“There was a time when we expected nothing of our children but obedience, as opposed to the present, when we expect everything of them but obedience.”
If the above quote was true back in the 1970’s when New York Times editor Anatole Broyard first said it, it’s doubly so now. From soccer camps and ballet lessons, to designer threads and themed birthday parties – even baking chocolate cakes for the Prime Minister - we expect our kids to apply themselves with adult determination to a whole range of activities. But is it all too much?
“In a lot of ways we are certainly expecting too much from our kids,” says social researcher Mark McCrindle. “In previous generations there used to be a strata in society - there were the kids and there were the adults and they hung out in separate groups. So the adults would be together and the kids would be together out the back, doing kids stuff. The kids weren’t expected to be actively involved in what the adults were doing, they were expected to be kicking balls around in the backyard.”
Nowadays though everyone is busier. Not only are the majority of families double-income, the size of the average house block has halved within a generation. So even if we were home during the day, there’s just not as much “go outside and play” space available. “Kids are brought into our adult context now and dragged around with us to the gym or restaurant or to the 5 star Hunter Valley resort,” says Mark. “And once they’re there we expect them to act appropriately. That’s not always realistic.”
The kids-as-mini-adults expectation isn’t helped, either, by public obsession with the precocious children of the stars. Five-year-old Suri Cruise is a case in point. From her 100+ pairs of shoes (including many high heels) to her adult clothes and makeup, every aspect of her rather grown-up life is documented – and devoured – by the public. And while we all know that that’s not how the average five-year-old should look or act, it can still subconsciously affect our expectations. After all, if it’s good enough for Suri Cruise then surely it’s good enough for our kids?
“It’s important for parents to keep in mind that children are not little adults,” encourages clinical psychologist and mother of four, Sally-Anne McCormack. “We need to have a reality check sometimes and be sensible about what we should expect from them.” Sally-Anne suggests the following tips:
- Don’t worry about what other people think! Often our distress about our child’s behaviour in public has more to do with how we think other people will react rather than genuine annoyance. So – forget about them!
- Compare your child objectively. “We can tend to focus on our own child’s behaviours, without looking at the bigger picture,” says Sally-Anne. “A great thing to do is volunteer in your child’s classroom and observe what all the other kids are doing. You’ll likely realize that your own child is completely typical of the age group.”
- Engage them. Parents have their own needs, which is great, but realize that what interests you probably won’t interest your child. “If your child is absorbed in something then their attention span is probably really good,” says Sally-Anne. “But for things such as sitting in a café while you have a coffee with your friend – well – their attention span is probably close to zero, so make sure you have some books or colouring in – something that they can interest themselves with while you’re there.”
Not that kids don’t need responsibility – it wasn’t that long ago that young children were expected to get themselves to school and home again. “There’s an irony though because in some ways we’ve wrapped them in cotton wool,” observes Mark McCrindle. “Kids don’t have as much freedom to make their own decisions - their activities are much more structured now, from sport to tutoring and other sorts of lessons. So we’ve taken away a lot of their independence yet we are expecting much more of them in that adult zone.”
“Just let your kids be kids,” recommends Sally-Anne McCormack. After all, childhood is short enough as it is!