Ease the micro-managing of kids’ lives and give them a bit more freedom and responsibility — it helps them develop independence
We have all been basking in glorious summer weather for the weekend. Camping seems like an option. Barbecues appear like the only way to cook our food, even though I was listening to reports that we eat way more when we eat outdoors! Days on the beach beckon. The hammock gets dusted off and slung. The summer offers us an opportunity to ease away from our stricter routines that centre around the school year.
There will be some parents though who are struggling with this. For example, the bright evenings mean a shift in the Circadian rhythms that many of us, including small children, rely on for our sleep habits. Children may consequently find it harder to go to sleep as the extended daylight keeps them in a more alert state till later.
Similarly, any trips abroad, even journeys within Ireland, may have disrupted months of hard work getting your child’s sleep routine settled. With the hot weather over the weekend you may also have seen your child struggling to get comfortable, and so struggling to get settled for sleep.
I’ve never been a big fan of rigid nap and sleep routines for babies. I think they are often too restrictive for parents to be able to flexibly meet the needs of their baby, their other children and the busyness of life. When nap and sleep routines appear prescriptive, it also tends to increase parental anxiety that they may be failing in some respect because their baby or small child doesn’t fit this idealised child who appears to sleep on command.
There isn’t just a difficulty with rigidity with children’s sleep, however. The anxieties about the pandemic have impacted so many families and there are more parents that are anxious about their children’s safety, more generally, and so have restricted their freedoms. There are a lot more “helicopter” parents who are over-involved with their children’s lives, micro-managing every aspect.
This isn’t healthy for children. They end up too restricted and never learn to take any responsibility for any aspect of their own lives, since parents have taken that responsibility long after it was necessary.
So perhaps the summer is the opportunity to experiment with a bit more “free-range” parenting. Free-range parenting is a term coined by a US writer Lenore Skenazy, who advocated for letting our children have increased responsibility at a younger age, for things like navigating public transport, or walking unsupervised to and from school.
Free-range parenting isn’t about being detached from your children, or not caring about what they do. It isn’t laissez-faire, letting children do what they want. There are still plenty of rules and structure for children and parents remain involved in their lives, but the essence of it is that we need to give children more responsibility sooner as this helps them to develop their independence and resilience.
While her approach (for example she let her nine-year-old son travel alone on the New York subway system) may be a bit too extreme for me, I do see value in moving away from a “helicopter” parenting approach.
How many families, for example, are happy to let their children off to play with friends on the green, at the park, by the river, down the fields? I am sure there are many of my generation who can recall long summer days when we went off early with our friends and came back when we were too hungry to stay out. I built forts, dens and battled imaginary foes for hours in fields and woodlands miles from home.
This summer may be your chance to try to let some of your restrictions, with your children, go. Maybe it is okay to leave them out playing till later. Maybe they don’t need arranged playdates but can go with the flow a bit more such that you and they can take advantage of the nice weather, pack up the car and just go for a day trip.
Rather than have anxiety restricting what they can do, think about fun and opportunity as the drivers of what they can do. Of course, they may make mistakes when they have more freedom, but it is reflecting on those mistakes that can help them to learn. Think about how much of your own childhood was spent learning from mistakes that you were allowed to make.
Maybe don’t send your nine-year-old up to Dublin on the bus, but perhaps it is okay to let them walk to a friend’s house to knock for them, without you and the friend’s mum having it all pre-arranged. And if their newfound freedoms play havoc with their regular routines, what harm? We’ll be back into the autumn and winter before we know it and there’ll be plenty of time to get things settled again.