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An edited excerpt from Canadian psychologist Dr Vanessa Lapointe’s new book, Parenting Right from the Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler Years. Dr Lapointe is touring Australia in March 2020 running seminars based on her book in Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, hosted by Maggie Dent.

My youngest sister recently got married. She has a six-year-old bonus daughter from her husband’s first marriage. Lucky me, I was assigned hair and tiara-positioning duty for sweet little Chelsea on the day of the wedding. This is possibly the best thing you could ever ask of me (as the mom of two boys, I never get to do that sort of thing in my home!).

I have an unwavering belief in a couple of things: first, I know I have big swagger as an auntie; and second, I am a rock star when it comes to hair and makeup and, of course, tiaras.

So it didn’t faze me when my sister said, “By the way, she hates having her hair done. I can never get near it with a brush. Good luck!”

On the morning of the wedding Chelsea was dropped off, and she and I began prepping and primping. So little did it concern me that she hates having her hair done that I forgot about my sister’s warning. I had no worries that this wasn’t going to go well.

I didn’t say things like “What do you want me to do with your hair,” or “What colour of elastic do you want me to use,” or “You just let me know if I’m pulling too hard.”

If you read carefully between the words of those statements, you can sense hesitation and deference.

Instead, I said things like, “I know exactly what is going to be perfect for your hair,” and “Pink or blue elastic, my love?” and “That was a little ouch, but here we go, I’ve got you.” Chelsea sat there and loved it. Why? Because I had no self-doubt about how this was going to happen.

That is swagger. That is being large and in charge, and never losing touch with kindness.

Later in the evening one of Chelsea’s cousins bumped into her as they were playing around, and her tiara was knocked askew. Chelsea burst into tears and a frantic groomsman came rushing over to my table to let me know they were having a tiara emergency.

I scooched over to see her while she was in meltdown mode. Crouching down, I was already saying things that would let her feel heard, because that’s what big people do when they are truly kind and in charge.

They don’t minimize or brush off. They step in and see and hear with swiftness and certainty

I said things that stated the obvious, but I said them with compassion—such as, “Oh love, your tiara got knocked” and, as she raged on about her awful, mean cousin, “You don’t like it when he makes your tiara go sideways,” and “That made you really upset,” and “Of course you are angry.”

Then I started to walk her through the meltdown: “You can be angry. You are allowed. That makes perfect sense,” and “I am right here. I know what we will do. I have extra hairpins with me, and I am going to get it sorted out.”

Within a minute Chelsea’s tears stopped. I settled the tiara into place and told her she was gorgeous.

A smile replaced her anger, and she darted off to find the cousin that she really likes.

I stood up to walk back to my seat and happened to catch the gobsmacked expression on that groomsman’s face. As I walked away I heard him say, “That was amazing!”

You know what that is? That is swagger. That is being large and in charge.

This is a small-scale example of what kind of energy backs the sort of big person who is full of confidence in guiding their child through life.

Your challenge as a parent is to find it within you to bring that sort of energy to the moment-by-moment reality of your little person’s everyday world.

To let your kids’ play in dirt, or to not let your kids’ play in the dirt; that is the question. Maggie Dent, an acclaimed parenting guru, suggests that kids should be getting back to playing in nature as there are so many benefits for kids’ playing outside rather than their lives’ being dominated by technology.

If you were to mention the name Maggie Dent in parenting circles chances are someone would have subscribed to her values, heard her on radio, attended a seminar or read one of her five books in the quest for answers on how to survive in the world of parenting.

Maggie could never be accused of tiptoeing around the truth. She holds strong on her values and isn’t afraid to voice them. And while her work touches a vast array of issues across the parenting spectrum, from homework and education, emotional development, bullying and suicide, gender differences, play, crisis management and building resilience, her heart never wavers from its true ambition of helping parents raise happy and healthy kids in the modern world.

When Offspring spoke with Maggie she straight up offered to let us in on a secret. A little secret about raising children. All ears tuned in and we waited with baited breath. She may have ensnared a copy of that mythological user manual that failed to be handed out to us when our children were born.

“The secret is dirt,” Maggie quips. And we suspect she quite enjoyed our initial state of confusion. “Dirt, and lots of it.”

“The secret is dirt, and lots of it.”

Could it really be that simple? In her familiar, passionate, banter Maggie went on to explain through her seventeen years of teaching in Western Australian schools and then working as a counsellor, as well as raising four boys into happy and well rounded young men, that the real secret to raising kids is to let them play, explore and have fun while allowing them the chance to make mistakes, get dirty and occasionally get hurt.

“Today’s modern lifestyles, full of game consoles, social media and television is having a consequence on our children’s development and kids as young as five are suffering clinical depression and anxiety disorders,” Maggie explains.

“We have created a world so busy, so competitive and an education system so focused on academic results that we are providing our children with fewer and fewer opportunities for unstructured play. We are diminishing their freedom to just be kids.”

Without hesitation Maggie finger-points NAPLAN testing as well as compulsory starts to pre-primary years as some of the main catalysts.

“We now have a world full of information available at our finger tips but we rely on Google instead of instinct.”

“The irony is that 20 years ago children were turning up to Year One better prepared and with less learning delays, stress and anxiety related illnesses and hyper-sensitive behaviours than the children of today. We now have a world full of information available at our finger tips but we rely on Google instead of instinct and sweeping national standards of achievement rather than tuning into the individual child,” she says.

“We spend so much time trying to safely guide our children and prevent bad things from happening to them that we are dissolving their ability to judge risk for themselves which ironically sets them up for disaster in this unpredictable world.”

Buoyant with enthusiasm, Maggie divulges how play teaches us to learn to wait, to take turns, to develop the art of strategy, to lose and to win graciously. It’s also fantastic exercise and can reduce stress.

 

Perhaps most importantly, unstructured play stimulates our curiosity, our “seeking mechanism”. An under-active seeking mechanism in adulthood can contribute to a person staying stuck in an unloving relationship, or a boring and soulless job. And no one wants to sign their child up for that!

“If we, as parents, teachers, indeed, as a society, don’t start taking play more seriously and allow our children to take a few risks, we are denying them the opportunity to be resilient human beings,” and the sense of urgency in her voice is clear.

Sadly, the problem doesn’t discriminate – country or city, outback or coast – somewhere over the last ten years parenting became a competition with the perception of having to be a perfect parent and also having the perfect child. This in turn is increasing anxiety in our kids.

“I have never met a perfect human being so why do we pressure our kids to be exceptional and perfect? There is no perfect child, parent or teacher. There never was nor will be. Humans have flaws,” she says.

“If we, as parents, teachers, indeed, as a society, don’t start taking play more seriously and allow our children to take a few risks, we are denying them the opportunity to be resilient human beings.”

So are we doomed or is there a solution? Maggie assures us all is not lost.

“Children need to know they are valued and loved. Feeling invisible or unloved causes enormous stress to a child’s nervous system. Often children can become emotionally needy and anxious about getting the love they yearn,” she says.

 

“Remember, children do not see all the cooking, washing and cleaning as signs of love and connection. To feel loved, children need to hear the words, have loving touch and know that you are ‘present’ to them.”

It sounds easy. But in reality parents are busy people. Many parents work or have a litany of demands upon them and limited capacity to play without time constraint. An excuse maybe, but for many, this is reality.

“Anyone with young children in their household needs to make play a priority,” Maggie is staunch on this point. “Spontaneous moments of connection are more valuable to a child than timetabled quality time.”

You can put your diary down.

Somewhere over the last ten years parenting became a competition with the perception of having to be a perfect parent and also having the perfect child.

Often the only time in our busy days, when we can really relax, focus and connect with our children is at bedtime. Perfect. Maggie describes how following a loving bedtime ritual every night is an extremely powerful way of anchoring your love for your child and reducing anxiety.

Maggie gives the tip that the last thing your child should hear every night before entering the land of nod is how much you love them and fostering the concept of a love that transcends all boundaries and absences. A concept she has aptly named a love bridge.

“I always told my boys ‘I love you more than all the grains of sand on every beach, more than all the stars in the night sky and more than all the hairs on all the bears’ and they still remember it,” she says.

“It’s about creating a sense of connection even in absence. For children, particularly under four years, repeating the concept nightly and planting the idea of the enormity of your love can create an almost tangible sense that you are always with them.”

 

“Spontaneous moments of connection are more valuable to a child than timetabled quality time.”

The love bridge can do wonders for anxiety in children (and alleviate some parental guilt for times when you can not be with them).

Are you ready for another secret? It’s about presence not presents. With Christmas just around the corner, Maggie reminds us that children are naturally creative thinkers and don’t need the latest fancy toys to predict and channel their play, instead the best gift would be spending time together discovering, playing and making magical memories. That might mean going away on holidays together or just spending time at home.

“It’s important not to be swayed by advertising and commercial pressures and enjoy a little of the magic that comes but once a year.”

Maggie’s best piece of advice?

“Have fun and spend as much time as you can with your child in the first three foundation years because children who experience joy and delight through free play are psychologically stronger and a have greater capacity to overcome adversity in the adolescent years.”