Making Choices : Pamela

Mother and toddler groups, play groups or Tumble Tots – what’s best for children? One mother’s view.

This is the first of a new column in which Valerie Jackson has invited a number of parents whose children are now well beyond nursery age to reflect on their choices for or against nursery care for their children when they were young. Do they regret any of these decisions? Do they feel that nursery or no nursery had a profound effect on their children’s development or ability to socialise and grow towards independence?

If any parents would like to contribute, please contact Valerie and she’ll be very happy to include your accounts. Here are Pamela’s views.

My children are now 16 and 12 and I have never returned to full-time work since having them.  Before writing anything else, I must acknowledge that, as a family, we were fortunate to be able to make that kind of decision.

Since money could be set aside and there was never any big plan or strong opinions on the subject initially, the main factors behind the decision can be summed up as follows:-

  1. The ability to conceive wasn’t an automatic assumption for me.  I went through almost a year of tests before being given some fertility treatment.  Having had to seriously consider the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to have children made me want to spend as much time as possible with them when I did.
  2. My own parents were both dead by the time my first baby was six months old.  We lived hundreds of miles from almost all our other relatives and I was acutely aware that my child wasn’t going to have that extended family network close at hand.  It made it hard to consider handing her over to the care of a stranger, however well qualified.
  3. I loved my job but couldn’t help feeling that those who would care most about how our child developed and learned were her parents.  We had the greatest interest in the quality of the end product, so why ask someone else to undertake such an important task?  We discussed who should be the main carer, but my husband earned far more and, frankly, I thought I could do it best. I still believe that’s true!

Even a mother who chooses to be very present in her children’s early years needs to make some arrangements.  I tended to follow the example or advice of other mothers in my choices:

Birth to Walking (13 months)

Contact with babies of similar age through friends or ante-natal contacts

13 months – 3 years

Visits to and from friends
Tumble Tots
Mother & toddler group

3 years – 5 years

Visits
Play group
Nursery school

My main concern with my first child was that she should socialise with others.  She was always quite happy to play in another part of the room at mother and toddler sessions, but strongly resisted the older stage of Tumble Tots when carers are encouraged to step back and let helpers guide the children around the equipment.  She was always fascinated by other children and would semi-attach herself to families in shops or restaurants. Therefore, I assumed that she was ready for play group at the age of three because she so clearly sought the company of other children. 

Unfortunately, she hated being left there and would literally have to be peeled off my leg by the saintly staff.  I stuck it out for perhaps a month until realising that this was making us both miserable and it simply wasn’t necessary. I withdrew her for several months until I thought she seemed ready to try again and although she never particularly relished being left, she settled fairly happily, building up from two, to five days a week by the time she was school age. 

As with most second or subsequent children, my son’s routine initially had to fit around that of his older sister.  I didn’t worry about his socialisation in the same way because all the things I’d wanted from a mother and toddler or play group – the sharing, joining-in, learning to get on with others etc.- he was learning at home all the time.  That being the case, I felt freer to choose things because we enjoyed them rather than for other reasons. 

If I felt that he wasn’t enjoying something, I had the confidence to stop doing it.  Similarly, when he reached the supposedly independent stage of Tumble Tots and also insisted on me escorting him around, we just stopped going.  If he didn’t feel comfortable at the stage his peers did, I didn’t feel the need to continue for his own good as I might have done first time around.

I think that all children benefit from some form of nursery or play school experience before the real thing.  When my son’s turn came, I deliberately waited until he was a little older than his sister had been and tried to keep it low-key.   He also hated being left, but by then I was confident I’d chosen the optimum time for him to come to terms with the break.  He took quite a while to settle but I felt I’d given him as much security and support as I possibly could up to that point.

I must admit that neither of my children settled immediately into reception class at school and would both have preferred to stay at home with me for longer.  I can’t be sure if this was because they were so used to my company that it made it hard to be separated, but they had also spent time at friends’ houses without me, with varying degrees of success, and with the relatives who were near enough for that to be possible. 

Maybe my children were always going to find those early stages of independence difficult, whenever it happened.  I know that I found it traumatic enough but at least I had the comfort of believing I’d given them the best start I could by being there to bolster their confidence and help them learn to engage with the outside world. 

Once they did settle into school, both children were fairly confident and made friends easily, although they’ve also had their share of the usual ups and downs.  One child is by nature more of a worrier than the other and has tended to take these temporary set-backs more to heart, but has always worked through them so far.  Both siblings have autumn birthdays so have always been at the older age range in their classes, which in itself may give a sense of confidence. Both like to be dominant in a group but, I think, also have a strong sense of fairness and consideration for others.  Both my children still like just being at home, possibly rather more than their peers, although they certainly fight enough with each other to make home life less than peaceful.

I can’t help but think that they benefited greatly from having someone who was able to give them the time and attention of a one-to-one relationship.  They have certainly never had any trouble relating to children or adults and have always been more than happy to engage in lengthy conversations with anyone of any age.

Obviously, what suits one person isn’t for everyone.  At the beginning I didn’t know how I’d cope with being at home all the time and there were plenty of times with a crying baby or grizzly toddler when I felt that returning to work would have been the much easier option.  However, I found that I actually liked being with my children, which was just well, as I didn’t trust anyone else to do what I was doing.  What it would have been like if I had hated every minute, or if money worries had been more significant, I can’t imagine.

In the end, I have no way of really knowing how much any aspect of their development, behaviour or character traits are because of their early experience.  What I do know is that I have (almost) always enjoyed their company enormously and still do.  I can’t make any great claims from their perspective but from mine, I think they were mostly the right choices for these children and this family.

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