One regular theme we see in the media is how wonderful it was in the good old days, when children were out of the house all day, climbing trees and playing football – just coming in for their tea. These days, so the story goes, parents are too anxious, the dangers are too great, and children are kept at home, usually gaming or on social media. I think there are lots of assumptions and hazy memories in this sort of account – but could they argue the same is true with our little ones as well as older children? Are today’s parents over-protective?
If I try and think of images of the past that might be comparable with the ‘out all day with a piece of a string and a penknife and told not to come back till teatime’ variety, for younger ones, the only ones that come to mind are babies left in their prams at the bottom of the garden to get lots of fresh air and so no-one could hear them cry (thus spoiling them by picking them up) and toddlers going out to play unsupervised with their older siblings.
I think there have been changes in these areas too, but in the right direction. Although many mums will have the odd moment where it is actually the right thing to do to walk away and leave baby to cry – whether that is because mum is not in the right state of mind to calm her baby, or whether baby is being allowed to learn to settle themselves – I haven’t met many people who consistently and purposefully ‘park’ their baby away from the house thinking it is in the baby’s best interest. Parental awareness about the needs of a baby to be comforted and have someone close to hand has increased. Has it gone too far in this direction? No, I don’t think so. It’s not possible to give a young baby too much attention, comfort and cuddle-time.
As far as toddlers being left with older siblings goes – it is important that siblings are encouraged to develop their own relationship, and an older brother or sister can learn a lot from having to bear in mind the needs of a younger child. However, children’s social skills, self-awareness, sense of responsibility and justice, capacity to cope with unexpected situations and moral code continue to develop well into their teenage years. It would be unfair to expect a child to respond in the same way as an adult if things were to go wrong. There will be times when you do leave big brother/sister keeping an eye on your toddler, whilst you quickly do something, but as an adult, you need to take responsibility for whatever happens.
So am I saying that you can’t be over-protective with young children? No. I’m not.
What young children need is a secure relationship with their main carers. That is one where they feel noticed and loved and where their emotional and physical needs are met. When they feel secure in that relationship, then the world seems a safe place to explore. They are happy to move around, to interact with others and learn from their environment. They do this knowing that if they feel worried then they can go back to their carer, who will make them feel safe again. This is sometimes called “The Circle of Security”.
Being over-protective can interfere with this natural process. Sometimes parents feel anxious about their ability to be a good mum or dad. Sometimes the child has been ill or had an accident in the past. Maybe there has been a lot in the press about high profile cases where children have been hurt. Whatever the reason, if a parent feels worried when they are with their child, or as their child goes to move away, then the child will pick up on it. This makes them feel anxious, and usually results in them becoming clingy. Clingy children miss out on opportunities to develop their self-belief and social skills and to learn about their world.
In addition to toddler groups, there seem to be more classes available for parents and babies/toddlers today, than there have ever been. These provide great opportunities for young children to practise being away from their parents, for brief amounts of time, in a safe environment. Just as importantly, they also allow parents to practise letting their children go.
* Play England Study July 2011: read more here
Dr Helen Andrews is on the Toddle About Panel of Experts. She is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development.
Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or find out more at www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk