A friend visited me from England this summer with her three children. Since there were eight of us and our car fits seven at a push, we were forced to spend all week just hanging out with our kids at the various places of joy and thrillification that The Burg has to offer for the under-thirteens. We did the pool, the mini-golf, the walks along the river, the ferry trip, the skate-park, the multiple playground visits and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese restaurant. We also held some in-house events: the High Tea with face-painting, the Abba discos and a lot of Tearing Round The Garden While Screaming at the Top of Your Voice (a favourite with the neighbours). Anyway, after a week of observation, she noted that Germans actually play with their children. “In England,” she said, “people take their children to the playground, but then they spend the entire time on their mobile phones or chatting to the other parents. They ignore their kids.”
Another friend visited, this time from South Africa, and she observed with astonishment how much time German men devote to their children (German mamas do too, but she was particularly taken with the hands-on papas). Here, weekends are designated as family time and parents take their children for bikes rides, go swimming with them or head down to the river to fly a kite or knock a football about. Most of the South African men I know and love spend their weekends watching TV or indulging their own sporting interests, with nary a thought for what their kids would like them to do (and here I am speaking as a child who grew up spending alternative weekends at the edge of a golf course or watching the distant speck of my father casting a fly into a river). Here, all the fathers (and mothers) I know give their kids their time. And, best of all, they enjoy it.
With those two comments in mind, it was interesting to read this excellent article in this week’s Observer. The writer attributes the fact that Britain has the unhappiest children in the Western world (from a Unicef report) not to failure of government or the gap between rich and poor, but to failure of their parents to provide them with a basic need: their time.
I am very suspicious of “busyness”, to which people of my generation love to subscribe. Sure if you’re a fulltime working mother or father of three children, then you’re busy. Sure if you’re a single parent, then you’re busy. Sure if you’ve got multiple looming deadlines, three small kids and a messy house, then you’re busy. Are you busy if you go to the gym more than three times a week? Are you busy if you have frequent coffee mornings? Are you busy if you’re on Facebook or Twittering rather than actually working on that laptop?
I’m not saying we all have to be perfect parents, and neither am I saying that a little recreational Web use is a bad thing, but I am saying to those parents who sit in the playground glued to their mobiles that you ignore your children at your peril. I am saying to parents who chase their children out of the kitchen so that they “can get on with things” (and I am guilty here), you will regret it one day when you try to get your teenagers to help you cook. I am saying to parents who won’t let a little person “help” with bed-making, the chances are in ten years’ time you’ll be begging him to pull up his duvet and he just won’t. I am saying to parents who text during family mealtimes that you won’t have a leg to stand on when your teenagers start doing the same. I am saying to fathers who work all week long that if you don’t put the time in with your children now, while they are young and unable to craft a sentence on the outcome of today’s football match, they won’t be interested in talking to you once you decide you’re ready to talk to them.
Small children can be bothersome. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to play Lego with them when you’d really rather check your blog stats. They want you to have illogical conversations with them about the existence of fairies when you’d rather talk to a girlfriend on the phone. They want to tell you in Three Different Ways how wonderful school was today when you want to zone out with a cup of coffee. They can be repetitive. They can be a little dull. But apart from ensuring that they get regular food and sleep, the most important need we can fulfil is to show them that we enjoy spending our precious time with them. That’s how they are going to grow up as well-adjusted, confident adults who believe they have something valuable to share with the world – themselves.