Yesterday morning Meri, my 14 month old daughter, and I went to Sainsbury’s. We returned and as I was unpacking the shopping in the kitchen I saw she was busy exploring the vegetable rack. She was sitting next to it and had a big, red chilli in her hand and was enthusiastically mouthing it. She saw me looking at her and tilted her head to give me one of her adorable smiles. She was just about to sink her two emergent front teeth into and take a big bite. For that moment I was on the horns of a dilemma: should I jump in, grab the chilli from her hand and tell her off or should I allow events to take their course and let her learn an important life lesson for herself?
There is a battle ranging amongst parenting Gurus at present about what is the right thing to do. The “Tiger Mum” brigade believe that parents best serve their children by hothousing them. Intensive and structured learning, according to Amy Chua, is the best way to maximise your child’s intelligence and potential. They would argue that I should intervene and teach Meri what she should and should not be eating. The converse argument, put forward by Bryan Caplan, encourages parents to chill out and let their kids watch TV and to learn about the world for themselves. They would let her learn the hard way.
I suspect that there is a difference between the sexes here as well. Fathers are more inclined to allow their children to learn through exploration and experimentation. The maternal instinct to protect their brood makes them prone to teach them what they should and should not do.
Clare often yells at me “Don’t let him / her do that!” as Arun or Meri do something that might result in a lesson from the school of hard knocks.
My response is usually, “but that’s how he / she will learn!” knowing full well they are unlikely to do themselves and real harm.
However, like most parents, I try to walk to the tightrope and do a bit of both.
My children undoubtedly have a lot of structure in their lives – meal times and bed times and strictly adhered to. I also try and spend time with them every day doing specific activities. Much of this is driven by Arun’s needs and his cerebal palsy. So I make sure that every week we do a specific amount of physical activity and physiotherapy, we learn new words using flashcards, we read a certain number of books every day and practise playing with developmental toys. Meri gets the “benefits” of this work as well because she participates in many of these activities.
However, we also do a good deal of what I technically refer to as “arsing around”. One of my main jobs as a father is to provide an endless supply of rough and tumble play which both of my little ones enjoy (OK – I love it too). In addition, for at least an hour every day I try to let them play with whatever they want whilst I just watch and police.
The fact of the matter is that I can’t sign up to any particular philosophy of parenting. The reason for this is that I recognise that my children cannot be forced into one particular mould or another. They are unique individuals and each will need different things from me as a father at different times of the day and at different stages of their lives. I am a great believer that most parenting is situational and as most of us know, the little monsters do not come with an instruction manual.
So, none of that really helped me with my dilemma. Should I let my darling Meri take a bite of that lovely, tasty but very spicy chilli? In this particular case I intervened and stopped her making a big mistake. However, I do wonder whether I made the right decision. Not least because letting her take that bite would have made a great story for the boys down the pub.