I was in a café the other day and there was a child – about the same age as my youngest – who sat, doing absolutely nothing, whilst her mother finished her coffee and chatted to a friend. This, in itself, was extraordinary enough but what really made me stop drinking my Latte and stare, incredulously, was that she had nothing to amuse her. No crayons, no book, no Blackberry with the lock key on.
In my world, 18-month-olds do not do sitting. They do climbing on the table, fidgeting, and death defying leaps from the furniture. And as I watched the mother ignoring the child and the child staring vacuously into space it occurred to me that what I was witnessing here is at the very heart of what divides us as parents.
Should we be entertaining our children all day or are there times when they can take a backseat?
When my eldest, now 12, was born I felt duty bound to fill her every waking hour with stimulation. The back of the car became a mobile homage to the Early Learning Centre with a wild array of stuff in primary colours just in case, God forbid, at seven weeks old she might find the 10 minute drive to the supermarket a trifle boring.
There was a sensory display of baby paraphernalia suctioned to the windows and dangling from the car seat. Her pushchair had musical mobiles and books clipped to the frame and then – as if this wasn't enough – another bag stored underneath with extra toys to keep her amused.
The poor thing didn't stand a chance. There was no opportunity to switch off and daydream. If I noticed her eyes glazing over and staring at nothing in the middle distance she would get a rattle frantically waved in her face.
By the time my fourth child, Dolly, came along stimulating the baby had been pushed to the bottom of the list in favour of getting out of the house in clean underwear and an outfit not resembling pyjamas. With my own brain cells fast deteriorating, worrying whether this tiny bundle had something to amuse her on the school run seemed faintly ridiculous. Besides, she was more than happy to stare out of the window. Funny that. I could have saved myself a fortune.
In stark contrast to how I brought up my eldest daughter and her two younger siblings, this last child of mine has spent large chunks of her life so far plonked under tables strapped into her car seat. She has none of the baby accoutrements the others had to waken her small mind and help her explore her new world. In fact, I live in fear of her mind being awakened because then I will need to do my bit to further develop it and, quite frankly, that is an exhausting prospect.
Instead, I have mothered Dolly in a shamefully lazy manner. I haven't used parenting theories, or read books, or fussed over her developmental stages. If she's quiet I don't immediately worry that she's bored. I just think: 'Thank God.' And get on with emptying the dishwasher. She's still fairly active – unlike the toddler in the café – and won't sit still for two minutes, but this is largely because she's constantly trying to keep up with her older siblings.
But the funny thing is, it's entirely obvious she's a happier, more contented child because of my lack of input. When the older three were pre-school age and I was still under the misguided illusion that my constant hovering counted for everything, their every spare moment was filled with activities designed to expand their horizons and further their IQ.
But boy, am I paying for that now. People credit me with having intelligent children but what that actually means in reality is that they can be a tad high maintenance. Not to mention verbose. They challenge constantly and seem to require an exhausting diet of stimulating diversions.
Dolly, on the other hand, is more than content to occupy herself, sticking peas up her nose. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to see that this makes my life a whole lot easier (unless one gets stuck) and I'm therefore a more relaxed mother because of it.
What do you think?
As a parent, which camp do you fall into - the let them get on with it, or the 'it's my job' to keep them occupied, or a little bit of both?
Has your parenting style changed between first baby and subsequent ones?