How much is too much?

family & parenting / Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

There are so many things where excess is a temptation or a worry. Ice cream, daytime naps, E numbers, hours of TV.

I realise I am someone prone to excess. I’ve just made a batch of butter icing. It will take Herculean resolve not to thrust my head into the bowl and inhale the vanilla fluffiness. I am a born addict, or at least a born binger. I could never have smoked one fag, and very hard, too hard, for me, was drinking in moderation. I’ve learned to temper this temptation a bit, to try to ease my way through the sensible world of just enough and bit by bit. Tough going though, I find.

Not least because there are other excesses which seem so important. The excesses of love for example, which has two too sharp edges either side of its overwhelming need to envelop those we must cradle in our love. There’s the danger of not loving enough, and the peril of smothering.

Child-centred, baby-led, child-focused: the world of parenting nowadays has moved to a frenzy of micromanagement for younger ones in which, under the guise of following their needs, we thrust onto them responsibility they are perhaps too young to take. Responsibility, like being totally in control of when and what they eat and how through breastfeeding on demand, which we must often then abruptly wrestle from them when real modern life kicks in and they need to stop eating at 3, 4 and 5 am and start having breakfast, like a normal, so other people around them can go to work/school/nursery, or at the very least get some sleep.

And it is hard to know where the need for full-on absolute ‘I’d eat my heart while it was still beating and walk in rags for a century for you’-ness ends and the need for pulling back starts. The easing off is needed, not least so we don’t spawn terrors, emperors walking amongst us in tiny shoes unaware for the need to share, both for social face and (a harder lesson) because a shared sense of grace, rather than entitlement, helps us all rub along so much better.

But we also need to pull back for other reasons. Yes, to allow our children to learn to fend for themselves, and protect themselves, and realise that you need to tie your laces or you’ll trip. But also to help them monitor their own desires, whims and fancies.

They will have to, after all, negotiate that primrose path of consumption one day. Work out a footpath to tread somewhere inbetween attending to their own happiness and desires, and going nutzoid bananas in a frenzy of consumption of all sorts until they are stultified and spoiled by too much of all things good and bad.

I think, actually, they also need something which is a bit of a dirty (or at least misunderstood) word: indulgence. Indulgence is a tough one when you are trying to straddle the two domains of parenthood: Time-Out-Land and her sister Baby-Is-The-Centre-Of-The-Universe-Universe. But I’ve come to think toddlers and babies precisely need a bit of indulgence.

The temptation to correct and corral into the right combination of precocious and beautiful and hilarious and wonderful, to mould them into our image of the right sort of child, can be hampering them with our own projections. How sad, sad indeed, to have one side of your brain – say, the one learning to make jokes and connections and observations – bollocked because mid reverie you’ve forgotten not to lick your knife.

I think, along with our inherent pulsating desire to forge connections with the world around us, there is a desperate longing for all of us, even the shiest of toddler in the world, for attention. For our take on the world and expression of that to be attended to.

They need time especially. Time to be listened to, to stutter and whine and giggle too much before the jokes comes out. They need space to make mistakes, to be too boring or too loud or too annoying or too messy, to exaggerate and repeat themselves. To be something altogether more messy and irritating than the perfect cheeky toddler we can capture on our mobile phones and summarise pithily on Twitter. They need this to learn how to be social animals in their own right: the anti-social in them is a key to that. How can you eat nicely at the table without first eating atrociously? How do you actually find out that an evening spent moaning ruins the fun for you as well as everyone else? They have to be bad kids to be good, some days.

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