Delicate balancing act of being a parent
I’m not easily swayed by what the media has to say about parenting, but it’s hard not to read a survey or watch a report and not compare the findings to your own situation. And if there’s evidence to back something up, then it’s even harder to ignore what’s laid out in front of you.
‘Parents Under Pressure’ (Monday evening, BBC Two) shed light on one aspect of parenting I hadn’t really given much thought to – that older children might actually need your time and attention more than younger children.
I have one daughter, who’s three, and I’d been assuming - along with presenter Sophie Raworth - that the crucial time for spending time with your children was when they're under 5, not when they become more independent, able young people. Although, having said that, some friends with older kids have mentioned that pre-schoolers are a doddle in comparison. During the past year, several people have given me a wry smile or a knowing look followed by the words: ‘the bigger they get, the bigger the problems’.
Time and attention were the two things that three teenage sisters featured in the programme (twins of 13 and their 15-year-old sibling) wanted more than anything. I’m not sure why, but it surprised me. I would have thought having more freedom might have been top of the list, but just having mum around when they got in from school, to share their news with and listen to them - to be physically and emotionally in their midst - was what they craved.
The delight in their eyes when their mum was around gave me pause for thought. I’m only working on an occasional basis at the moment - fitting in assignments around looking after my daughter, who currently attends nursery for five short sessions a week. If I work much longer hours in the future, what effect will it have on her? Will there be a negative impact on her behaviour? Will she still be happy going to after-school clubs? Will she resent me as she progresses through primary and secondary school, if I’m not there for her as much as she (or I) would like? Will she be just fine and tell me not to fuss? It’s hard to know, so perhaps I should just wait for the future to unfold and take it from there.
The mum of the three girls featured in the programme ended up quitting her job and getting one that fitted in with the school day. The whole work-life balance with regards to the family side of things, was too out of kilter for her. She recalled being so stressed out that she ended up crying in her bedroom after a long day at work, and her daughters remember an utterly miserable atmosphere pervading their home.
I suppose what matters is being able to recognise that all is not well and something has to change - being prepared to seek help or re-prioritise what is important to your family unit. Sometimes these changes can reap huge rewards for both parent and child.
In another part of the programme, the focus was on the important partnership between parent and school – and how this can enhance family life. One young boy and his mum tried out a scheme which originated in the States. It’s called FAST (Families and Schools Together) and aims to engage children and parents in activities together. Parents attend a weekly session and have the opportunity to share their thoughts with other mums and dads, ask for advice - but most importantly have fun with their children. The scheme’s aimed at families in disadvantaged areas, but the whole ethos could be adopted by any family.
One activity involved cooking together, another involved role reversal. In the latter, the little boy told his mum what they were going to do and she had to listen and follow his lead for 15 minutes. No guidance, interruptions or distractions. Not as easy as you think.
I know from being around my daughter, that it’s one thing to just ‘play’ – but to switch off any thoughts whizzing round in your head and really focus 100% for a designated period of time can be harder than you imagine. Try throwing into the mix having more than one child, a full-time job, perhaps being a single parent, not having much family support where you live, other things that are more common today than in the past – and then really connecting with your child on a one-to-one basis, for a set amount of time each day, can be a big challenge.
If there’s one main topic that came out of the programme, it was the emphasis on this quality time – listening, responding and bonding with your child. Children are pretty resilient and adapt well, and it was a relief to have this view bolstered up. But (and no great surprise here), if parents are really feeling the strain, then the kids will too – so something has to give. It’s a point worth reiterating.
Joanna Youngs is a member of the BBC parent panel.
Read Sophie Raworth's article on the BBC News Magazine site.