What do children want? Time, not toys
Saturday January 2, 2010
WHILE most Australian children continue to throw their Christmas presents around this weekend, breaking many along the way, one expert has a word of advice for their parents: forget about showering them with gifts, do not over-schedule their time and get down on their level to engage with them as much as you can.It may seem obvious, but Professor Frank Oberklaid says some parents may not understand how sensitive their children's brains are to their environment.The founding director of the Centre for Community Child Health at the Royal Children's Hospital says that after good nutrition, immunisation and protection from injury, children need strong relationships with their carers more than anything else to grow into healthy adults."Parents need to understand that what children crave is not fancy toys or to watch television or DVDs. What they crave is their parents' love and attention," he says."It doesn't have to cost money. Sit them on your knee and read a book together, walk down to the park and treat it like a nature study lesson. It's about spending quality time."The rewards of such interaction can be immense. Professor Oberklaid says that while a child's genetic make-up is the hardware of their brain, their environment is the software."In the early years of a child's life, their environment literally sculpts their brain," he says."Any environment where children and families are stressed, for example, where there is child abuse, sexual abuse, mental health problems in parents, family violence, those sorts of things, cortisol [a hormone that helps control stress] levels go up in children's brains and persistent cortisol levels interfere with brain development."Such disruption can lead to developmental delays, language problems, learning difficulties or conditions such as attention hyperactivity disorder."If you look at some of the conditions we see in adults, such as mental health problems, family violence, crime participation, poor literacy, heart disease and obesity, they often start on pathways from those early years," he says.Professor Oberklaid says some parents also have trouble adapting to their child's age, particularly during adolescence."Some people try to parent a 12-year-old as though they're a six-year-old without understanding that part of the work of a 12-year-old is to start to push boundaries, to develop his or her identity. Similarly, part of the work of a two-year-old is to have tantrums, to really test the limits . . . and part of the work of a six-year-old is to become a little more independent as they go to school," he says."You have to understand that parenting is a journey and you need different skills and temperament for each of those times."A more recent phenomenon is the "over-scheduled child". Professor Oberklaid says some parents are so stressed in their work or personal lives that they try to do too much to enrich their child's life."Some children are so busy with ballet on a Monday, French on a Tuesday, sport on a Wednesday that they have diaries where they need to book in time with their friends," he says."Parents are delegating their child's development to all these experts, but kids don't need all of those things, they just want to hang out with their parents, sit on the floor and do fun things with them . . . If you open yourself up to them, kids will always lead the way."