‘Mum, I’m bored’…it’s probably the phrase we’ve all heard one too many times since we started socially distancing and relegating ourselves to our homes. And when your every suggestion is met with a ‘no’, it can be all too tempting to just surrender to the appeal of an iPad...
But Gabbie Stroud, bestselling author of Teacher and now her newest release Dear Parents, believes we need to empower children to create their own fun. And yes, that might mean messy, complicated, needs-to-be-cleaned-up fun. Hear her out.
Dear Parents is available for purchase here.
Term Three, Week Four. Saturday...
Dear Parents & Caregivers,
So, this morning, Sophie piles into bed with me, her long, lean body stealing more doona than it’s deserving of. She’s talking and talking and I’m listening and listening, my ears nearly bleeding with the effort. After finishing a detailed recount of her dream, she asks what we’re doing today.
‘I’ve got lots to do,’ I said. ‘So you and Liv can just have a play.’
‘Can we play our devices?’ she asked hopefully. ‘We haven’t had them in ages.’
My girls love to have time on devices. They play games together, meeting up with each other online to construct and create new worlds. They also like to watch YouTube, online TV and movies.
And, let me tell ya, for a long time there I loved it, too. When everyone was glued to their device, the house was quiet. The house stayed tidy. I was free to do the things I wanted. It felt like everyone was happy. But I’ve been reading lots about this and I’ve discovered it’s a pseudo kind of happiness. The same kind of happiness that only addiction can bring.
For this entire year, I’ve limited my girls’ time with screens. We still watch movies and TV but, when we do, we do it together. Occasionally I’ll let them watch some YouTube on the TV while I’m in the kitchen. Olivia still does some homework on the computer, and sometimes they’ll ask to use their devices to make a movie or play music, but other than that screens are gone in my house. (What happens at their dad’s house is up to him.) And you know what? They’ve hardly missed them.
This morning though, when Soph did ask to play the iPad, it took me a minute to answer her. I had a mountain of school work waiting to be completed. Devices would mean a blissful, quiet house for me to work in. I thought maybe I could set a timer— allow them an hour. But then I felt like a complete cop-out. I remembered letters I’d written to you about choosing The Path of Least Resistance. So I made the effort to step up.
‘No,’ I told Sophie. ‘You’ve got so many other things you can do. You don’t need devices. Remember how I told you: devices aren’t good for your beautiful young brain, so we’re not going to be using them.’
‘Ughhh,’ she moaned. ‘I’m bored already. I’ve done all my toys.’
‘What about Barbies?’ I suggested. ‘You could put clothes on them all. They’re always naked with their legs poking out of their basket. They look so cold and uncomfortable.’
‘Nah,’ Soph said. ‘Liv won’t play that with me. She’s gone off Barbies.’
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘What about cafés? You could get the little toy stove out and all the pretend food? Use the soft toys?’
‘We did that last weekend,’ she said.
‘A jigsaw puzzle?’ I said. ‘Colouring? Drawing? You could play outside on the trampoline? It’s going to be a nice morning.’
‘I’ve done all that.’ She rolled over and pressed her face into the pillows, exasperated.
‘Alright,’ I said, trying to take her problem more seriously. ‘Let’s really think about some things you haven’t played with in a while.’ I paused and thought of all the toys in the cupboard. All the stuff that hasn’t been touched. ‘You could get out that clay you got for your birthday?’ I suggested. ‘Or you could do the paint-by-numbers pack that Nanny Judy bought you? What about that Meccano set from Christmas last year? You could make a car!’
Sophie looked at me, her face sceptical.
‘But you always say those things are too messy,’ she said. ‘Plus I need help with that car set.’
‘Yes,’ I said, realising the trap I had set for myself. All of those activities were indeed messy and complex. She would need me to invest in her play if it was to be a sustained experience that lasted more than five minutes.
‘That’s okay,’ I said, feeling an embarrassed kind of light dawning. ‘You can do those things. It doesn’t matter about the mess. We’ll put down that plastic tablecloth. You can work on that. And I can help you pack away.’
‘Really?’ Her face lit up. ‘Could I make that bath bomb kit I got for my birthday?’
‘Yes,’ I said, swallowing down reluctance. ‘You know what else? There’s a packet mix for chocolate slice in the pantry cupboard too. You could make that if you wanted to. You’re old enough to do that now.’
‘I’ll help you,’ said Olivia, wandering into my bedroom and slipping under the covers. ‘And did you say we could do painting? Crafts and stuff? Mum, could you show me how to do that stitching project?’
It was a cold realisation I had there in my lovely warm bed this morning: how often do we put our kids in front of a screen, or restrict their play, because we want to keep our homes and lives clean and simple? How much are we palming off to schools and teachers because it’s too hard and too messy to explore at home? Is this another facet of The Path of Least Resistance? Are we parenting in some kind of coma?
I had a lucky childhood. A farm is an incredible place for a child to grow and learn and discover. I was always allowed to help with the gardening, the wood-cutting, the sheep-shearing, the fence-checking. I remember playing in Dad’s shed while he repaired something nearby. I loved making things with a dab of putty or winding the handle of the vice to crush an old can. I loved digging for vegies, hammering nails, opening gates, collecting kindling, picking mushrooms. I was learning and experiencing, discovering and exploring. My folks never stopped their work to play with me, but they let me tag along with the work they did.
When I wanted to play in my own way, they always made space for the things I wanted to do. I wasn’t allowed to do ‘anything and everything’, but my folks encouraged me to play independently. They didn’t try to control or contain my play. If I wanted to wash my dolls’ clothes, or make mud pies, or build a cubby, or create a town from cardboard— I just did it.
‘What are you doing?’ Mum would ask, passing me on her way to the clothesline or the wood heap.
‘I’m building a trap,’ I might say, or:
‘Making new clothes for my doll.’
‘I’m designing a house for a frog and I’m gunna put a real frog in it.’
‘I’m making a racetrack for these cars.’
‘I’m digging for gold.’
‘I want to paint this piece of wood.’
‘Alright,’ Mum would say. ‘Go for your life!’ And then she’d give a heap of stern instructions like: ‘Don’t use my good sewing scissors’ or ‘You have to do that outside’ or ‘Make sure you put those buckets back in the laundry.’
‘And you must promise me you will pack everything away,’ she would always say. ‘You must clean up your mess!’
‘I will, Mum,’ I would say solemnly— the thought of packing up at least a hundred miles from my mind in that moment.
‘Alright, then, go for your life, love!’
It makes me laugh now to remember how she would say that. Go for your life! And I’d feel encouraged. Empowered, even, to play and experiment and explore and have fun.
I could occupy myself for hours. My play would become creative, building momentum and morphing from washing dolls’ clothes to washing rocks, where I’d clean all the stones I could find in our garden and along our driveway. Water on soil would lead to mud pies and I’d open a bakery, creating rows of decorated ‘cakes’ and ‘pastries’. I’d imagine a cash register and customers. Good ol’ Dad would always play along, arriving home from the paddocks to buy a few pies, paying for them with twigs before he went into the house for his real dinner.
My own kids are missing out on this. I curb their play to games and activities that are clean and neat and easy for me to manage. They play fairly well, but I’m often required to prompt them along when one game ends and another needs to begin. My clean, neat play doesn’t give them enough scope; I need to let things get messy and let my kids be kids.
I’m not suggesting we need to play with our kids all the time— God, that would probably kill me. I’m not a huge fan of playing with my kids. In fact, I don’t think it’s a parent’s role to play with their kids. When you’re kicking around at home on the weekend, I don’t think it’s your job to keep them occupied or entertained. I’m all for regular family games together, such as board games and throwing the frisbee, colouring in together or a competitive round of cards! But I think kids should play in their own ways— on their own, and with their siblings and their friends— and parents can join in as appropriate.
But I realised this morning, when I very nearly trod The Path of Least Resistance, that I need to enable messier, exploratory, risky, child-directed play, just like my parents did. I need to let go of keeping my house clean and keeping on top of the housework and keeping the kids quiet. And I need to let them play in that noisy, creative, grubby way without supervising the shit out of them! Kids need those wonderful, disgusting, wild and crazy opportunities for play.
Refracting from this idea, I can see other ideas— little spots of colour and dots of shadow that might be connected. I’m wondering if maybe schools are trying to pick up the slack of so much of this clean, timetabled parenting that we’re doing these days. Our schools are bringing in chooks and worm farms and meditation and growing food and recycling projects and all these other things . . . almost in an attempt to fill the hole that we’ve created at home.
This also makes me think about ‘parenting styles’ and childrearing ‘methods’. If I asked my mum what parenting style she adopted, she’d probably say, ‘Oh, I think a pretty good one. You all turned out alright.’ I’d hazard a guess that the act of parenting wasn’t something Mum ever gave much thought to. It’s not that she was parenting without thought, more that she was just busy getting on with it. Doing it, you know? Raising her kids and working the farm and getting to each of her part-time jobs.
Today it seems that we’re more conscious than ever about every aspect of our lives. We’re hashtagging our best selves and discussing the virtues of quinoa and mindfulness . . . We’re aware of our parenting, talking about it in real life and on forums, posting pictures on socials, reading articles online, yet we’re living it so unconsciously, handing our kids an iPad and letting them completely detach themselves from reality.
PS As an aside, while I may not think it’s your job to keep your kids occupied or entertained when you’re kicking around at home, let’s get this straight: if you’re out and about in public, at a café or a restaurant, at the shops or in a public space, it is totally your job to keep your child occupied and behaving in a way that allows everyone else sharing that space to enjoy themselves. This doesn’t mean you whip out the device and induce a coma. But it means your child needs to be socialised in ways that allow them to be pleasant company when they’re out socially. My weapon of choice is a pack of cards that I always have in my handbag. We get through at least one game of Old Maid before my cappuccino arrives. I’ve also been known to carry small tubs of play dough, slime, pens and notebooks because kids get bored, and if you let boredom go kids get creative. Now we want this creativity— just not at one hundred decibels, racing through our favourite coffee house.