When COVID cancels the school holidays, is more independence the answer to keeping kids happy?


The text came out of the blue: “We’ve been giving James a bit more freedom,” my mum friend wrote. “He’s been heading to the park on his bike without us. He rides on the paths, climbs a tree, goes to the playground. He knows once he’s in the park, he has to stay in the park and we agree on when he must be home.” 

Like my son, James is 10, but I confess the text pulled me up short. Even though the park in question is barely 200 metres from my friend’s front door, and busy with families and children doing their best to socially distance, 10 is young these days to be heading off alone. And depending on what state you live in, it’s important to know it can also be illegal to leave a child under 12 unsupervised.

Yet with school holidays upon us, and options for juggling childcare and work-from-home limited in some states as COVID lockdown drags, on my social media feeds are full of versions of one fraught question: “I’m having a cold sweat thinking about the school holidays coming up. What ideas have you?”.

A close up of a girl's hands looking on a phone.
Limiting screen time during school holidays can be tough for parents to negotiate.(

Unsplash: Tim Mossholder

)

The fear of watching their kids’ childhood disappear behind a digital matrix, that not only sucks up their free time but now their school time as well, has left many parents with a sinking feeling. Surely screens can’t steal the holidays too? And as lockdown smashes up against modern “helicopter” parenting, parents are filled with nostalgia for the sense of freedom they grew up with a generation ago.

“Can we go retro and keep them outside until the street lights turn on?” joked one parent.

“The good old days,” was the conclusion from others. “Best times ever”.

My friend’s text and these social media exchanges got me thinking: is COVID forcing us to rethink entrenched parenting norms? Could encouraging kids to be a little more independent add a spark of adventure to lockdown’s Groundhog Days?

In short, could allowing our kids to take on more responsibility help them to be more resilient in lockdown, and take a load off parents too?

A little bit of independence

Rachael Sharman, a psychologist and academic who specialises in child and adolescent mental health, says research shows that when kids are allowed to be independent and make their own decisions most take the responsibility seriously. Rather than being dangerous, it often leads to a drop in injuries and rise in reasoned judgements.

“The research shows very clearly that if you give kids a little bit of independence most of them in fact did better than when adults were attempting to control them and helicopter parent them,” she says. “The kid feels responsible, they feel like the parents trust them and they take that trust seriously. They don’t want to squander it.”

A boy climbs a big tree with many branches and a girl sits on a branch in the distance
Research suggests that when kids get more independence they step up and act more responsibly.

The way we raise our children in the West is not necessarily the style of parenting you see elsewhere in the world. In Japan, for example, children are expected to take themselves to school and to the local shop for errands from as young as five, and special parks allow Japanese kids freedom to light fires and build things with hammers and nails with relatively little supervision.

In the West, the “helicopter parent” model is rarely challenged and when it is, all hell can break loose. Who can forget the criticism that faced Lenore Skenazy when she wrote about allowing her son to ride the New York subway alone at nine years old.

Skenazy’s experience ultimately gave rise to the Free Range Kids movement and notwithstanding the absolute requirement of every adult to ensure the safety of children in their care, helping children to build independence has strong links to confidence and self-esteem.

It can especially be an issue for tweens – too old to need or want to be constantly under their parents’ control and yet too young to be left completely to their own devices.

A bit of biology can help strike the right balance, says Sharman. Her tip is to try hacking brain chemicals to help kids feeling excited about their lockdown vacay.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain that creates feel good emotions when something goes well for us, says Sharman. That’s in part why online games are so addictive. Did you make it through level one and win 1000 bonus points? Bam – dopamine hit. You’re welcome.

But Sharman says anticipatory dopamine, released when we are looking forward to something, is even stronger than the dopamine we receive when we achieve it.

In the absence of a school routine, recreating a purpose to the day helps to create a sense of achievement and prevent the malaise that can come with endless unstructured hours. It is a healthier way to achieve that same hit of dopamine. One of the reason traditional holidays make us feel so good is that most of us structure our vacation days and wake each morning anticipating a fun activity ahead.

But the same principles can be used for a lockdown holiday. Planning activities to take place at certain times of the day helps generate anticipation and deliver dopamine alongside it.

Just anticipating the reward and having something to look forward too is more powerful than actually receiving it, Sharman says.

“If parents are looking to give their kids a dopamine hit then a really fun, pleasant surprise is the way to do it,” Sharman says. “Kids love a routine and if parents can tell their children before they go to bed at night ‘right, here’s something new we could do tomorrow’, that anticipatory dopamine will kick in and give them a bit of a lift.”

If the planned activities contain a sense of novelty then that kick is even more powerful which is why allowing your tweens a little extra independence or something a little naughty, within safe parameters (cricket in the hallway, perhaps? A pillow fight? Or a short solo trip to a nearby park?) can be deeply motivating and uplifting.

So as the school holidays get started in locked down NSW and Victoria and the rest of Australia, here are 10 ideas for creating a sense of adventure even when your holiday plans can’t go much further than your own backyard.

Backyard camping

Set up a tent in the backyard (or the balcony, or the living room, if you are in an apartment) and spend a few nights camping. The idea is to create a sense of novelty.

For outside campers, buy a fire pit: I’m yet to meet a tweenager who doesn’t get a kick out of building and lighting a fire (and a few adults too if we’re honest).

Keep it rustic. Spear some sausages onto a stick and cook them over the flame. Finish off with a few toasted marshmallows and then crowd together in the tent for a scary movie after the sun goes down.

a child's hand holds a stick with a marshmallow with black edges from being toasted on an open flame.
What about having a campting adventure in the backyard.(

Unsplash: Hanna Morris

)

Create a restaurant at home

Nominate a night or two a week when the kids do the cooking. Hand over responsibility for researching a menu (and keep your expectations moderate).

Get them to write a shopping list and then if COVID-safe to do so, hand over some cash and drop them to the supermarket or corner store to gather the ingredients.

Encourage them to present the meal with a dash of formal flourish, proper table settings, candles and music.

Explore your 5km

The limits on travel in Sydney where I live has forced us to re-imagine our neighbourhood, something Melbournians know all about.

But even if you are not locked down, visiting familiar, mundane places with the eyes of an explorer can bring them back to life.

While my family no longer has access to the beach, we are lucky to have other rivers and waterways where overlooked shorelines have now become valued spots to paddle and explore.

It’s surprisingly invigorating to discover that with a shift in perspective forgotten places close to home can become magical new destinations.

Kid launching mountain bike off jump
Look for magical new adventures close to home.(

ABC Tropical North: Melissa Maddison

)

Set up a social distanced street stall

Get your tween to sort out unused toys, books or clothes and set up a stall in the driveway to sell or give away their bits and pieces.

It’s a great way to encourage socially distanced interaction with the neighbours, teach the kids about the emotional and financial value of things and creates a great framework for a chat about wants, needs and equity.

Depending on how much plastic is in their giveaway stash, it’s a good time for a conversation about the environment, too.

Make public art

In a park close to us, a local child has created a fairy garden and put up a sign inviting others to add to it. Every day trinkets and miniature artworks appear building a sense of wonder and also community.

Another local paints rocks with inspirational messages and leaves them around our suburb. On the back is an Instagram address and when you discover a rock, the idea is to post a photo of where you found it and then hide it again for the next person to discover.

Volunteer 

It’s no secret that many families are doing it tough. Get in touch with local charities or Pay It Forward groups on social media and get the kids involved.

Some charities are collecting toiletry packs for the homeless, or pre-loved football boots in good nick to send to disadvantaged communities. Collect cans and bottles for a 10c refund and donate the money.

Find out if any neighbours are living alone and feeling lonely: get the kids to bake them a cake or ask if they need some groceries picked up.

Activities like this are also valuable for shifting a child’s focus away from themselves and their own troubles and helping them zero in on what they have to feel grateful for.

Start a holiday business

Do any of the neighbours need dogs walked or gardens weeded?

Tweens are old enough to take on these jobs with a bit of guidance. Feeling useful builds their self-esteem, confidence and resilience.

Set an exercise goal

Keeping active lifts our spirits. Decide on a fitness goal, maybe running 5km, 50 sit ups or holding plank position for a few minutes.

Get the kids to train towards their goal every day. Organise a family relay or biathalon.

A child's legs and feet, wearing Converse hi-tops, walks along a concrete breakwall with the ocean in the distance
What about encouraging your child to set a school holiday fitness goal?(

Unsplash: PixPoetr

)

Money to spend in a $2 shop

Hand over an agreed amount that’s large enough to get some bang for your buck, but small enough to force the kids to feel their financial limitations and enact a bit of strategy.

Then let them loose in the local $2 shop or variety store. If you are in lockdown most of these remain open. These stores usually stock loads of art and craft materials, some snacks and toys.

More than enough to fill up a locked down afternoon.

Oh OK, binge

When all else fails, a day on screens may be just what the kids need this holiday.

Theme your viewing — maybe you can work through the entire Star Wars series or revisit Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, or the Dark Knight Trilogy. Maybe Groundhog Day or the movie Contagion should be on the list, too. Let’s face it, options are endless.

Make some popcorn, thrown down every cushion, pillow, doona and beanbag in the house and create a giant soft, comforting place to slob out. Dim the lights and forget about lockdown and COVID-19, for a while.

After all, that may be the greatest vacation of all.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

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