From Japan to Malaysia and America to Australia, helicopter parenting it seems is a universally recognised phenomenon credited with reducing physical activity, stifling risk-taking and creativity and developing depression in children. We know of the health and emotional benefits of children accessing outdoor environments, but should they really have to do so in order to recover from the stresses of everyday life? With children’s lives increasingly mapped out, filled by an endless stream of classes, clubs and tutoring designed to give our children the best start in life, it is ironic that freedom to play with sticks, stones and mud outdoors may actually be what children need best.
I firmly believe that our role as adults is as ‘memory and meaning makers’ for children. It is also about instilling children with the confidence to explore the unknown, take calculated risks, make mistakes and ultimately learn from these. This cannot happen if children are cosseted and deprived the freedom and opportunities to practice making decisions.
So how do you make decisions in your household over what to do and when? Do the adults make all the plans? Are the children in control or do you manage to achieve the holy grail of calm consensus? With a background in consensus building – it’s what I used to do to help disparate groups make decisions and galvanise action, I find these same techniques have currency in family life too. That’s not to suggest that processes like these should happen all the time, as that would tip this into the realms of micro managing and would be far too unspontaneous for my liking, but when I get out coloured paper and start cutting it into business card size pieces, the excitement among my 7 and 10 year old is palpable. In fact they have now taken over the paper cutting stage of the process! What makes it all the more special is picking a good family moment, like a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast, where the plan evolves magically from a table strewn with paper and cereal packets.
We start by each writing our own priorities on separate pieces of paper. The only rule is that this needs to include a couple of essentials like ‘tidy my bedroom’ or ‘put my clothes away’, after all this is essential preparation for life. Once finished all the ‘cards’ are turned face down and we take it in turns picking a card to turn over and read. If we agree with the idea we leave it face up, if not it is turned over. Any cards left face up at the end of this stage have been agreed by us all without a smidgen of sibling rivalry. With a firm foundation of consensus we then look at the face-down cards to agree what should happen to these ideas. Often the reason the card was turned over becomes readily apparent, with ideas like ‘Go to the moon’ having crept in from my 7 year old! We talk about why we can’t, in this case go to the moon, and then I secretly plan a moon-themed tea anyway, because, why not? Sometimes we add headers for Saturday and Sunday to start to plan each day, other times we just go with the flow.
If you’re thinking that this all sounds too planned and contrived for your liking, don’t worry there’s plenty of scope for being spontaneous. Some of the actions are as quick and simple as ‘buy a bone for the dog’, while others involve much more preparation and time, and some, dare I say it chore-orientated actions never seem to get done! So last weekend a trip to Ikea was agreed but there was still time and space to combine this with our first family trip to Lakeside, bungee trampolining and meatballs, (beef and pork I hope), at Ikea for tea! Consensus building may not be for everyone but for us it is a fun and satisfying way to avoid wasting time bickering in a family with two independent-minded children. Most importantly perhaps it’s a delight watching children’s growing sense of responsibility and pride at being listened to and valued, as their vision and ideas, even that trip to the moon, are realised.