A matter of time
Modern parents are constantly pressured by expectations
placed on early childhood learning. How much time should we spend
interacting with our toddlers? Are our children smothered by too
much attention? Angela Frieswyk looks for answers.
Exhausted and exhilarated after the birth of my first
daughter, I still felt compelled to read every bit of
parenting paraphernalia strategically placed around the maternity
annex. After all, antenatal classes taught me about pregnancy,
birth and breastfeeding, but what happens thereafter?
A poster stating "The best gift you can
give your child is your time" is what I remember the most. It
sounded simple, but a year on, the reality of juggling time around
toddler, career, chores and life in general had me constantly
wondering whether I was interacting with her enough. After an
unofficial poll of my local parents' group (that is, a chat over
coffee), I found I was not alone. We all seemed to suffer from
guilt, a modern mother's affliction that our own mothers never
We agreed lack of time was a key problem,
particularly for working mothers. And it's a problem that is not
going to go away. Indeed, more and more mothers are returning to
work earlier - in 1991, 29% of mothers with a child under one
year was in the workforce, and in 2001, this number had climbed to
39%. But more than half the mothers I spoke to were stay-at-home
mums with an equally significant reason for this "guilt
epidemic" - huge expectations placed on parenting. The
result: The constant, nagging question, "Am I interacting with my
toddler enough?" Problem is, who knows how much is "enough"?
Madeleine Kirk, Under Fives Adviser for Sport Waikato,
says, "It's a question no one is prepared to put their head on the
chopping block to answer. It's a little bit like saying your child
should be sitting by such-and-such months, then everyone frets if
Madeleine is involved in educating parents
about how to play with their children, and has helped develop
resources such as the KiwiBaby, KiwiToddler and KiwiPreschooler
manuals. While Madeleine was reluctant to give a definitive answer
on how much parent-toddler playtime is enough, she stressed the
importance of engaging with your toddler for some time every
"I'm talking about meaningful engagement -
sitting on the floor and actually being involved - because it is
very easy for a parent to be in the same room as a child but
not to be interacting at all," says Madeleine. "This is why we
developed the manuals, to give parents ideas for being
involved with play."
Yet some think we are giving our children
too much attention, as suggested by an article in The New Zealand
Listener ("The Parent Trap" by Mary Jane Boland, 12 April 2008). It
refers to modern parenting as "helicopter parenting", because mum
and dad are always hovering overhead. It's an easy trap to fall
into. Little Johnny is enjoying banging the building blocks
together, but mummy feels the need to step in and teach him how to
build a tower instead.
Lorraine Sands, mother of five, grandmother
of two and owner of Tauranga's holistic and innovative Greerton
Early Childhood Centres, says, "There are times when adults can
interfere with the investigation and actually put their slant on
it." Lorraine is a facilitator for the Educational Leadership
Project, a professional development organisation contracted by the
Ministry of Education to promote meaningful interaction and
respectful responsiveness in early childcare centres.
Passionate about children's learning
dispositions, Lorraine explains that children are pre-programmed to
find out about the world. "What we have to do is actively listen to
that and engage with them in a reciprocal and responsive way,"
Lorraine emphasises meaningful engagement
as a way for parents to encourage the love of learning. "Most of us
have the skills to read. But are we readers? Do we do it because we
love it? It is that inner love for something that we want to
promote. With children, you don't do that by 'drilling and
skilling', you do it by modelling love. Being snuggled up on the
couch with your child reading a Hairy Maclary book, delighting in
that lilt of the language and finding the tiny things in the
picture that your child notices... Those are the moments that
connect with children to think books and reading are
This is very different to the prescriptive
"A is for apple" reading that so many modern mothers would have
grown up with. "Parents often think they have to get a child ready
for school, so they will be successful, but this approach can
isolate those skills and does not excite innate learning," Lorraine
Modern parents are bombarded with a
plethora of carefully marketed educational toys and props, making
it all too easy to forget that emotional connection to innate
learning. Then there's the expectation to have little ones
involved in out-of-home "enrichment" activities, even swimming
classes, by six months of age. But at the end of a busy day, how
much time has been spent arranging all of these activities? How
much time has your child spent in the car seat rushing from point A
to point B? Was his routine lost in the busy schedule? Importantly,
was there any time leftover for free play and meaningful
interaction with mum or dad?
Watch a toddler and you will always see
that mum and dad are the best toys. We send toddlers a strong
message when we take time to play in their world, a message that is
essential for building self-worth, confidence, and security.
Providing we follow the toddler's lead in play, we can enjoy
observing them practise their own decision-making skills, noticing
what interests them and how they go about exploring it. Every busy
mum knows this is not a 24/7 luxury. Nonetheless, it is important
we don't over-schedule and rob those precious pockets of time for
Not only does over-scheduling mean less
time for free play, it may also expose young children to the
pressures of a hurried lifestyle resulting in signs of stress and
anxiety. Sue Younger from Brainwave explains, "A lot of what
parenting is about is keeping healthy levels of stress, especially
in the first year of life when they're particularly heightened to
stress and need us to respond appropriately."
Brainwave, a charitable trust made-up of
doctors, educators, academic and business professionals, aims to
raise public awareness of research, particularly on infant brain
development. New research is giving us a deeper understanding on
how early experiences affect the developing brain connections,
chemistry and function, ultimately influencing personality and
Sue explains that when we are stressed, we
produce stress hormones like cortisol. Cortisol is vital for a
normal stress response, but when there is too much or we are
exposed to it for too long, it can be toxic to brain development.
"Some kids who live .in very chaotic lives can get stuck in the
heightened stress response. They can't concentrate, they are
reactive, essentially stuck in the fight, flight or freeze mode."
Sue explains this is not just a problem of emotionally neglected or
abused children, it can happen to middle-class families where
everyone is so busy that nobody is noticing the baby or
"Attachment is vital," says Sue. "I say to
parents, when they are deciding how much work or outside-the-home
activities they are going to do, not to forget time for simply
hanging out - snuggling, lying around on the grass, sitting on your
knee exploring the world. I think we've lost the art of some of
this. The sort of formal activities we are running our kids around
to matter very little in the scheme of brain development. The main
thing that matters is the forming of loving, caring relationships,
as well as their needs being met."
It's those commonly repeated words "Enjoy
them while they're young" that convey the very same message. When
we take away many of the unfounded expectations on modern parenting
and slow up the pace of "doing", what's left is simply a
mutual delight of being in each other's company.
Are we interacting with our toddlers
enough? Perhaps we should take our focus off the question. Instead,
shake off the tyranny of "should" and simply recall our mothering
instinct. I've relaxed my expectations on being both the best
teacher and the best mummy. Now I just focus on the latter.
It's left me with a good dose of mothering smugness and a
contented tot... most of the time.
• Booth-Laforce, Cathryn and Nancy McElwain. "Maternal
sensitivity to infant distress and non-distress as predictors of
infant-mother attachment security." Journal of Family Psychology
20.2 (June 2006): 247-55.
• NICHD Early Child Care Research Network. "The effects of
infant child care on infant-mother attachment security: Results of
the NICHD Study of Early Child Care." Child Development 68 (1997):
• "What Grown-ups Understand About Child Development: A
Benchmark Survey." Available from www.zerotothree.org
• KiwiBaby, KiwiToddler and KiwiPreschooler manuals are free
to all babies
born in the Waikato. Phone Sport Waikato on (07) 838 2657
• The Active Movement DVD and booklets produced by SPARC
(Sport & Recreation NZ) are available Nationwide. Phone
• For more about The Education Leadership Project,
• Details about Greerton Early Childhood Centre can be found
• For more information on The Brainwave Trust, visit
Angela Frieswyk is a Bay of Plenty-based freelance
journalist and mother to 18-month-old Lily Jae.
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 3: 2008
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