Why this little boy’s dad says you should spend PRECIOUS TIME with your children
Author Benji Bennett gives his poignant advice to parents...
HIS beautifully illustrated books celebrating his son Adam’s short life have won several awards and sold almost half a million copies. Eoin ‘Benji’ Bennett’s simple mantra — delivered via Adam on his cloud in Before You Sleep — is for parents to connect more with their children.
The message he sends from his cloud every day is to spend more time with each other and play. The most important thing in life is simply this, show your love for your family with a hug and a kiss.
Beautiful Adam, with his mop of blonde curls and big brown eyes, was just four when he died of a brain tumour in August 2007. Benji and his wife Jackie, from Blackrock, South Dublin, have three other children, Harry, 17, Robbie, 11 and Molly, 9.
‘The moment we lost Adam, I was holding Adam’s hand and I was told he was gone,’ he says, fighting back tears when we meet this week in a nearby hotel. ‘I ripped open my shirt. Adam had no top on and I just lay on him and held him. The single thing of a shirt was like a chasm, a barrier. It was at that moment that I turned around and said, “Jackie, the whole world has to know about Adam.”’
Now as Benji, 47, launches his muchawaited ninth book, Adam Saves The Seasons, he suggests ways we can make more
time for our children given the busy nature of modern life.
‘It’s all simple stuff,’ he says. ‘I’m not a child psychologist, I don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives and I don’t want to be prescriptive. What works for me and my family may not work for everyone. But what I would say is this: give it a go.’
Here’s some sage advice from Benji:
THANKFULLY there was never once an occasion when Adam said, ‘Daddy will you kick a ball with me?’ where I said no. No matter how tired I was. In fairness, Jackie would say, ‘Go on out and kick the ball with him’ and I’d say, ‘Okay’.
When Adam died I said to Jackie: ‘We need to remind parents of the importance of spending time with their kids.’ I don’t want to sound like I’m beating parents with a stick about this. I’m very conscious that everybody has different challenges.
SUPPORT YOUR PARTNER
I ALWAYS want to be around Jackie. When she goes off to the shops I’m like the puppy at the window waiting for her to come back.’ We have our down days as well, like everybody. I’d say 90% of the time it’s good — the rest of the time it’s hassle and stress and worries and the kids are shouting at you or whatever it is. Everybody is the same.
Jackie is a huge influence in my life. She is the one who says, ‘Benji, go for a run, you’ll feel better afterwards.’ As parents you have to support one other. A little bit of support makes the house a happier environment. And for kids to grow up in a happy environment is the best thing.
GET INTO NATURE
A LOT of my books are inspired by my love of nature. We have a mobile home in Brittas Bay and our little place by the sea has probably been the most important and best thing for family time. It’s meant that I’ve had to forego the nice car. But we love it, it’s our favourite place in the whole wide world. It inspires everything — happiness, relaxation, spirituality. Adam has a bench there, overlooking Brittas Bay beach, where he ran around and played and swam in the sea. For me, nature is the essence of everything I do. We’re very lucky for what we have.
LET THEM FIND THEIR STICK
THE beauty of the caravan is that the children can go out on their own. Children who grow up in rural areas often do that, but many city children don’t get to do it — and that’s a national problem, not a parenting thing. We are protective of our children and we don’t let them out on their own. But they need to discover the world for themselves.
In Brittas they have the freedom to run out and call over to a friend. Sticks are a big thing — they’re all walking around with sticks. From babies up to nine year olds. So what I’m trying to say is that they need to find where their stick is.
READ TO YOUR NEWBORN
FROM the day they are born you influence your children — not from when they’re five, six or seven. They’re never too small — children are smarter than we give them credit for. The emotional connection is made from birth and that’s the one which needs to be nurtured.
I tell everybody to read to their children from the moment they’re born. Don’t wait to ‘develop’ that bond with your baby. Just have that ten minutes at the end of the day. It’s very quiet, it’s the time you can instil confidence in them. Now, when I’m tired and with Molly, I’ll say, ‘Do you want to read me the story book tonight?’ The amount of times Molly has put me to sleep with her voice!
AFTER reading a book, you can have a little conversation — presuming you haven’t fallen asleep! Ask your child how their day was, if anything is bothering them. All those wonderful conversations will come later after getting into this routine.
I LOVE YOU
I TELL my children I love them every single day, in the morning, evening and night. I do this because as our kids get older we shout, we hurry them, we tell them, ‘You haven’t done your homework right’ or ‘You haven’t done this or that properly’. They’re getting all of this stuff from us as parents. So before bed, that routine of reading and chatting becomes like an eraser rubbing out the stresses of the day. Say something like: ‘That was a really busy day — tomorrow let’s try and do a little bit better. Don’t forget your coat or whatever. Or maybe do your homework when you get in.’
Make sure you tell your children you love them before they go to sleep so they go to sleep happy. I think that affirmation makes them less stressed and it helps with their confidence.
BRING THEM OUT
PEOPLE sometimes wonder how to entertain children. Open the door and walk out with them. That’s it. Bring them outside. I know there are times of the day when it’s too busy or there’s stuff on after school. I still say bring them out every day if you can. Even to say, ‘Okay kids, there’s a tennis racket and ball, go out onto the green and throw the ball for the dog for ten minutes.’ So they’re out. And they’re hitting the ball and they’re chatting and looking at the dog running up and down and giggling and laughing.
I wouldn’t even worry about the dark, you can still go out. I mean, kids love going out in the dark with a torch. It’s another way to keep them away from some of the stuff you don’t want them doing.
There was a stage when Molly and Robbie were scrapping with each other. I used to say, ‘Right, that’s it, we’re going outside!’ They were getting cabin fever from being indoors. When there’s too much indoor time and too much TV, kids go nuts. Again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have TV — it’s about getting the balance right.
We went for a walk. As soon as we were outside, the two of them were giggling. So we went from a scrap to giggling. I’m like any other parent, I’m like, ‘Oh God, I’m not going out, I have too many things to do.’ But it’s always worth it. Have you ever in your life seen an unhappy child in a playground? Or scooting along with Mum and Dad?
It also gives me a lot of happiness, watching them exploring and looking around them. It’s wonderful to observe. That’s a really important thing to me. A happy young child is a happy adult.
WE HAVE to teach our children from a very young age how to have fun. There’s a certain amount of showing them and a certain amount of letting them figure it out for themselves. I spend my time going around putting tea towels on my head and things like that. Be playful. My parenting philosophy is to instil magic, wonder, nature, determination, drive and ambition into our children.
ONE day I told the kids we were going on a big adventure. We just took their bikes and went from our
house in Blackrock to Dún Laoghaire along by the sea to the People’s Park. The kids were getting tired so we got the DART home. They were giggling and laughing as they got on with their bikes.
When we were cycling up Mount Merrion Avenue, Robbie, who was only about six at the time, was saying, ‘Dad, I’m really tired’. I replied, ‘I can tell you now, when you make it to the front door you’re going to feel great that you actually went the whole way to Dun Laoghaire and back.’
We sprinted the last bit of the way — I ran and he was on his bike — and it was brilliant for him. That type of thing is what we are trying to instil from the day they’re born — that they’ve got to get out there and they’ve got to do it.
WHEN we’re on the beach, we get two sticks and it’s all, ‘Right, it’s a game of long jumps everybody!’ Play hopscotch on the beach, go swimming, take them up mountains, look what’s around that corner, admire at those lovely flowers. Point stuff out to them.
NATURE and a relationship with the natural world is one of the most fundamentally important things that I think you can give kids. It’s in our DNA.
Everyone’s heard the expression, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.’ It’s so true. The worse the weather, the more exhilarated you feel because you have that freshness on your face. You’re all wet, you’re taking off your coat saying, “Oh my God, that was amazing!” You’ve done it, you’ve been out.
Last Saturday was one of those awful wintery days, Robbie had rugby and I said I was going for a run. I said, “Come on Molly, we’ll take the dog. Why don’t you come with me on your bike? I’d love the company.”
She was saying, ‘It’s a bit rainy,’ and I said, ‘You’re going to feel great afterwards.’ We did two laps of the park, I was running, she was on her bike. Afterwards I asked, ‘How was that?’ and she replied, ‘That was great — I loved it.’
BEFORE the kids could spell we played I Spy with colours on long car journeys. ‘I spy something blue.’ ‘The sky!’ ‘Well done!’ We’d be giggling away.
SOMETIMES you see an activity to do with the kids and it’s €15 each. But you don’t need to spend money to connect with each other. You can pretend you’re in a space rocket together in the TV room — ‘Oh, there’s the moon!” — even if you just do five minutes. Then they might go off and draw a picture of it.
THAT FIVE MINUTES
I’D LIKE to think five minutes for an adult is like an hour for a child. Spending even five minutes engaging or playing with them will reap rewards.
MISS THE MATCHES
THE Internationals are on at this time of year and I used to find myself saying, ‘The rugby’s on, I’ve got to watch the match.’
When the kids came along I couldn’t really watch the rugby. All of a sudden I loved going out with the kids more than watching the match. Just chatting with them and being with them. Now they’re a bit older I do try to watch the games. It’s a little easier now.
LIMIT PHONE USE
I THINK everybody knows when children are too young for technology because it just causes problems. There are rows, communication breaks down, the kids aren’t happy, they’re not going outside, they’re not being creative.
We had no idea on our firstborn. A lot of new parents aren’t aware of the dangers of mobile phones. It’s only when you have a second or third child that you realise. Our eldest, Harry, had a phone for playing games — luckily there was no Facebook at that time. But we were always really strict in that we would keep the phone and give it to him, then take it back. It was never in his bedroom or anything.
Robbie is 11 and Molly is nine. They don’t have their own phones but they take mine and play with it. When their time is up, I get Jackie to ring my phone. That interrupts them and I say, ‘I need the phone back.’
The point is, if it’s your child’s phone it’s more difficult to take it off them. The longer you keep them away from phones, the better — or at least regulate their use within the house. They’re a dangerous thing but they’re also a wonderful thing. When the kids are looking for information for school, they’ll say, ‘Oh Dad, I need your phone for my homework.’
WHEN I was a child my father would bring us out walking on the Dún Laoghaire piers or to what we called the windy tower, which is the old lead mine you can see from the N11. I loved it and it inspired me.
Getting out for walks has given me the tools to deal with the challenges I’ve had in life. I’m naturally passing that on to my children and they’ll do the same to their children. In that way a simple walk can become a family tradition through the generations.
WHEN I’m having a bad day, if I’m ratty or narky with the kids, I go for a run. And I feel bloody great after it. It’s hard to do but you feel better afterwards. Something else might work for another person.
IN BUSY modern life, when both parents can be working, it’s just so hard. Mum and Dad are working hard and doing their jobs to provide for their children and that’s why I think weekends are so sacred. It’s tough.
If your kids are doing sports at weekends you might feel like a taxi service. Sometimes they have a really hard game of rugby or hockey or whatever and they’re really tired. And maybe that’s the time to sit down for a chat or to watch a family movie together. It’s all about spending time together.
A family movie is always nice. You’re not talking to each other but it’s a shared experience. Kids love it when you engage with the films they like so feel free to get excited and shout, ‘Go on, go and get him! Save the day!’ It’s all about that engagement.
SPIRITUALITY is a very important gift to give your family. For me, spirituality is in the beauty of the world around us: jumping into the water with your kids, enjoying the calmness afterwards, going up to the top of a mountain and looking at the view.
School teachers are incredible — we can learn a lot from them too.
I really wish every parent the best. I would never judge anybody for not doing these things because not everyone is able or capable. But what I will do with all my heart — and all of the love I have for Adam, my own kids and other children — is to encourage them. Encourage them to have that chat, that bit of engagement and introduce their children to the wonders of the world.
That’s what I’m about and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.
ADAM Saves The Seasons by Benji Bennet is published by Adams Printing Press for €10. Available from bookstores and at adamscloud.com
Family man: Author Benji Bennet and left, with wife Jackie and sons Adam and Harry in 2007