Yes, I write about love, love, love all the time. But with that big love, there must be the establishment of routine, structure and rules to make the family thrive and grow and be successful.

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Yesterday, my friend Nikki and her husband came to spend the weekend with me. As we have 11 children in total, all grown up, we reminisced over those years after a few glasses of wine.

Nikki is a whole lot more bohemian than I – she runs a ski company and laughs a lot.  She talked about once ending up with 11 rabbits by mistake (the two girl rabbits turned out to be a mating pair) and taking those 11 rabbits on the London Underground in cat boxes to stay with someone for the weekend (“The rabbits enjoyed their weekends away”). Her boys used to coshed each other with empty drinks bottles filled with water – they still do, she said with a grin.  Like mine, her children are not confined and hemmed in – yet we both agree on the discipline aspect of parenting.

She said this insightful thing about discipline:

“It’s that red line that children learn they are not allowed to cross, like not being allowed to jump off the balcony. They have to learn, don’t they?”

I thought that was a lovely way of putting it.  In life and relationships, there are few red lines that we are not allowed to cross for our own safety or wellbeing. In adult relationships, betraying a trust is one, for example, because once crossed, it is almost impossible to get back to the other side of the border.

But if children had not been taught that they are not allowed to cross certain red lines when they were children, what would they be like as teenagers or adults? Nikki’s two boys, aged 17 and 16, are boisterous – she said they were hard work when they were young – and I can still see the mischief in them. But I tutor her 17-year-old, so I also see the great respect he has for me and his school work. One of them excelled as an alpine skier and the other a fantastic actor, as well as hardworking academically.

Nikki and her husband are very relaxed about their children, because they can afford to be: those children know all about red lines.

So all in all, I strongly believe that structure and discipline are very important. Not too much and not too many, but enough for children to grow up learning how to be successful and happy within the confines of society, be it in their careers or relationships. 

And I swear by set early bedtimes, because it’s the first lesson for children to learn that human beings are a daytime species on the whole and our society (including the world of work) does not yet run on a 24 hour clock despite globalisation and technological advances: the working day is still largely 9am to 5pm. Even when I used to work all night, I had to try to recalibrate my body clock on my days off to that of society’s.

Six ways to set bedtime for children:

  1. It may take time and effort, but make bedtime a non-negotiable for children. Lights out at the agreed time, and they can toss and turn and fuss as much as they like, but no compromise.  After a few weeks (months even), they will come to accept that you are not fooling around whenever you say “Bed.”
  2. Tire them out with physical activities in the day.
  3. No napping after 4pm, and make the naps in the day short. There are some vampire children who sleep when they want and play when they want, including at 2am. It impacts the whole family as the parent wakes up tired and crabby too.
  4. Diet. No heavy food before bed.
  5. Relaxing pre-bedtime activity; like a warm bath, soothing music, meditation (yes, even small children can learn meditation).
  6. Bedtime stories. Something for them to look forward to bedtime, which works like a reward system.

Please, don’t let your toddler be the Big Boss. It ain’t cute when he/she is 5, 15 or 25. Teach them about red lines, and you will find that they are more settled and grounded in the world they have to live in.

Photo: My children’s father and I and our brood. We had many tiny children when I started my undergraduate studies at Manchester University (with no paid help) and the only way we managed to get by was to establish a positive structure within the household and a routine that worked for everyone.   The children did thrive, despite the impossibilities.

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