June 24, 2020
By Dr Kathy Weston
This week, I was notified that the NSPCC are launching 'Childhood Day' on Friday 26th June. It is a fundraising initiative for the charity, which is experiencing heavy use of its support services during the present crisis. It got me thinking about the nature of childhood and what makes a happy one.
It is a question to ponder as parents and perhaps even to mull over with your own children. When quizzed, my two decided that a ‘good childhood’ needed to contain ‘time together and traditions’, ‘good food’, and, according to my eldest, “the chance to mess up from time to time”. There was no mention of luxury items, the size of one’s house or of one’s X-Box.
Upon reflection, I reckon I had a good childhood because I had a sense of being in a world beneath busy adults, hovering above (as in Tom & Jerry cartoons). As young children, we weren’t party to parental stress and had a lot of freedom to play.
It was thrilling to visit a friend who had a sought-after toy and to call at a mate’s house to discover they were in! Playdates weren’t pre-arranged back then. Family life seemed packed full; the main memories that pop up are of noisy car journeys, sibling squabbles during outdoor games, meals at granny’s house, the acquisition of goldfish and their subsequent demise plus Christmases when we were sure Santa’s bells could be heard above the house. It is these snippets that remain in the ‘memory sieve’ after thirty years.
At a future point in our children’s lives, they are likely to tell our grandchildren about ‘lockdown’ and how they remember it. Perhaps we can start gently reframing this period as a learning experience; one that has been daunting and isolating, but that taught us to value, more keenly, the freedoms, relationships and experiences that make up a happy life.
Emerging data this week suggests that primary-age children have felt the impact of lockdown acutely, perhaps because they are less able to engage socially with friends online or to process their emotions as easily. Parents have reported greater frustration, aggression, emotional outbursts and sensitivities in some children of this age.
As school formally ends over the next few weeks and the summer holidays officially begin, it is time to turn the volume up on activities associated with a happy childhood. As soon as guidelines allow, priority should be given to play with other children and games that stimulate the senses, encourage chatter, role-play and ignite imaginations.
The antidote to childhood stress is play. Happily, the good weather will drive us outside, and that engagement with the natural world can also help us reframe recent experiences and boost our mood. Consider experiences ‘left in the sieve’ from your childhood and replicate those for your children.
In terms of self-care, let that ‘big kid’ emerge and think about getting your own hands mucky; handle the Play-Doh, blow some bubbles, jump on the trampoline and play the games that your children find enjoyable.
Successful play prompts much laughter, a central component of family wellbeing and resilience.
Many of our children have been given unprecedented access to parents and carers over the last few months. They may have seen us in full work mode; on the phone to colleagues, focused on Zoom meetings and distracted by deadlines. They may also have ‘occasionally’ been on the receiving end of our grumpiness.
Over the summer, it is essential that they experience the more ‘fun’ side of you and me. Happy childhood memories are often cultivated on little summer trips and excursions. The old adage contained within the parental engagement literature that ‘it doesn’t matter who you are, it is what you do with your children’ comes to mind here.
Denied what may have been routine treats over many months, your children will relish that 99er on an overcast day by the coast, the opportunity to muck around in rockpools or mess about in boats.
In my experience, children respond well to the simple things in life, and a change of scenery can be as highly valued and well received as any trip abroad.
P.S. Fathers celebrated Father’s Day last weekend. To mark that day, I am offering an online talk, just for dads, on Monday 29th June, in the evening.
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