When mum really does know best

They are quick to give us advice – but how do parenting experts manage their own children over the summer break? They tell all to Rowena Walsh.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy… well, that’s the plan, but as much as we love our children, for many parents the thought of the long weeks of the school holidays without the safety net of the usual routine is daunting.

So how do parenting experts cope? Is there a magic formula to guarantee happy children and parents throughout July and August?

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, who works with parents and young people, recommends that we stop rushing around and embrace the lazy days of summer.

As she points out, research shows we have school holidays because the children are tired and need a break.

“We presume that the kids need to keep up the tempo during the summer,” she says.

The author of Cotton Wool Kids: What’s Making Irish Parents Paranoid, says that the emphasis on performance parenting is pushing us to fill our children’s days with too many activities, resulting in them being over-stimulated and exhausted by the time September comes.

“I would argue that they need the lazy days. We don’t need to keep them busy.”

Several weeks of downtime can be challenging for even the most summer-loving of parents, however, as they struggle to see just how they can entertain children used to being timetabled.

It’s precisely that thinking which needs to change. Stella O’Malley firmly believes that it’s not our job to be our children’s entertainer, nor should it be.

There’s no harm in a child being bored, says Josephine Bleach, Director, Early Learning Initiative. The mother of four, whose children are now in their twenties, is evangelical about letting children discover what interests them in their own time and at their own speed.

It’s doesn’t have to be complicated, time-consuming or expensive. Josephine suggests that parents adopt a simple approach, bringing children for walks and talking about what you see on the journey, going to the park and letting them run off their excess energy, planning a picnic and letting them help with the preparations, spending a day at the beach watching them play in the sand.

For Andrea Mara, parenting blogger and author, the holidays present a challenge as she works from home.

“You have to gear yourself up for a different dynamic over the summer,” says the writer of The Other Side of the Wall.

Andrea Mara.
Andrea Mara.

She has three children and has booked them into camps for two weeks while she works on her third novel. “I can’t write when they’re in the room. I have to accept that I can’t do it and put it aside until night-time.”

This will be Andrea’s fourth summer working from home and she admits that she struggled at first.

“I didn’t fully get it. They’d all be playing happily and I’d think I’ll get a bit of work done and I’d get my laptop out and then 10 minutes later they’d all be coming back to me. I did get a bit irritated and I probably was snappy with them.”

Now that she’s realised the difficulty of trying to do term-time levels of work without the school structure in place, she’s relishing the joys that the summer can bring. “I love not having to do the school run. I love that they can wake up when they like. I love not having to rush them out the door. I love that they’re off the clock – and I love that I am too.”

Mother-of-two Stella O’Malley agrees, saying that there should be less of trying to get somewhere at a certain time for children during the summer. Children don’t do time and nor should they, she says. One of Stella’s clients admitted that her child could be forgiven for thinking ‘hurry up’ was her name.

Yet, the psychotherapist is a firm believer in attacking the day, rather than simply letting it unfold. As she says, no professional childminder would do that.

It’s all about balance. Lazy mornings without the hassle of the school run are part of the joy of summer, but a child who has done nothing all day will become fractious, just as a parent is likely to feel that they’ve wasted their precious time off.

To get the best out of the day — and our children — Stella recommends doing an activity at 11am rather than 4pm. This gets everyone in the household up and out and still leaves plenty of relaxation time later in the day.

Don’t deviate too much from bedtime routines, cautions sleep therapist Lucy Wolfe. “If children are going to bed late, you’re relying on their body clock to sleep late,” she says.

“About 50 to 60% of children will go to bed late and still wake up at their normal time. Over the course of two weeks, you’ll build up a significant sleep debt. The need for sleep doesn’t go away just because the days are longer.”

Lucy Wolfe.
Lucy Wolfe.

She saw this for herself after one particularly long summer evening at the beach. It was past bedtime by the time they got home and Lucy’s children were tired, hot and cranky. She gave them cool baths to take the heat out of the day and any arguments and, though keen to get them tucked in, followed the usual calm bedtime routine of stories, cuddles and chats.

Now she finishes work earlier in the summer. “It feels as if we got extra hours without shifting bedtimes.” Those extra hours spent with children is when you develop traditions and create memories.

Andrea Mara is a big fan of eating al fresco. “We don’t decide to head off across the country on a Tuesday, but often we pack up a picnic and go to Dublin’s Sandymount strand or our nearest park.” Beware of ‘big days out’, says Stella. They tend to come heavily weighed down with expectations, involve high costs and can cause lots of tears.

Parents put a lot of effort into organising a ‘big day out’, so naturally they want their children to appreciate it. So when youngsters behave as normal – getting tired and cranky, whining for that extra ice cream and just wanting more, it’s only natural that a parent will get irritated with them for ‘ruining’ the treat.

“My children range from mid-twenties to 11,” says Brenda Lattimore, owner of the award-winning Bizzy Bs playschool in north county Dublin, “so I have been through the feeling of impending doom when facing the long summer holidays to now feeling the sheer delight of no more lunches and uniforms to get ready and no more ferrying them to classes in the evenings. The change in me resulted from a change of approach.

“I was one of those parents who loved the idea of big days out and felt that I had to do something different with them. I was that parent who dragged them around the art gallery and left with miserable children in tow, but with me feeling that I had ticked that box. Now when I go to the National Art Gallery with my youngest, we only look at a maximum of five paintings and then head off for lunch. Little and often is a much better approach.”

“The children feel like they’ve had a summer when you can say ‘remember the day we did this or the day when we did that’,” says Andrea Mara.

Lowering your expectations and knowing your limits and those of your children are crucial. As Josephine points out, the one thing you can expect with children is that they will misbehave at some stage every day, so, as a parent, you have to know your children, what they like and what can be difficult for them.

Brenda agrees. “I made the mistake of never consulting my children on the things that they would like to do, getting agreement first is a good start to planning days out.”

Stella McMalley.
Stella McMalley.

For Josephine, the trick for a good day out is flexibility. “Taking a break for food or a run around, chatting with the child about the consequences of his or her behaviour and being prepared to leave if it was not just enjoyable any more was how I handled misbehaviour.”

Flexibility can have unexpected results. She remembers the time that she visited Wicklow Gaol with her children. She planned to stay an hour: they enjoyed it so much that they ended up spending the day there.

A trip to Disneyland Paris, in contrast, was cut short because her children became so fed-up

with the queues for rides. “We ended up having a great train ride back into Paris, where we found a wonderful park with trampolines for them and a coffee shop for us.” Her now 27-year-old son’s verdict on Mickey Mouse and friends: “Disneyland sucks!”

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