Before I became a mother, I don’t think I had even held a baby, much less formulated any ideas on how to raise a child. An impromptu parent at the age of 22, I made it up on the wing, (much as we all do, I suspect) and now have three remarkable children- 9, 11 and 13. None of them have ever been to a doctor. All of them have smarts and spark and then some.
Looking back, it seems that my children (genetic serendipity and blind luck aside) grew themselves in the most perfect way out of parenting that interfered as little as possible with the process. In the early days, our ignorance of sleep plans, feeding schedules, and child psychology meant that all we could do was to keep it simple and natural, and it’s been that way ever since.
15th century poet, John Wilmot said “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories.” From a mother who has never had any theories on raising children, here are five good ways to let kids grow naturally.
Rare was the sleepless night in our household when the kids were tiny. A snuffle in the night was only ever within arms reach, resolved with a bleary cuddle or breastmilk on tap before either of us properly woke up. Contrary to the expectation that children who sleep with their parents are needier, less able to self-soothe and will never want to leave your bed, my children moved happily into their own rooms before the age of two, having had the closeness and warmth that they needed as infants. All three have grown into thoroughly confident, independent and able individuals.
Research on co-sleeping reported that children who did not co-sleep were rated as being less happy, less innovative, less able to be alone, more fearful and more likely to throw tantrums (ref). Importantly, the more sustained physical contact between parent and child that co- sleeping offers is now known to be a mitigating factor in SIDS. Rather than posing a danger to your child, a family bed is only ill- advised when one or both parents are heavy smokers, drug or alcohol users or significantly overweight.
Read Three In a Bed by Deborah Jackson for a comprehensive run-down of the benefits.
I infuriate my children with compulsive label reading, and far more than 50% of the time, the product will end up back on the supermarket shelf. Aspartame, MSG, preservatives and other chemical ingredients are used liberally in shop- bought foodstuffs. Taste and richness lost in the processing are replaced with sugars, salts, flavouring and unhealthy fats. Partly through preference and partly through financial necessity, our children were grown on real, simple food that allowed their tastes to develop uninfluenced by the quick hit of refined sugar and tastebud bashing MSG. All three grew strong and smart on a vegetarian diet, watching (and helping) their food grow up organically in our gardens.
As my children move towards their teens, I have less influence on the choices they make outside the home, but I make an effort to keep talking to them about how food is produced and the impact it has on our health and our world. Author, film-maker, (and meat eater) Jonathan Safran Foer was inspired to find out about food so that he could make the healthiest choices for his child. Read his book, Eating Animals; a level-headed but hard hitting account of the US meat industry. The truth isn’t pretty, and for the moment, my kids often prefer to ignore the unsavoury facts in favour of instant gratification, but I ‘m happy to know that their choices are informed ones.
At our house, I insist on real stuff not only in the kitchen but in the bathroom too. Natural skin-care, shampoo, toothpaste, bathing and cleaning products safeguard health for the future by minimizing exposure to toxins and carcinogens that our bodies are unable to process. Choosing natural and organic products has immediate benefits too: the artificial fragrances that are so appealing to children are the single biggest trigger for allergy sufferers, often contain known neurotoxins, and have been linked to the prevalence of ADD and ADHD.
All three of my children were born at home without medical intervention and we are lucky enough not to have a family GP. I am undeniably fortunate to have three healthy kids when many, through no fault of their own, do not. This being so, I’ve always made an effort to support that intrinsic health and to allow the body’s awesome intelligence to take charge.
Too often, we hand over our health to doctors who fail to see the whole picture and are more likely to hand out a cover all antibiotic than look for the root cause. Prescribed medications may reap a short term improvement but result in long term disruption of our children’s immunity. In our house, high temperatures are allowed to run their course, activating natural defences against viruses, and herbal and homeopathic remedies are favoured for their ability to support our natural healing processes.
Without formal training, I relied on a few hefty reference books, and as with parenting as a whole, learned on the job. Your intimate understanding of your family, confidence in the body’s ability to heal, and a few family remedies can make a significant difference to your child’s health.
When the children were small we didn’t own a TV, and our house was full of books. We read to them and they listened to audio books (Roald Dahl reading his classics, the Lord of the Rings on 13 90minute tapes!) and as soon as they could read on their own, they were hooked.
Unlike the spoonfed entertainment of a TV show, books are infinitely creative, developing the imagination, steadying the concentration, expanding both vocabulary and knowledge. Where TV is a quick fix, a book can be an investment. Where TV often seems to cater to an audience with a woefully short attention span, keeping us interested with flashy visuals and fast paced action, a book unfolds at your pace, can be lingered over and revisited.
Visual media today is filled with disturbing messages about body image, sex, violence and consumerism and though we can’t keep our children cut off from popular culture, we can limit their exposure to negative media until they’re old enough to recognise it’s fakery.
Technology, today, is both wonderful and terrifying. My 13 year old son was given a laptop, and now has an endless stream of information at his fingertips. He is also entranced by the lure of computer games. I sometimes feel unreasonable for limiting his playing to an hour once or twice a week when the world seems awash with technology, but a life lived in pixels is no substitute for real human connections. Indeed, recent studies have shown that playing violent video games cause significant changes to brain function. Decreased activity was measured in the emotional centres of the brain and areas controlling attention and inhibition of impulses were also less active (ref.)
Our brains are organs of habit- the more we feed particular neural connections, the more we see, think and feel in a way that is influenced by them.
My eldest son spent his first two years in our garden, naked. Gardener, Carol Williams says: “Usually children spend more time in the garden than anybody else. It is where they learn about the world, because they can be in it unsupervised, yet protected. Some gardeners will remember from their own earliest recollections that no one sees the garden as vividly, or cares about it as passionately, as the child who grows up in it.”
Beyond the garden is the wilderness: Nature untouched by the hand of man. My kids have been lucky enough to live in the midst of outstanding natural beauty since their birth. Living in these environments has given them a freedom not easily available in an urban setting, and more than this, a deep connection to the wider world that sustains us.
Studies show that contact with Nature makes us less anxious, more generous, healthier, and more energetic. For children in particular, time spent in green places improves attention span and patience and helps them to manage their impulses more constructively. Nature offers us the opportunity to retune to our natural rhythms, bringing us back to balance with our better selves.
I hope that these small pieces of non-theory point you towards your inner compass and the easy impulse to keep it natural.
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