold back and let them assess a situation was really tough for me. Idle parents are meant to warn their children of the dangers in life, and yet not stop them trying things; we give them a sense of responsibility and they should relish the chance to prove themselves. This was certainly the case with my elder two – after years of telling them never to touch the water cooler, I told them to start topping their own bottles up when they’re thirsty and they couldn’t have smiled bigger grins than if I’d just produced new Build-a-Bears.
“The idle parent is spontaneous; joyful, free of resentment and therefore better company,” is a quote from the book that I made my mantra. We had fairy hunts in the garden, made dens out of dining chairs, had our dinner in the lounge, basically I stopped adhering to the unwritten codes that I’d been abiding by – meals must be taken at the table, furniture is not for playing with – and I started seeing life and its possibilities through the eyes of the kids. Hodgkinson says, “When parents make the decision to enjoy their child’s company then what we call ‘childcare’ ceases to be a burden.” And that’s true; when I stopped saying, “I’ll play for five minutes but I’ve just got to check my emails/ put the dinner on/ call the office,” I found out that actually, my kids are pretty awesome.
The expert view
Dr Yaseen Aslam, psychiatrist and medical director, The LightHouse Arabia
“I think that the term ‘idle parent’ is not the right term for this sort of parenting. Charlotte is not being ‘idle’, but instead is consciously choosing to step back, and parenting with faith in her children.
“These children, who don’t have a mother hovering over them meeting their every need, will be more encouraged, and have higher self-esteem because they will develop internal resources to entertain themselves, as well as tend to their own needs. By consciously choosing not to ‘do’ she is actually doing a lot for her children’s emotional and social development.
“Another non-idle part of this style is that the mother is engaged in self-care by taking those moments to care for oneself.
“It’s a strange world we live in today that when a mother is not actively doing something for her child or perhaps is even caring for herself (and as a result can be better to be around for her children and families) we call it ‘idle’.”