Why 'sand bucket lists' are exactly what parents don’t need

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Rachel Hennessy

"Do we really need to manufacture a moment to 'watch a sunrise' with our kids?", asks Rachel Hennessy.

"Do we really need to manufacture a moment to 'watch a sunrise' with our kids?", asks Rachel Hennessy.

Sitting in a dentist's reception room last week, I flicked through the glossy magazines. To my surprise, one of them was actually from this century and snuggled between red carpet photos and celebrity gossip was an article entitled, 'The Sand Bucket List'. Yes, a list like all the things you are supposed to do before you 'kick the bucket', but for kids. An inventory of what children are supposed to have done before they grow up.

I looked down the list and automatically began to mentally tick off what I had or had not done with my young daughters. Then it struck me. This wasn't a list for kids - after all they don't read glossy magazines - but for me, the hapless parent.

It was yet another example of what I (less than) fondly call PPP, short for Parent Pressure Phenomena. Another example of parenting becoming caught up with marketing terms like 'target experiences' or KPIs (maybe that's Kid's Privilege Indicators?). Another example of the pressure I feel all around me.

A friend tells me his job as a father is to "create childhood memories".

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Another has a different kind of list on her kitchen wall - '50 Things To Do With Your Children Outdoors' - with diligent red ticks next to those she has achieved.

I book an extremely expensive Fairy Land party for my five-year-old, in an attempt to erase the traumatic memory of her four-year-old celebration and that piñata incident.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing fundamentally bad about wanting to do fun things with your child, whether indoors or out. But do we really need to manufacture a moment to "watch a sunrise"? Who the hell is going to prod their kid awake and insist they appreciate nature's wonders when, in reality, they're probably going to bawl their eyes out and wonder why mummy is dragging them from their nice, warm bed?

Or do we need to be told to "press flowers"? Having tried this one with my daughter, I can warn you that the crushed violet that appeared after days of waiting didn't exactly spawn a memorable moment.

And what about "jump into a pool with your clothes on"? Only if you are ready to make sure they don't sink dangerously to the bottom and have the spares available for an entire outfit change (wet kids are, usually, happy for about ten minutes, tops).

Not only does the 'sand-bucket list' seek to force experiences that really should come about organically, it inevitably relies on an adult version of what childhood memories should look like. It stinks of those soft-focus bank ads which chop and paste life, as if we skip from one happy, clappy moment to the next.

Another friend was recently told by her six-year-old that the sleepover party she'd had, with just two playmates, was her "best party ever". Her mother, who'd dedicated weeks of preparation to special-themed parties every year - transforming her house into an undersea world or a castle for princesses - could barely believe it.

"A packet of lolly snakes and a torch!" she cried. "That's all it took."

We might think we can make memories for our children, but we have no control over what they will choose to remember.

Setting goals or checklists for ourselves treats parenthood like some kind of test.

And how does the child pass or fail? By not appreciating the effort you have put in to make the magical moment? Kids do not and - if we want them to remain kids - should not comprehend the time and energy that can go into parties, holidays, or even a day out. They have no obligation to perform what we think is the right reaction to our efforts.

This isn't to say they shouldn't learn gratitude, at some stage. But can we honestly expect a four-year-old to understand why mummy has a huge headache after staying up half the night making rainbow jelly cups and thus may not be sympathetic to the fact she's missed out on all the lollies because she was holding the piñata stick? Children live in the moment, and simply don't get cause and effect.

As Evelyn Lewin has pointed out, it is often the everyday that matters rather than the big events. And it is also the un-planned, the inexpensive and the private.

The sand bucket list seems to be yet another example of too much indulgence of clichéd notions of what it is to be a good parent. In a time when we are witnessing children robbed of any time of innocence, locked in detention centres or drowning in cold, European seas, we absolutely need to forget about the imperative to 'perform' parenthood.

We need to understand the privilege we have in being free to spend time with our children in genuine, spontaneous ways and to cherish the fact that, regardless of whether they 'tick off' the manufactured sand bucket list, their childhoods are, more than likely, not going to be marked by starvation, war or displacement.