Yesterday I heard an interview on BBC radio with a paediatrician, Dr Alistair McAlpine. His tweets revealing the thoughts of terminally ill children have ‘gone viral’. I found a report about Dr McAlpine’s tweets on the BBC website. His original tweet was worded:
For an assignment, I asked some of my terminal paediatric palliative care patients what they had enjoyed in life, and what gave it meaning. Kids can be so wise, y’know. Here are some of the responses …
Dr McAlpine discovered children weren’t wishing to spend more time watching TV or trawling through Facebook. What they all enjoyed was time spent with family – having stories read, sitting on the beach eating ice cream, having cuddles – hugging their pets, being with friends who weren’t unkind about the changes illness and treatments had caused.
The BBC report concludes:
It’s no surprise that kindness, laughter, toys and family were all very much valued by the children. As his threads unfolded and the comments poured in, Dr McAlpine left this take-home message: “Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with our family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them… and eat ice cream.”
As I walked into town this morning I thought about Dr McAlpine’s tweets and the reaction they’ve created around the world. At the conclusion of the BBC radio programme the interviewer asked if what he had discovered had caused the Doctor to change the way he conducted his life. He said it had brought about profound changes – spending time with his family is now far, far more of a priority.
I find this story both heartening and heart breaking. I’m heartened to see ‘time spent together as a family’ given such a high profile through the words of children. Terminally ill children have what’s important in life in sharp focus precisely because they don’t have a future in which to make up for what they miss out on now. Heartbreaking because so much modern thinking is driven by the idea that everyone who has a child should go back to work (therefore spending less time with their child) and that it is a duty of government to provide childcare. I loathe the premise and implications behind this idea. It is all based on the idea that going back to work after the birth of a child is not just an economic necessity but a ‘good thing’: implying adults need a sense of fulfilment and purpose that work can provide but parenting can not. I’d argue that parenting is not about how the adult feels but is about what the child needs.
I am very glad to have had the opportunity to be a stay at home Mum. Glad not to have had to make that horrible decision about sending a sick child to nursery or face disapproval/disciplinary action for taking time off work. I know economic necessity does make the option of staying at home full time with children a privilege that some can not afford. I also see how other considerations can determine a return to work: desire to continue a career, find the approval of others, reap financial rewards and avoid the sometimes relentless cycles of childcare. Not to mention the pressure from government and media to make returning to work the desirable norm.
Interesting that the answers his young patients gave to Dr McAlpine’s questions reveal children really enjoy and value ‘simple’, inexpensive things – time with parents, reading stories, playing. For children to experience these things in good measure does involve a willingness for parents to let go of (dare I say ‘sacrifice’) some of the things we want or ‘need’: maybe not progressing as far in a career as we’d hoped; maybe having to play ‘shops’ or snakes and ladders a few hundred times more than we’d ideally choose; driving around in an old car rather than the latest model; loosing touch with friends whose lifestyle is not compatible with our family orientated life choices …
Could government be persuaded to rethink their attitude to parents and work? I strongly believe there would be an enormous win if this shift in thinking were to take place: fundamentally, more children would enjoy more of their childhood and this could reap great benefits in terms of reducing the numbers of teenagers and young adults suffering mental health and emotional disorders. Society as a whole could benefit: If more parents were encouraged to make the choice to stay at home there would be fewer cars congesting and polluting our towns, more adults and children would walk to and from school (increasing fitness and well being whilst decreasing obesity levels): there’d be more time to cook meals from scratch (again tackling obesity issues); there would be more adults to watch out for and care for the lonely and elderly in our communities; more volunteers to help on school trips and with educational ‘enrichment’ activities…
I know there are plenty of arguments in opposition to my soapbox position – and that’s OK – as long as those parents who do opt to stay at home are respected for their choice, not be-littled, patronised or accused of failing to contribute to society. I have no wish to make anyone feel guilty about the choices they make around their children and work-life balance. I wish only to counter the prevailing emphasis on both parents working, so often justified by putting the perceived needs of parents before the actual needs of children.
I hope Dr McAlpine’s tweets continue to travel around the world for a long time to come and we all reflect on, when it comes to the crux, what children really enjoy in life and what gives life meaning to them.