Marianne Theuma – Teacher, Childbirth Educator, Birth and Postnatal Doula for the last 42 years.
Has been involved in the education of parents, encouraging a variety of courses and individual support throughout the challenging years of parenting/grandparenting

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start: The birth of a baby.

Most of today’s babies are born in a hospital. A hospital entails a sterile environment. Now let’s compare and contrast.  As we know, until only a few decades ago, the birth of a baby happened in the mother’s home, usually in intimate surroundings which was often her own, or a family member’s bedroom.

You may ask…what does all this have to do with messy play? Well, the idea that everything around a baby needs to be sterile may mislead the parent’s idea of how to deal with kids’ development and their acquiring immunity.

So used to the meticulously clean environment she was surrounded with during the birth and first feeding in the hospital, today’s mother may think that this routine should go on for ever. So sterilising dummies, wiping baby’s hand all the time, if not putting on mittens and cleaning all the surfaces where baby may come in contact with, it may become an obsession that nowhere is ever clean enough for baby to sit or crawl on the floor, enjoy floor time with a few toys on the carpet. As the time comes for baby to start to explore his surroundings, using his creativity to move from A to B, use his thumb and forefinger to pick up things which adults never get to see, put them in his mouth to see what the texture is like, how it tastes, how cold or warm his findings are, very probably the disgusted mother immediately comes to save him, wipes away all his experimentation and puts him ‘safely’ on the highchair, which she has just cleaned with disinfectant! So baby is now safe and clean in his little prison, where he can only sit and stare without the possibility of feeding himself as that is too messy, so his clothes remain clean and he always looks his best. Maybe she thinks that reflects well on her, as she is the mama who keeps her child spotless, always ready to make a good impression as they star in the photos she takes and shares so readily!

Besides sadly and unfortunately inhibiting his adventurous nature, here we have reached a point where a child should really be paving his way to better immunity by getting used to the normal surroundings and build up his own antibodies to safeguard his own health. Instead, we are creating an atmosphere of spotless cleanliness which is unreal in everyday life, unless you live in an impeccable office, or an operating theatre. The minute the child first goes to playschool or the playground and touches things outside his home, he often comes down with being sick, which then probably needs several attempts of medication to find out which antibiotic works best. We know that antibiotics may be life-savers, but we are constantly being advised not to overuse them, as this may make them inefficient. And that could be disastrous in the long run. How safe is this?

So, am I suggesting that a dirty house is better for children, you may ask? It depends what one means by ‘dirty’. We all have our different standards. Common sense must prevail if we want the best for our kids. Simply compare and contrast first babies with other babies in the family… usually mums are more relaxed the second or third time round, and usually these later babies are better off in many ways, when compared to the rigidness that comes with first babies.  Imagine children brought up in large families, on a farm, running in fields in the open air, helping out with animals, dogs, cats, goats, sheep, horses…How clean is that? I understand that not all of us can bring up our children on farms, but the closer we can get to that, slowly but surely, the better it is for our kids. The first couple of years with their parents are the best school for our children. Tap into their curiosity, their creativity, their love of freedom to acquire their independence with their wanting to move away from you, yet want to make sure you are still there. Address all their five senses and their own intuition to feel safe without your needing to be hovering over their each and every move. It is ok for them to fall and graze their knee sometimes. Hugs and kisses…and a stick here and there usually work wonders, and there will be more bruises to show grandma and boast about with other people! It’s unbelievable how bruises can become great ice-breakers for communication purposes. Falling and picking oneself up is the way to go even for learning how to correct future mistakes in life, both on a physical and on an emotional level.

Here are some suggestions which may be introduced appropriately as the child grows. In a busy life, priorities should be in your child’s favour:

  • As much as possible, wear your baby in a sling. Being at your level, it is easier for him to learn and become involved with how you communicate with others, hearing the tone of your voice and seeing your facial expressions.
  • Spend time outdoors as much as possible. Choose places which are not close to traffic, with plenty of fresh air and free open space, not necessarily where there is organised play equipment and a busy playground. Take a book with you and read aloud while he sits on your lap. A make-shift hammock tied to a tree or two (if you find them) make great cuddling swings.
  • Get involved with watching nature… Watch and bring attention to the different shapes of the clouds, colours in leaves, different flowers, moving and flying insects,  etc
  • Walk barefoot on sand, sea, build sandcastles and different shapes on the sea shore. Look for pebbles to throw in the sea, seashells to collect. Please remember that live snails and animals are best kept in their natural habitat, of course.
  • Take pails and spades and spoons to make mud and sand pies.
  • Wear appropriate clothes: boots and raincoats and holding umbrellas or caps to walk under the rain. Puddles are for splashing and jumping into, not for avoiding to keep shoes dry!
  • All outdoor activities may be combined with the lesson of keeping the environment clean after we are done with picnics or barbecues, avoiding one-use and disposable plastic and taking home with us any garbage to throw out and plates to be washed.
  • Organised playgrounds are great to learn how to wait and take turns. If a swing is occupied it is not available. You will need to wait in a queue, till your turn comes.
  • Last but not necessarily the least, avoid ignoring your child and keeping busy with technology. No need to elaborate much on that. You know how it feels when you are treated likewise by the company you are with!

A complete fully-fledged ‘homeschooling’, in part or in whole, is a lot of responsibility and needs planning. It combines fun, science, home economics, maths, language, communication skills, problem-solving strategies among other subjects. To improve more on social skills, parents may have different days shared with different parents and kids, also of different ages. If no grandparents are around, one can also visit an old people’s home with children and adopt a grandma/grandpa. All of this is freely and enjoyably learnt without the need to sit at a school bench for hours on end and not even an extra penny spent!

If not everyday, weekends are for family fun, not for innumerable organised activities or never-ending homework! Fun within the family needs nurturing and babyhood is where it should start. The family is the real school that grows with each child accordingly. Perhaps it is time that education includes family-living as a compulsory subject in line with all the others geared for future careers. Truth be told, Parenting is the most valuable career of all!

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