Raising real kids in an unreal world

Australian author Maggie Dent believes we can’t change the world, however we can change the choices we make for our children. “And”, says Maggie, “we can start now”.

In her new book Real Kids in an Unreal World, Maggie writes that real children need real experiences with real people to grow up healthy – just as they have since humankind began. 

Maggie’s book explores the ten essential building blocks that help children build resilience and authentic self-esteem in our chaotic, modern world.

She emphasises a commonsense, holistic approach to parenting that encourages connectedness, character and compassion in their children.

What was your motivation for writing the book?

In my work as a teacher and counsellor I was noticing how many children and adolescents were struggling with life – and the number of medicated children – from anxiety disorders to sleeping problems. And noticing depression in children as young as three, was frightening.

It suddenly made me realise that the modern world had some very toxic influences that are making our children sadder, sicker, fatter and more disconnected than ever before. I felt that the small things that used to be a regular part of childhood were often being ignored.

Instead, there’s a focus on ‘stuff’ and pressure to ‘compete’ to have the smartest and best child. I felt that with better information parents could build resilience and self-esteem in their children that could help them right throughout their lives.

You mention the notion of our modern lifestyle having destroyed the ‘whole village’ pattern of raising children. What do you mean by that?

Traditionally raising children was the responsibility of the whole kinship community – much like what our traditional Aboriginal communities did for over 60,000 years.

With modernisation, these collective systems have broken down and parents seem to have total responsibility to meet all the needs of raising children.

The alienation and lack of support networks this shift has created has presented new challenges. Everyone needs support to be loving, caring parents, and sharing ancient knowledge needs to be encouraged, especially around raising children. It still takes a positive community to raise healthy children who will then grow up to continue being connected to future generations.

In your opinion, is parenting a more difficult challenge today than a generation ago?

Absolutely! There are so many additional stressors in life -—huge pressure of consumerism, massive change, and an unhealthy focus on identifying problems in our children.

The modern world also encourages long based child care as a normal feature of childhood and for children under three. There are some serious concerns of the effects of this, socially and emotionally.

Also, parents are tending to over parent, over protect and ‘hurry up’ our children – and even though this comes from a place of love, it can weaken a child’s capacity to be resilient as an adult.

It can also weaken a child’s spirit. Childhood is meant to be full of chaos, endless play, spontaneity, laughter and moments of wonder and awe. These moments are being overwhelmed by ‘busy-ness’ in our modern world. Parents need to let their own inner children come out and play before their kids become teenagers, when they may only see you as an embarrassment.

It’s hard, but so important for parents to find the time to make magic moments that build delight and lightness in the whole family – turn the screens off, play music, share meals and tell jokes — anything that builds the sense of belonging, being valued and being noticed.

What are some of the most important skills parents can teach their children?

My fifth building block is life skills and it is parents’ responsibility to build basic age-appropriate life skills.

We have Year 1 teachers telling me that children are arriving in Year 1 still not toilet trained, cannot pull up their own pants after being to the toilet, unable to wipe bottoms, blow noses, unable to find their bags, unable to feed themselves and socially delayed – can’t wait, share, sit still or listen.

It takes time to build life skills for young children and there are developmental windows that make some skills hard to master. However social and practical skills need to be taught and encouraged.

Children are children, not little adults, and learn best when they are not stressed or hurried! Play that involves real experiences is one of the best ways that children learn most of the life skills in life – not by watching TV or DVDs.

In your experience, do some parents find it a challenge to help a child to manage and cope, while still allowing them to enjoy a carefree childhood?

This is definitely happening and is a balancing act. So often parents want to prevent their child from experiencing pain or discomfort, and yet often these small challenges allow children to learn quickly.

Anyone who was hit in the chin by the old timber seesaws learnt very quickly to respect that piece of equipment without being told to take care. It is not easy being comfortable when your two year old puts on their own long pants to go shopping and they are inside out and on back to front.

The self-mastery involved – ‘I did it by myself!’ and the ‘what will other people think?’ from toddler and mummy – shows beautifully the dilemma of allowing children to do things for themself regardless of how it may look until they can master it as well as mummy. Children yearn to be independent and to have autonomy and over controlling children without respecting this biological drive is a major cause of inappropriate behaviour in strong children.

How important is role modelling in helping a child develop positive values?

I read somewhere that modelling accounts for over 80 per cent of learning for children and I think that’s pretty accurate. This is why I suggest parents model simple calmness and moments of stillness in the early years – mummy needs some quiet time, take three breaths when you are getting angry, gather your thoughts (put hand to forehead) and sigh often – before you know it your children will do the same.

If you speak quietly, your children will do the same. If you eat healthy food and exercise, your children will learn to value these things. Essentially, parents are running the mind videos that children will play automatically for years to come and they cannot do something that you are not modelling.

This is why we value loving, caring adults who care for our children when we are unavailable because they are also modelling how to be. Teachers spend almost six hours a day modelling to your children – more than parents.

Many parents today work full time and run a household. What key piece of advice would you offer as regards management and stress?

My best advice would be to spend as much time as possible with your children in the first five years – if you can work flexible hours that means a parent is the primary carer as much as possible especially under three years of age, please do everything you can to do it.

If this is not possible, avoid being a wonder person and doing domestics like a mad thing instead of being available to your children. Women especially, try to do too much and get even more tired and have even less to give their children. You  never get in front – they are already wearing the next load of washing, so slow down and cuddle your kids.

If you have to work full time, make sure your bedtime routine is never missed. Give each child some magical moments before they go to sleep, and if possible the same routine or ritual. Also remember that the last words they hear before they go to sleep stay with them all night…’I love you more than every star in the sky, every grain of sand on every beach and more than all the hairs on all the bears…’ These words will create memory pathways that will work even when they are adults. This ritual will fill their love cups and this is really what matters most to children – feeling your love, not just hearing it, but also really feeling it.

If you could offer parents five tips from your book, what would they be?

  1. Slow down and simplify your life while your children are young.
  2. Lighten up, laugh lots and linger longer.
  3. Create magical moments and rituals.
  4. Help every child be unique and competent at something.
  5. Give every child a childhood that lets them get dirty, climb trees, get wet and have experiences with real things – especially people and pets!

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