"I just want my child to be happy." We hear the phrase from well-meaning mothers all the time because, really, who doesn't? But happiness is a very difficult quality to measure and an even harder one to bestow as a gift.
We send our children to the best schools we can afford; we buy them the best of everything as far as we are able. There is a commonly held belief, instilled by parents in every culture and country in the world: more is better, and more expensive reflects even more value, when it comes to our children.
And in this new millennium, we have added a new variable to the equation by providing our children with the all-consuming entertainment factor.
One lazy Friday morning, my husband suggested that we go out to lunch for a change. As the mother of three young children, aged 6, 3 and six months, I was not very enthusiastic, as you can imagine. To entice me, my husband proposed that we could leave the children with the nanny in the play area at Marina Mall. I was overjoyed. We set off to the mall for some delicious burgers and, even better, uninterrupted adult conversation. At the end of an hour and a half, the children returned to us full of adrenalin, a little confused and very tired.
Our children have quickly come to expect such outings - although that does not necessarily mean that they appreciate them. A Friday trip to the games area in the mall may seem innocent enough, but can quickly be seen by children as part of their routine schedule instead of an occasional treat. In addition, such outings can amount to a significant expense for family budgets that might already be stressed in these economic times.
Our children, like in other families, also often expect to spend Saturdays at their grandmother's house, playing with their cousins and buying sweets from the corner shop. If it was left up to them, they would be swimming every Sunday at the Army Officer's Club, playing in Mushrif Park every Monday and ice skating every Wednesday.
It's all that we can do to squeeze in one or two hours of homework a day. The remainder of their time could easily be spent between the television, the iPad, the Xbox and the PSP. It would be very easy to just let the children spend the whole week entertaining themselves - instead of doing the hard work of parenting.
If the truth really is that we want our children to be happy, we must consider that constantly entertaining them may not achieve that goal. In fact, in many cases it has the opposite effect.
Too much entertainment does not leave enough time for parent-child interaction, which results in a potentially harmful upbringing for the child and is, in a way, a form of neglect. Children do not need arcade games or the Xbox to make them balanced, satisfied and self-reliant. What they actually need is routine, a good night's sleep, healthy nutrition and time spent with a caring parent.
By allowing negative patterns of frenetic entertainment to develop in our children at so early an age, we do not allow them the time alone to discover the joy of reading a book or exploring the garden. A little boredom is needed to appreciate some truly rewarding activities in life.
Dealing with boredom helps children sit still in a controlled environment such as a school or a library; it enables them to complete their homework; and it is also a trigger that helps little ones develop and use their imaginations.
Most children will be happy simply spending time with their parents and receiving their full attention. Is it easier to offer children more and more easy entertainment, or just to lower their expectations in the first place?
Next time we take our children to the mall, let us try to be honest with ourselves. Is it for their benefit, or for our own happiness?
Reema Marzouq Falah Al Ahbabi is an Emirati homemaker and MBA graduate
Rym Ghazal is on holiday and will be back next week