Born in January 1981, I was the epitome of the ‘eighties child’: white knee socks, a floral dress and a bowl cut or dirty knees, scraped hands and messy hair – there was no in-between. My childhood was an extremely happy one, even more so when I met my best friends, Jenny and Linsey. United by the fact that we were, all three of us, only children and lived on a busy road away from the other children in our class, meant that we were each other’s siblings and became inseparable for those indispensable primary school years. My memories are filled with long summer evenings having water balloon fights, chasing each other ‘around the block’ on our bikes (Linsey always won because she had a mountain bike, which destroyed my racer bike and Jenny, well Jenny, she’d already climbed off her BMX half way around the circuit), or we would be zooming up and down my steep driveway on our skateboards, or selling broken bric-a-brac crap at the end of Jenny’s drive and genuinely being down right annoying to the loved up teenage couple who would meet on a wooden bench opposite my house and kiss like their lives depended on it. Well, that’s how we remember it anyway. We would play outside for hours and hours long into the twilight, venturing inside only for bathroom breaks and ice-pops.
Together we devised a brilliant – albeit lethal – game of ‘The Crystal Maze’ in my parent’s garage with my dad’s plumbing tools. The ‘crystal’ was often a large nail placed precariously on top of some ladders or in and amongst his levellers, screw-drivers and wrenches. Two of us would ‘create’ a task to complete (it often required one of us jumping in and out of ladder rungs or climbing on a decorating table) and if we didn’t acquire the ‘crystal’ in time then we would be ‘locked’ in the garage for twenty minutes whilst the other two buggered off to get another ice pop.
There were no ‘selfies’, no filters that made everything brighter and more pleasant to gaze at, no social media to boast on, no hash tags and certainly no #squadgoals.
It was a great time to be a child.
What made it so great was the contribution my parents made to, not only my happiness, but to my friends’ happiness, and also to the collective safety of us all. They kept us at ‘arm’s length’ as it were. However, I don’t mean this in the negative sense of the phrase. We thought we were being let loose and running wild, but they could always see us either in a back garden, on a drive way or across the road over on the grass. I was given strict curfews and I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere alone. I can recall feeling embarrassed in my ‘tween’ years when I was given permission to go and ‘hang’ out in my local park, but only if I was home for 7pm – hours before it grew dark. However, curfews and rules were respected and as I grew older and developed a penchant for rock music, I was given a little more freedom – freedom with invisible boundary lines, that is.
My parents ‘parented’ me. They offered me compromises which gave me the independence to be my own person. They allowed me to go to rock concerts at the Town and Country Club in Leeds if they could drop me off and pick me up. They didn’t allow me go to night clubs in Wakefield. They let me go shopping in Leeds on the bus with friends if I got myself a part-time job. My mum even agreed to me ‘getting inked’ when I turned seventeen (those who know me, know I both love and hate my Green Day tattoo in equal measures) if I promised not to get it on my arm, ever get another one or dye my hair blue. So I didn’t.
Yes, they ‘parented’ me. They didn’t over parent me.
Despite working full-time in a job that ensures I also spend at least one day of the weekend marking and planning lessons, I fear I over parent my children. And by over-parenting, I do not mean that I spend too much time with them. I don’t. During the week, I don’t spend enough time with them at all and when I am reunited with them after work, I worry I am never truly in the moment as there are always breakfast dishes to wash, dirty clothes to wash, clean clothes to hang out and just general tidying up to be done after my two little whirlwinds have stormed the house. I very much doubt I am alone in feeling this way and it’s these worries – among others – why I think I am ‘over parenting’. I don’t want the modern world to tarnish them and yet I want them have the same experiences I did when I was growing up; I want them to believe that they can achieve anything they want in life, but my desire to keep them safe and close can be quite overwhelming to them, myself and others.
Four years ago, we took the bigger mortgage on the nicer house on the private road and crippled ourselves financially in order that our children would live on a very quiet street because we want to keep them safe from speeding vehicles and passing strangers. We soon found that most of the people living on our street bought their houses off plan back in 1967, meaning that my son and daughter have no one to throw water balloons at and no one to race around the block with.
Nowadays, I have found that play dates are arranged with parents days in advance. In 1987, if I wanted to go play with Jenny, I would bound out of the house and run up the street to her house (with my mum patiently waiting for me at the bottom of our drive), I wouldn’t even knock on her door, I would just go right in and ask if she was ‘playing out’. These days, my house doors are always locked and if a youngster happened to knock on my door to ask if my daughter was ‘playing out’. I would ask them if their parents knew if they were out at this time alone, whether this little rendezvous had been pre-arranged and had I missed a note in her school bag? I would probably also try to find the parents on Facebook just to, you know, check.
Prearranged playdates lead me nicely onto soft-play. A place where I over parent that much, I take the joy out of going. I visited one at Christmas and panic mode set in at least four times when I couldn’t see my two year old. Other parents were sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee and a piece of cake while I was hanging from monkey bars and scaling cargo nets only to find that my son was seated happily in a ball pool eating someone else’s sock. Only last week Jenny had to turn my chair away from the soft play area just to keep me from running in after my son, who could manoeuvre himself around the place like a professional after two minutes. But, there is always that niggling feeling of what if he fell off and landed funny on his neck or back? What if another adult sneaked in and realised that they wanted a snotty nosed little boy for their own? What if my son saw an open door and just made a run for it?
The thought of it all makes my stomach turn.
Sleeping has always been a bone of contention in our house. From the moment we had our daughter over five years ago, it was decided for me that we wouldn’t allow her to ‘cry it out’. So we co-slept. We found that in order to save our own relationship (because 3am arguments over allowing your child to cry or not are heart-wrenching) and for our own sanity, our daughter would sleep in-between us. Then our son came along three years later.
My son and I have co-slept for two years. It has been a labour of love, but it has been a strain on the relationship I have with my partner. The screaming arguments didn’t occur this time around as the silent pact was made that he would not ‘cry it out’. However, now we’re like ships that pass in the night. This, I feel, is over parenting at its best or at its worse, if you like. My children can’t put themselves to bed; it’s ridiculous and I am ashamed of myself. My parents didn’t lay with me at five years old until I fell asleep and if I tried to sneak in between them in the night, I was swiftly deposited back into my own room. However, there is something so wonderful and pleasing in knowing that I can pacify and soothe my children with only a kiss and a cuddle and watching your two year old slip peacefully back into the Land of Nod is something else, it really is.
My over parenting will mean that my children quickly learn that they are loved and cherished and that their parents will do everything in their powers to keep them protected.
But, what about their independence and their spirit? They won’t find them laying next to their old mum lulling them back to sleep.
Daily, I tell my daughter that she can be whoever and whatever she wants to be, but what if I hold her back? What if I just can’t bear to let her go? We discuss the world and she knows that there are children out there, both near and a far, who would give anything to live in a nice, stable family like her own.
Right now, her world is perfect and yet she knows THE world is far from perfect.
I am going to have to try to learn to keep my children at an ‘arm’s length’ and ensure that those invisible boundaries are safely in place. Because, there is nothing like experiencing childhood looking down from the tops of trees with dirty knees.
Life is better experienced when it’s in full colour and unfiltered, don’t you agree?