You know what would be a great idea? Parental leave that kicks in when your kid turns twelve or thirteen. Or maybe fifteen or seventeen, depending on how things roll in your family.
I’m serious and I’m not alone. There’s a school of thought, populated by people much brainier than me, that there’s too much handwringing over being with your child every second during their first few years and not enough the messy teenage times.
My eldest turns 13 in a few weeks. So much about being his mother is easier now than when he was one. I spend less time looking for blankie, and more time debating whether Hamish or Andy is funnier. He’s into test cricket, plays volleyball and can eat Bunnings out of sausages-in-bread.
But he’s also all over YouTube. And he’s making friends with kids whose mothers I don’t know. He rides his bike to swimming clubs and gets home just before it’s dark. All of which I’m fine with. It’s called growing up and although it’s scary for me, it’s an exciting time for him. I don’t want to spoil it by asking if he’s disturbed by the more adult themes in The Hunger Games. Lord knows I didn’t want to share my thoughts on Flowers In The Attic with my mother.
This is the time we feel we can throttle back on ‘parenting’ (my least favourite word, by the way). But the experts are saying noooooo, this is the time to crank it up!
In a nutshell, the theory is this: babies and toddlers are remarkably resilient – as long as they feel secure and someone who loves them mashes the bananas and plays peek-a-boo they’ll thrive. The baby-toddler period is tricky logistically (kids under three are notoriously bad at making themselves a toasted sandwich) and every family deals with this period differently.
Maybe mum stays home, or dad does. Sometimes Nan helps out. There’s daycare, nannies and neighbours. Often it’s a patchwork of arrangements that changes month to month and year to year. But the vast majority of kids turn out just fine and march into school raring to get on with the next instalment of their lives – and work windows open up for lots of parents.
Most teenagers are capable of using a key, heating some baked beans, calling 000 if the house is burning down … no one needs to stay home to mash the banana so hi ho hi ho, it’s off to work we go.
Sex, drinking, and social media is a recipe for some risky behaviour. (Post continues after audio.)
But this is exactly the time we need to be around, say the experts.
Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg told essentialbaby.com.au, “It is teenagers – especially those who are immature and impulsive – who need their parents around. Those are the ones who are in need of close supervision, which is impossible to do by mobile phone.”
Carr-Gregg says the pivotal age is between 10 and 14. That’s when friendships get more complex and some kids lose interest in school. It’s also, he says, the window of opportunity to help children find their spark and become more independent. “You have to help emancipate them,” he says. “But in so doing you need quite nuanced parenting, with quite subtle changes.”
Geez Louise. I’m not good at subtle.
While Carr-Gregg emphasises that the period before a child’s second birthday is also crucial, he says many problems stem from “free-range” parenting of teenagers. “I’m seeing a lot of kids left to their own devices who get themselves into hot water,” he says, listing alcohol and addiction to computer games as examples.
During this period of time, of alcohol and gaming, we lave them alone.
I get it. Kids need adults who love them to be around. Not necessarily doing stuff for them, but just ‘being there’. To make sure they don’t amputate an arm while cutting the watermelon or ‘accidentally’ Google Icelandic pony porn.
But ‘being there’ is hard to justify when half the time your teenager won’t even talk to you, and for most families, it’s financially impractical.
Most Australians get four weeks holiday a year. School age kids have some 13 weeks a year off. I’m crap at maths but that seems a big gap. And workday hours? Nine to five is nothing more than a Dolly Parton classic hit. Seven to six is closer to the mark these days.
I don’t think it’s helpful to suggest to parents their kid will grow into an X Box addicted alcoholic if they work long hours. Staying home isn’t an option for most parents (even if they wanted to, and plenty don’t). I know heaps of kids with stay at home parents just as attached to their devices as their latchkey mates.
It’s easier said than done, I know, but I reckon the thing to do is to be there when you’re with your kids – at any age. Listen when they talk, open your home to friends and neighbours and find something, anything you like to do together (cooking, reading, watching Hamish and Andy repeats). If you do it as often as possible, everything will be okay. Fingers crossed.
Kate Hunter is a writer of ads, novels (the Mosquito Advertising series for young readers), a picture book (A Curry For Murray), as well as online columns, articles and status updates. You can follow her Facebook and Twitter. Kate lives in Brisbane with her husband, three kids, two cockatiels and a complicated dog. Her favourite things are travel, food and conversation, ideally enjoyed all together.
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