My children are non stop. Non stop chatter, non stop energy, non stop excitability, non stop everything. Except tranquility. My house is pretty much a tranquility free zone, up until 8pm anyway, but I kind of expected that this would come with the territory of parenthood, especially having two boys but still, it can be demandingly tough at times. Now obviously I only have experience of living with my own children, nobody else’s, but I do sometimes suspect that if I had two girls rather than two boys then my days would have been spent watching them play quietly and contentedly with dolls and carefully colouring in pictures of princesses or animals rather than refereeing fights and wrestling matches on the couch, listening to loud guffaws in response to endless jokes about trumps and hearing incessant boy-made sound effects to accompany games involving cars, planes and trains. Friends of mine who have girls assure me that this is not true. They tell me that their girls, despite appearing angelic in public, have their fair share of riotous moments behind closed doors.
I remember an occasion a few years ago when we were invited to a christening. After the ceremony we moved on to a restaurant for lunch. Sat opposite us on our table were some friends who had a daughter about the same age as Sam. He was 3 years old at the time. As we sat talking I remember gazing upon this little girl as she unpacked a pencil case and book and sat quietly, drawing pictures and writing. I marvelled at her angelic conduct until my reverie was broken. I heard a call of “Mummy!” and turned around to see that Sam had somehow managed to get his head stuck between the wooden bars on the back of his chair. After he was eventually freed everyone laughed at the contrast between the two children. I did too, but the whole episode made it clear to me that my children were destined to be mischievous, adventurous and were going get into all sorts of scrapes in their role as curious, young explorers of the world around them.
My boys are now 7 and 5 and I embrace their boundless energy, but even so it is great to get some peace and quiet at times. We all know that parenting isn’t easy and that it throws up an array of challenges and problems that can frequently test us to our limits and leave us desperate for some respite. And there is one thing that is guaranteed to entertain my boys while giving me some much needed time to myself. Please step forward the iPad. Tablets and electronic games are a useful resource in helping to keep children quietly busy in a variety of situations, such as in restaurants and supermarkets and when other essential things such as cleaning and cooking need to be done. They have taken over from the television as a means of keeping children occupied. In the past, in the pre-tablet days, parents were often rebuked in the media for using the television as a ‘babysitter’. There were newspaper articles that admonished parents, that told them how they should be spending more time with their children, not sitting them in front of the television. And now, in more recent times the tablet has taken over and this has been viewed in a similar way with parents being criticised for using these as an ‘electronic babysitter’. We have been warned of the dangers to children from using tablets, such as delayed speech, an inability to form normal social relationships and technological addiction. However, a recent Ofcom report found that 6 in 10 children use a tablet at home, which is a 50% increase on the previous year and that 11% of children age 3 and 4 have their own tablet, so I’m definitely not alone in allowing my children access to an iPad. Now I’m obviously not suggesting that the overuse of a television or a tablet is a good thing and I certainly don’t think that children should be sat in front of such devices all day every day. However, I am claiming my right to allow my children to use an iPad for entertainment without being judged for it, but as parents we can find our choices and actions being judged not just by the media but also by people closer to home.
Last week I was shopping in the supermarket with my children who were happily sitting in the trolley playing games on the iPad. I passed a woman who glanced at the boys, then looked at me, shook her head, tutted disapprovingly and said, “Your boys shouldn’t be playing on those things. They should be out playing in the fresh air,” to which I replied, “On their own? While I’m in here shopping? I hardly think that would be safe.” I walked on, but inside I was seething that a stranger could dare to pass judgement on my parenting skills from having witnessed a momentary snapshot of our day. This stranger had no insight into our daily life but she still felt justified in making a snap judgement. During an average day my family spends a lot of valuable time together. We read books, we play games, we go out on day trips, we colour, we paint, we make models with play dough, we bake, we make jam, we play sports, we build Lego models; I could go on. In short, we do lots of fun and valuable things together. We also use technology. We watch television and we use tablets, all of us, including the children, but we do maintain a healthy balance. The boys are able to amuse themselves independently in imaginative play with their toys and they socialise well with other children but they also enjoy playing games on the iPad, both educational games and ‘just for fun’ games. I myself enjoy listening to them explaining what they are doing, discussing tactics and suggesting to each other ways they could improve. Playing on an iPad isn’t necessarily a solitary activity, it can stimulate all sorts of talk and thought processes.
Yet I still feel this parental guilt creep up on me whenever a stranger notices my children playing on their tablet, be it in a restaurant, in a shop or anywhere. I silently wonder if they too are judging my capabilities as a parent, that they are assuming I have to rely on technology in order to help my children conduct themselves appropriately in public situations, which I don’t. My children know exactly how to behave in public. They may not always manage to do it but they are children and they are learning and while they are learning sometimes, and that’s SOMETIMES, not always, it is less stressful for us all to give them something to keep their minds occupied during those boring tasks like shopping or listening to adults talk after dinner in restaurants.
And so while it is clear that modern day parenting experiences and the resources available to us and our children may well be different to those of my mother’s generation, there are important principles and values that I was taught when I was a child that continue to be relevant to this day; moderation in all things and don’t judge others without understanding their situation. Oh, and parental guilt, I’m pretty sure that will be a constant too. No matter how times and attitudes to parenting change there will always be things that we feel guilty about. But I believe that parental guilt comes from being a conscientious parent and that the guilt we feel is a direct result of us loving our children and from our desire to do right by them. So next time you feel a pang of parental guilt, stop for a moment and acknowledge it for what it really is.