It’s the last day of the school holidays. Parents across Australia - it’s time to breathe a sigh of relief, fly the flag of survival, shout and cheer and do a little happy dance. I have had six weeks of three young children home full time. After all the outings, animated feature films, constant mess making and playground visits, I find myself asking this question. Is the world becoming too kid-centric?
The holidays at our house, and most likely at your house, have been all about the kids. Most days have included an outing or trip to a playground –somewhere just for them. I have spent hours in a state of complete boredom and self-sacrifice (yes I am being a bit melodramatic), because, let’s get this straight. Apart from the dose of Vitamin D, I get nothing from being at a playground. Zilch. Let me put it another way. Being at playground does nothing for me. Get the picture?
When I had my second child (18 years ago) within 17 months of having my first child (19 years ago), I guess you could say that I wasn’t in the best head space. I tended to walk too close to walls, thought I smelled like rotten meat and for comfort, I would list ways to kill myself. To put it succinctly - I was depressed. I felt like my life had come to a grinding halt and with it, all my dreams ambition, my potential and promise. I felt I had lost the very essence of who I was. I was in bad place, physically, geographically, emotionally. My then partner worked nights and often we would have to clear out in the mornings to let him sleep. I would take the kids to a playground. There, I would stay for hours, rain, hail and rarely shine, feeling homeless, lifeless and as though my whole life was passing me by while all I achieved was pushing two children on swings. I was all of 22 years old.
This has, unsurprisingly, entrenched in me a great dislike for parks and playgrounds and the waste of time they represent in my life; the waste of life they represent in my time. Oh if you could give me back every minute I have spent in a park! If I could get back every hour spent standing around a slide! If I could get back every day spent trudging to and from a playground! I calculate I could have written at least four feature films, five novels and a cookbook! (Cue the dream-like blurry screen as I imagine my alternate reality - the reality without any trips to the park. There I am, accepting that award for best screenplay. There I am being interviewed by Margaret Pommeranz! There I am in Cannes! Oh and what a lovely frock I’m wearing too…)
Now. Here’s the obligatory paragraph where I let you all know I love my kids and all the rest of it. Yeah, okay, I do. And although I may sound like a mean spirited old mother with vinegar for breast milk, I actually am a dedicated mother who does heaps for the kids. And a bit of kid focused time is great and all very well when balanced with some “me” time. Back then, as a silly young mother of two, there was no balance. Now there is a little bit more balance…..hello blog! Hello business!....but not much. And I am outnumbered.
Okay, we’re going to delve deep into my past now. So cue the misty lens and sepia tones. When I was child, we went to the park……..on our own. Yes! On. Our. Own. No I wasn’t part of some “Lord of the Flies” social experiment. This was normal! From an early age, with older siblings, we would go off to the playground and the park on our own. Sometimes we were sent there to get pine cones for kindling. I don’t remember my Mum EVER pushing me on a swing. Also, as a pre-schooler, I spent most days at home, not expecting outings. I also roamed our few streets, ON MY OWN, visiting a few elderly ladies – Mrs Mac gave me lollies, Mrs Brain gave me home made ginger beer in a little vegemite jar glass and Nanna Lawson, down the back, let me play on the rocking horse and gave me teddy bear biscuits. I often played in Nanna Lawson’s garden without her even knowing I was there!
I’m not advocating that my kids head off to Merri Creek or to the park on their own (oh if only!) and I know that times have changed. But you know, my Mum was a stay-at-home mum with eight kids who looked after us with great dedication and care and did loads of housework – but she had no compunction to go to the park! Or the swimming pool! She did her own thing a lot of the time, within all the other chores. Of which there were many.
Having been a Mum for 20 years, it seems to me that parenting these days – yes, I’m going to stick my neck out and say it - panders to children.
Last week I decided the “outing” was going to be okay for me too. Something we could all enjoy and get something out of. Over the holidays my kids have been doing fantastic drawing and have really been interested in art, so I thought we’d take a trip to the art gallery. The NGV in Melbourne is a wonderful building and I have fond memories of dragging my older children there when they were little and showing them the artwork. Okay, so once my eldest child DID fall into the water feature at the front and I DID have to jump in and fish her out and no, it wasn’t some performance piece of art just cold and miserable. But they went and looked. And behaved. And more importantly, they allowed me to look. I believed it exposed them to great works of art and actually taught them something. I believed being quiet and letting me look at the art also taught them something – a reverence for art, knowing it is interesting, a respect for me and my wishes and an experience of eye rolling boredom that would make sense to them later in life.
But you know what? These days the art gallery has a kids activity centre. You may think this is a good thing. I even thought this was a good thing. (Yes okay, it probably IS a good thing). And our visit there got me thinking. The kids activity area had pencils and A4 paper (they have that at home too!) and they did drawings and played and ran about (yes they can do that at home too!) they were oblivious to the 2,600 year old Grecian vase displayed in the window of the kids activity centre (which they do not see at home). Watching them I realised something - the art meant nothing to them.
After they played in the kids activity centre, they came with me to look at some art but frankly, they were over it. Their concentration span was already used up. They were in the mind that the gallery was a place they could play. They had no patience with looking at things. They were in the mind that it was all about them.
After showing a bit of interest in the architecture and developing a great fascination for looking through the walkways, we left. And went to a playground. I came away thinking that a) my youngest three children are a bit spoilt. b) the world is becoming increasingly kid-centric.
Why? Is it because kid focused activities make it easier for the parent? There’s no need for behavioural expectations and discipline? Is it because as parents we feel guilty for working and leaving our kids in childcare so our extracurricular activities must pander to the children’s desires? Is it because, while at childcare, children just play and do their thing and never learn to interact with an adult’s world? I remember as a child being dragged up the street to the shops and learning how to behave. I remember going to church and being bored – but behaving. I remember going to my Mum’s weight watching sessions and learning how to get a nice waist-line and behaving. I remember putting up with adults.
For all I know they now have slides in churches to keep children occupied. They have playgrounds in gambling venues and board games in pubs. Should there be some places you can’t take your kids? Some places that you can? And some places in between where the children can come along but behave in a manner than extends our expectations?
If we never teach them to deal with being bored and being patient then they, in turn, will not be able to cope when they are parents, having to stand around in the park for mindless hours of self-sacrifice, pushing their children on the swing.