How Do You Measure Success as a Parent?

Parenting’s a funny thing isn’t it? Most important job in the world, with all these incredibly important decisions to make, and we won’t know if we got it right until our kids are grown, if then.

The only real measure we can use to see if we are successful parents is if our children become successful adults. And the definition of success varies depending on the parent. Some may want their kids to earn a lot of money, or move up the career ladder. Others may measure success in terms of academic achievement. Others still might look for popularity, having a family, a sense of adventure, religious affiliation, a love for others, a sense of ethics. Often, what we want for our kids is a reflection of what we value (or feel is missing) in ourselves. While many parenting decisions are made on the fly, our long term hopes and wishes for our kids will often determine how we parent.

I could never fit everything I wish for Tom into one post. But here are a few of the things that I hope he will have in his adult life:

1. The Basics
I hope he always has what he needs to survive (plus a little extra). Access to food, healthcare, shelter, clothing adequate to the weather, companionship, access to the outdoors, freedom to make his own choices.

2. A Purpose
I hope he occupies the majority of his time in a way that brings him joy and gives him a sense of purpose. Whether this is through work, volunteering, being creative, travelling, campaigning, studying – whatever it is, I hope he has something in his life that is more than just making and spending money.

3. Emotional Intelligence
I hope he is able to experience the whole range of human emotion – from ecstasy to despair – without feeling overwhelmed, guilty, or in any way ‘wrong’. I hope he can accept any emotion he might feel, and also recognise and accept the feelings of others.

4. Love
I hope he has people around him who he loves and who love him. I do not care in what permutation this may be (assuming everyone is of legal age and consenting).

5. Independence
I hope he has a great relationship with Mr Techno and I. I hope we see him often. But I also hope he doesn’t need us. I hope he has his own identity, his own ideas, his own life. One of my key goals as a parent is to raise my child to leave me. Ideally without him realising how much it will kill me to let him go.

6. An Ethical Code
It doesn’t have to be my ethical code (though ideally it wouldn’t be too far different – I’d find an extremely right wing child a challenge to say the least). But I hope he has a strongly developed sense of what is right and what is wrong. I hope he lives his life by it. But I also hope he has room in his personal philosophy to listen respectfully to others, consider their viewpoints, and maybe even change his mind once in a while.

There you have it. Six things I hope that we will be able to lay the foundation for Tom to have in his adult life. These things (and other, less overarching goals) are what I have in mind when Mr Techno and I make major parenting decisions.

But ultimately, it is Tom’s life. And who he will become is down to him. So maybe the only person who will be able to tell me if I was a success as a parent is my son. Better get a move on with that language development then!

What about you? How would you measure success as a parent?

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Free Play: A work in progress

The government have recently published a report on play in childhood, which is a great indication of the growing understanding of the value of play for development and well being. I’m also taking part in a FutureLearn course on play, so its a topic very much on my mind lately.

Experts agree that for young children, like Tom, the best play is free play: child-led, unstructured, no expected outcome. For the most part, this is the kind of play that comes naturally to our household. As parents, I’d say that one of Mr Techno and I’s strengths is our ability to let Tom explore freely, without interfering or imposing our own agenda.

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A major weakness though (of mine at least) is my inability to back off and let Tom handle social situations on his own. I’m a bit of an introvert and, as a first time patent, have yet to work out the finer points of playground etiquette. Is it ok to let my toddler poke younger babies? Should I interfere if he’s bugging an older kid?

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A lot of the time, I simply avoid the issue by spending time in wild areas with fewer kids. But I know that’s not a long-term approach. So we’ve been making more forays into the playground, where I’m falling back on the ‘less is more’ parenting philosophy and letting Tom handle social situations himself. I’m always watching attentively, just in case, but I’m getting better at holding back my natural inclination to interfere. As a result, Tom has recently played with children from (estimated) 2 years old to 10 years old, with no tears, injuries, or visible clashes*.And I’ve had a chance to realise that other parents have no more idea how to handle these interactions than I do.

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It’s something I still need to work on more. But every time I suppress my urge to grab Tom away from a situation, take a deep breath, and watch to see how he works it out, I am surprised by how well things go. He’s far more capable than I would ever have imagined. And I just need to learn to trust him.

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*I have no photos to share of these playtimes, as I don’t feel right putting pictures of other people’s kids online. You’ll have to settle for more photos of Tom engaged in some free play.

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Advice From The Heart

Barriers to Wild Time #2: Risk Averse Culture

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Like every parent, I started worrying about Tom from the moment I knew I was pregnant. Once he was born, that worry only intensified. He was so small and so vulnerable and the world seemed so full of things that could harm him.

Thankfully, I am surrounded by very practical, down-to-earth people. And some (long) time after Tom’s birth, I emerged from the sea of overprotective-new-mother hormones with at least some of my rational faculties still intact. That doesn’t mean that my heart isn’t still in my mouth every time I watch him making his perilous way upstairs, or negotiating his way down from the armchair in his room. It just means that I remember to swallow the words ‘watch out’ more often and fight back the urge to interfere.

I really do believe that it is impossible to learn without making some mistakes. Like all new toddlers, learning to walk is meaning a lot of falls for Tom. But I’ve learnt to let him fall (unless it would mean serious injury), because otherwise he will never learn how not to fall. And a kiss and a cuddle soothes most bumps.

This attitude of trusting Tom to be able to learn from his own mistakes has been a great help in overcoming the perception of the risks found in the natural world. Especially when Tom was a bit younger and everything went straight in his mouth. Here are a few things I have found helpful when spending time with a baby outdoors:
1. Taste Safe
When Tom was first able to crawl, and could suddenly escape from the protective blanket to grab everything within reach and try to eat it, I found it really difficult not to snatch every single thing out of his hand. Eventually, I taught myself to differentiate between things that are dangerous (poisonous plants, small stones, dog poo etc), things that are ‘taste safe’ ie. fine to lick but not to swallow, and things that are harmless if swallowed (edible plants such as dandelions, grass, clover etc.) Most things actually fall into the ‘taste safe’ category. Fortunately, most of them also don’t taste good, so are quickly spat back out again. Interestingly, once I relaxed and let Tom mouth more things (keeping an eye out in case it looked like they were about to be swallowed), he soon decided that most things in the park weren’t worth eating. He still likes a good blackberry though and the odd dandelion will occasionally disappear…

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2. Embrace the dirt
Along with relaxing about Tom putting everything in his mouth, I have a very chilled out approach to him mucking around in the dirt. Granted, some does get eaten, but only minuscule amounts and there may even be some advantage to this.

3. Pick your Spot
So that Tom can get on with exploring without me jumping on him every few moments, I scout out an area before we settle down. I avoid anywhere I can see dog poo , cigarette butts or large amounts of rubbish, pick up smaller bits of rubbish (I carry a spare plastic bag in my handbag just for this purpose), and try to choose somewhere that has a good amount of space, so I’m not constantly dragging Tom away from a bank of stinging nettles.

4. Allow Some Distance
According to the Nature Play website, most children have a ‘safety line’; a distance which they are prepared to go from you. Experiments with Tom suggest that this line will be just a little bit longer than what you would be comfortable with! However, I have found that he won’t go more than about 5 or 6 metres from me – a distance I can easily cover if he gets into a sticky situation. I can also see most of what he is doing, but am too far away to be tempted to interfere with every little thing. It’s taken some time for me to get used to this, and I am still not entirely comfortable with him being so far away from me, but he has never caused himself any damage and ‘checks in’ with me regularly (glances over to check where I am or comes over to show me something he’s found).

Wild Baby

Ultimately, I think that overcoming our perception of the outside world as ‘risky’ to babies and young toddlers takes time and requires a shift in attitude. Once you see your baby as a capable small being, able to learn from his mistakes and act in his own best interests, it is easier to accept that the risks are not really as great as they first seem.

The Natural Play website has some great advice for enabling babies and toddlers to explore freely outside: http://www.nature-play.co.uk/guidelines.html

Barefoot Babies

The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source: http://www.uchicago.edu/features/anthropologist_explores_humanitys_first_steps/
The Laetoli Footprints, discovered in Tanzania in 1976, date to 3.7 million years ago. It is often suggested that they are the footprints of an adult and child, walking hand in hand. Source: http://www.uchicago.edu/features/anthropologist_explores_humanitys_first_steps/

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Tom is not yet walking. Really, this is a bit unfair on him. In fact, he took a few steps for the first time on his first birthday, and since then is growing in confidence, staggering between Mr Techno and I with his arms outstretched, giggling madly. He can stand pretty well by himself now, and has even begun to walk across (small) distances between items of furniture. In the park, he’ll happily push his buggy around, but it less keen to risk the wide open spaces.

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It’s great watching him gradually master this new skill, which will open a whole world to him. The appearance of the ability to walk well on two legs (bipedalism) is a key moment in human evolution. If you can walk on two legs, you have hands free to carry tools and food. If you can use tools, you can hunt, and carry greater amounts of food to a home base. With access to more highly nutritious foods (such as meat or sugary fruits), you can support greater brain function, leading to a growth in brain size (known as encephalisation). With greater thinking power, you can…well sit at a computer writing a blog (hurray!)

Okay, I may be simplifying a little bit. Causes for the appearance of evolutionary traits are rarely quite this straightforward. What is clear though is that bipedalism is the earliest ‘human’ trait to appear in the archaeological record, with fossils from as early as 3.7 million years ago already showing clear anatomical adaptations for bipedal walking. Key amongst these changes is the anatomy of the feet, including a higher arch, and changes in the position of the big toe, which tucks in close to the others, rather than being spread out to assist with balancing on branches*.

That anatomy is pretty unique. And pretty easy to damage through inappropriate footwear. Mine, for example, have sexy bunions developing on the big toe joints. After a waitressing stint as a student, I also have no feeling in one side of each big toe. Cheap, ill-fitting shoes are to blame for both. You can bet our ancestors weren’t jamming their feet into a pair of high heels (or £5 ballet pumps either). Shoes don’t survive well in the archaeological record being made from soft, organic matter that decays quickly, but the earliest foot coverings are likely to have been no more than strips of hide. Very flexible, though not very durable.

Babies’ and toddlers’ feet are even more vulnerable than adults to damage from inflexible footwear. Unlike adults, babies don’t have defined hard bones in their feet. Instead, their feet are made up of a soft bone almost like cartilage. This is very pliable, so very sensitive to distortion if confined in an inflexible shoe. The bones develop as they grow and begin to walk, but their feet will carry on developing into their mid-teens**.

Experts also believe that toddlers (and adults) walk better barefoot. It gives a better sense of balance, encourages better posture, and helps to strengthen muscles and joints. Tom has never worn shoes. In summer, he went completely barefoot. Now that the temperature has dropped, he wears socks. Sometimes, if it is especially cold outside, I’ll add a pair of soft knitted bootees (made by my lovely mother-in-law) over the top of the socks. I plan to keep it that way for as long as I can. But English weather being what it is, and with the irritating tendency of our green spaces to sprout unexpected broken glass or dog poo, I can see that a time will come when we will need an ‘emergency’ pair of footwear for use in cold weather or on sharp terrain. I’m putting off doing any research until he’s walking properly, but when the day comes I think I’ll be shelling out for a pair of those specially designed ‘barefoot’ shoes. Just to keep my little Wildling’s feet developing as naturally as possible, as long as possible.

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*I have references for this if anyone is interested, but thought academic journals might be a bit heavy for a post on babies’ shoes!

**Some good info on this is available from the website of East London podiatrist Tracy Byrne: http://www.tracybyrne.co.uk/children.html

Taking the Pledge

About a month ago, I signed up to the Wild Network. I pledged to spend one hour a day outside, reconnecting with the great outdoors and introducing my newly minted one-year-old to the joy that is time spent exploring nature. “One hour”, I thought, “that won’t be hard.”

And for the first few weeks, it wasn’t hard. But in my enthusiasm, I had neglected to notice a couple of things. First, I signed this pledge in August, when the sun was (sort of) shining. Then September hit, the heavens opened, and suddenly a day on the Marshes was looking less attractive.

Second, my son has just turned one. He can’t walk. His contribution to arts and crafts sessions at nursery is to scrumple everything up and throw it on the floor. And then try to eat it. So many of the brilliant suggestions and events on the Wild Network’s website just don’t really work for us.

Third, my usual laid back, part-time working, plenty-of-time-to-potter routine has just been rudely interrupted by performance of a major civic duty (jury service) smack bang in the busiest time of my working calendar. So I feel like I’ve been working two jobs, plus trying to keep the laundry pile to an acceptable level, plus the thousand and one other things parents do every day, and making time to sit idle in the park or go on long meandering walks has slipped a little too far down the priorities list. Somewhere after sleep. And buy groceries. And wash some nappies so we don’t have poo all over the floor. Again.

Fourth…oh who knows? Venus was in retrograde. I need a haircut. Or perhaps, these are all just excuses and what I really need is a kick up the arse.

So here it is. A digital kick up the arse. I hope that, by committing to the internet at large to get outside at least once a day with the baby, no matter the weather, state of the house, or level of panic over work commitments, I will be more inspired to keep my pledge and prioritise the important work of raising a child who is connected with the natural world. Even if he was able to use an Oyster card before he could crawl.

And I hope you’ll join me. Whether you are already a nature-loving, walks-in-the-rain family of foragers or just taking a first step to get your kids outdoors, away from screens and running (or speed-crawling) free. Join the Wild Network and pledge to make time for wild time.