Published in The Times 21 August 2020: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-to-parent-after-lockdown-eight-new-rules-m99jl7kpn
Family rules and routines have been relaxed, or even abandoned, over the past few months. A parenting expert says it’s time for adults to take back control at home.
Who won’t admit that lockdown has played havoc with the way we parent our children? For many families, discipline has gone out of the window and routine has disappeared. Bedtimes have become later, teenagers have been sleeping past midday, and snacking and screen time have shot up for everyone.
Parents, for example, may have found themselves mucking about on TikTok filming dance routines with their teenagers or scoffing popcorn with their ten-year-olds while watching American sitcoms. While that’s not all bad — and most of us have enjoyed some much-needed time for family fun and bonding — the parenting expert and sociology professor
Frank Furedi says that when parents lose their authority, children can suffer in the long run. He argues that faced with increasingly rebellious offspring, who claim that normal rules don’t apply, even the most confident parents can lose faith in themselves — and that is not a good thing.
Furedi, who is an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, England, says that with “not-quite-normality” here for the long term, it is crucial that parents learn how to trust their instincts again and have confidence that they know best.
“The more you can rely on your judgment, the more effective you are as a mother or father,” says Furedi, who has just written a new book, Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries.
If we lack confidence, our children sense this. “That undermines their belief in parental authority and creates uncertainty. Children thrive best when they know they can trust what their parents say,” he says.
Here are his suggestions for taking back control at home.
1. No more late nights
Maintaining rules around bedtime is essential for children’s wellbeing and parents’ sanity, so be firm. “It becomes easier if the child knows that it’s pointless to fight back,” Furedi says. Establishing routines such as reading together can help them to understand that bedtime is non-negotiable. Don’t say, “Isn’t it your bedtime?” — you just invite the answer “no”. Don’t ask questions, make an assertive statement. “Now it’s bedtime — go!” If we always give in, he says, “we’re undermining their capacity to learn how to handle disappointment, to deal with rejection, to know how to work out tricks to get around parental discipline. A lot of children never learn to kick against a door that is closed because the doors are always open to them.”
What if you’re exhausted and don’t want to argue? “The real problem is not exhaustion, but the fear of being rejected by your child,” Furedi says. “So many parents think that if their child rejects them it’s the same as if their husband or wife rejects them. It’s inevitable that children reject you now and again. If the child knows you are afraid of being rejected, they’ll do what some bad parents do — withhold their love. Understand you haven’t got a symmetrical relationship.”
2. It’s not one rule for you, another for them
Teaching children is best done by setting examples, Furedi says. If you break the rule, eventually the child will break it too. Many of us are still working from home, but a no-phone rule at the table doesn’t work if you take calls. If you respond to a call during mealtime by ostentatiously turning off your phone, however, it sends a clear message. I
t matters, he says, because “if children see that parents stick by the established conventions of a family, they understand that these conventions have a purpose and reason — they’re not just arbitrary”.
Being consistent gives you moral authority. “Authority is something you earn on the basis that you — through your actions, behaviour and conduct — are setting standards. You are the personification of the values you want your child to internalise and respect.”
3. Make time for your own relationship Parents living together should make clear to children that they also need some time to themselves, Furedi says. “Your children need to understand that a strong bond between you and your partner is one of the most important foundations for the flourishing of your family life, and that for that bond to be strong, you need to be able to cultivate it, not in front of an audience, but just the two of you. You need your own space where you can tend to each other’s needs, not the needs of the child.”
Part of achieving this balance is resisting the urge to live through your children. “It’s important for a child to have a line that separates them from the adults,” Furedi says. “If you know where the line is, you don’t have to prioritise your relationship because it will have its own space and integrity.”
4. Teach them to respect other people’s space
Educating children to respect other people’s boundaries is one of the most important tasks, particularly at the moment, when everyone has been crammed in together seven days a week. Learning to knock before entering someone’s room and asking other children’s consent to play with their toys are important ways to learn about establishing personal and moral boundaries. It also gives your child clarity about establishing their own.
Children will begin to understand that everybody has their own needs and you have to learn, not assume that you know, what they want. You have to talk. This will ultimately help your child to develop mature habits of interacting with people, Furedi says.
5. Give them jobs to do
Cultivate children’s capacity for exercising independence. “I got my son to go shopping for bread aged seven,” Furedi says. “I talked to the baker first because when I sent him a week earlier everyone ignored him.”
Gradually increasing their independence means that children develop their own instincts of where to draw the line. Furedi says that, for example, children who walk to school with friends tend to feel good about themselves and learn about responsible behaviour, such as how to negotiate traffic and deal with strangers. “These are crucial life experiences that made them stronger emotionally and physically.”
A good thing to do — and particularly during this period when we are all at home more — is to encourage your children’s independence by giving them tasks such as vacuuming duty,
Furedi says. They could even do some paid chores. “Earning money is a way of learning about life and responsibility. Responsibility is one of the most important virtues we can develop. It means your child isn’t just about ‘me me me’.”
6. Be strict with mobile phones
Limit the time your children spend online and explain how to navigate the online world. When doing this, it can be useful to remind younger children of the lessons they learned about crossing roads. “Children need to know that you regard this as no less important than managing road traffic,” Furedi says.
Try to cultivate an atmosphere of trust. But if that becomes compromised, intervene. “If children do something dangerous or risky, you can take their phone away for a week,” he says.
We can teach children about personal boundaries online by explaining that there are times when we want to be ourselves and think private thoughts, and not worry about how we come across on social media. Discuss how we all need personal space to deal with the pressures of everyday life, Furedi says.
7. Have discussions over dinner Eating dinner together reinforces quality family interaction, Furedi says. “Children learn a lot through a relaxed conversation where you can talk about everything from the food you’re eating to problems at school. You open a window to the world for your child.”
Children also learn tolerance this way, which Furedi says is particularly vital right now. “These days the art of conversation, of listening and of not being offended by disagreement are really, really important.”
Children tend to continue this tradition with future partners, Furedi says. “The alternative is the cafeteria model of family life, in which people watch different TV programmes and take their food to their bedroom, and the home becomes a hotel rather than a family residence.” Your kitchen isn’t a restaurant either, he says. “Especially when they’re young, they should eat what the family eats. It’s important for children to understand that the parents decide what they eat because they’re thinking about their health.”
8. Instil family values Instil in them a sense of what you as a family believe to be important and create rituals that cement a feeling of unity. “Family rituals create a sense of bonding, but they also help to cultivate the child’s identity as part of their family,” Furedi says. “Giving them a strong sense of who they are has a positive effect on their ability to develop their capacity for dealing with distress, pain and disappointment.”
What if your 15-year-old rejects a family ritual, such as attending an aunt’s birthday? “If you are good at drawing boundaries, there are times when you say, ‘OK, but you’re going to have to live with the consequences,’ ” Furedi adds. “In fact, part of what we’re doing when we draw boundaries is giving kids the resources to rebel and create their own boundaries.” So, if his aunt is disappointed, you tell him so. “Then, no matter how he responds, he’ll remember that.”