Wednesday 21 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Stop telling off parents: we are doing the best we can'

Is it really such a sin to look at your phone instead of focusing the whole time completely on your child? Stop shaming us, writes Brendan O'Connor

Kids are everywhere these days. Parents feel guilty if they budge without them. And now society is telling us all that we need to focus completely on the kids at all times when we are with them.
Kids are everywhere these days. Parents feel guilty if they budge without them. And now society is telling us all that we need to focus completely on the kids at all times when we are with them.
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

'Navan O'Mahonys 'Pride of Cubs' nursery is a phone-free zone. During this one hour, please put your phone away, watch your child learn a new skill and play."

This is the notice that greets Meath parents when they bring their four- to six-year-olds to camogie, hurling and football at the weekend. And there's no doubt it's well intentioned.

Indeed, when it became a news story last week it was well received in general. It chimed with a more general conversation these days about how parents should be more present for their children, and not have their noses stuck in a phone while they are having family time.

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After all, what kind of an example are we setting for them? And don't we all know that you can give kids everything, but at the end of the day all they really want is your time, and your attention during that time.

Navan O'Mahonys Club PRO Jackie Murray said: "The decision was taken after trainers noticed that parents were constantly looking at their phones instead of watching and encouraging their child to develop and share in the whole excitement of improving their skills.

"The nursery teaches girls and boys from four to six years of age camogie, hurling and football and sometimes kids just want to look up after catching a ball or using a hurl to see their parents cheering them on.

"Sometimes parents miss this memory because they are looking at a phone and this can lead to a disappointed child. At this age, it's all about catching a ball, kicking a ball and running with it or holding a hurl and we have to cheer them on."

And I know Jackie is right. That image of the small child managing to score a goal, or whatever, and their little face looking up proudly to catch Daddy's eye, and there is Daddy, looking at his phone. Can't you just imagine junior's disappointed little face? It'd break your heart.

And as for missing a memory. That kills us altogether. God forbid we would miss a memory. Anytime we're not at work these days we're supposed to be creating memories for the kids. We're supposed to stand around parks and go on holidays we wouldn't necessarily choose for ourselves, all in the name of creating precious memories.

And as for not cheering them on? The cardinal sin. They need to be cheered on and encouraged at every turn. "Look at you! Well done! Good job! I'm so proud of you!" We even know the nuance of what we're supposed to cheer on. We are not supposed to reward achievement any more, it's all about rewarding effort. So you don't say, "Well done. You won the race." You say, "Well done. You made a really good effort."

I don't know the parents at Navan O'Mahonys but I've met the odd modern parent in my day and I'd be willing to speculate that, for some of them certainly, by the time they get to the GAA club, they may already have been at ballet, swimming, tin whistle, ukulele, modern tap and jazz and god knows what other smorgasbord of activities we have to fill our own lives and those of our kids with these days in order not to be delinquent, deadbeat parents.

I'd be willing to bet that many of these parents - feeling guilty for being at work all week and barely seeing the kids, or being too tired to do much with them by the time they get home and have a bit of dinner - might have very little time for themselves at the weekend. I'd be willing to bet that many of these parents don't get out for a pint or a movie or a bit of dinner with any regularity.

It could be because they're too wrecked, having ferried and entertained the kids all day; it could be because it's at least €50 for a babysitter before you step out of the door. Many of them certainly won't have been out with their partner much, because it's probably easier if just one half of a partnership gets to go out at any one time.

I would also speculate that some of the parents who are looking at their phones on the sidelines of GAA and soccer pitches and swimming pools and dance studios around the country, might not actually be idly scrolling through Facebook or organising a weekend away with friends. At least some of them, we know, are probably dealing with work matters, because the magic of the mobile phone now is that work has become more flexible for many people. Not rendering people's lives more flexible, you understand - rather rendering the work more flexible. Work is now so flexible it has bled out of work time for many people and into the evenings and the weekend.

There is a myth about modern parents that we are distracted, narcissistic and self-absorbed. In fact, this generation of parents is parenting more than ever before. We are parenting as if our lives depended on it. Parenting is now regarded as a kind of full-time job you take on, on top of the full-time job you already have.

Kids are everywhere these days. Parents feel guilty if they budge without them. And now society is telling us all that we need to focus completely on the kids at all times when we are with them.

You know what might be a better idea? Stop focusing on them. Stop looking at them all the time, stop cheering them on, stop constantly trying to mould life and the world into memories for them. What harm if little Johnny manages to puck the ball and he looks up and you're not hovering over him, cheering him on, gazing encouragingly at him? Isn't it this constant hovering and cheering on that gave us the snowflake generation?

I'm not saying I don't hover a bit myself at times, and I'm probably guilty of over-congratulating and over-encouraging at times. But you know what? I also tell my kids to buzz off or shut up sometimes if I'm in the middle of something, or if I have my nose stuck in a phone.

You know what else I do? I sometimes give them a phone to occupy them after they've eaten their pizza in the local family-friendly restaurant so that I can have a drink and talk to my wife for half an hour. Because the alternative is we're not going out for a meal. And sometimes, when I'm with my kids, I don't pay full attention to them. And maybe the damage of all this bad parenting will only come to light in years to come. But so far, they seem OK with it, and maybe it'll teach them that the world doesn't revolve around them.

You're not allowed to shame people anymore. You can barely comment on a celebrity's looks or clothing, or lack of talent, or any of the other things that celebs get paid so much for. You certainly can't judge or shame a woman for anything. But somehow, if they are a parent, you can.

It's OK to routinely tell parents that they are not good enough, that they should be doing more. It's OK to shame men for not wanting to spend more time with babies, to shame women for working hard, and to shame all parents for not being attentive enough at all times.

And, of course, we're making our kids fat and lazy too, through our own laziness and corner-cutting.

You know what? Most of us are doing our best. And most of us are making huge sacrifices for our kids. And most of us have other roles in life that are hard work. And there are also lots of good things and potentially fun things that we neglect in favour of being parents.

I can see their point at Navan O Mahonys, and I know that their heart is in the right place - but somehow or other it was taken up as another stick with which to beat parents.

Honestly, we're doing our best. So please leave us alone.

Sunday Independent

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