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We put our child in charge for a day – it was both terrifying and freeing

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

We call it her “in-charge day”. A day when our nine-year-old daughter Flora is in charge, and we are, effectively, hers to command. A day when all the traditional hierarchies between parent and child are reversed, when she can fulfil her fantasies, refuse to do anything she doesn’t want to and experience a taste of power, authority and absolute freedom.

OK, not absolute freedom. There are some ground rules. She can’t do anything we deem to be unsafe or illegal. She can’t ask us to buy anything “too expensive” (we keep this part deliberately vague). And, this year, we realised we needed to add one more sentence of small print to our contract: she cannot purchase any new pets.

Every year, we give her a “gift voucher” for this day on her birthday in January . We set the time and the date ourselves: 24 hours in charge, from 1pm on a Saturday until 1pm on Sunday, usually at the end of spring. It is something I know she greatly looks forward to through the winter. And it is a reminder, to us, that her childhood is passing – that one day she will be an adult, in charge of her own life, able to do as she pleases every day. That each day we spend with her, when she is still our little girl, is precious.

There is a song in Matilda, the musical, where the characters sing about how, when they grow up, they will have treats everyday and watch cartoons all the time and go to bed late every night. The irony, of course, is that when they do grow up, they will probably no longer be quite so keen to do those things. This idea that childhood wishes are destined to fade away, unfulfilled, has always seemed a little sad to me.

I may, however, be alone in taking songs from hit musicals so seriously. Certainly, when I tell other parents that my husband Neil and I give our daughter this in-charge day as a gift each year, they find it not only bizarre, but terrifying. “Handing over all control over your lives to your child for 24 hours? Are you mad?” is a typical response.

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There were definitely moments, the first time we decided to do it three years ago, when I asked myself the same question. But I was curious. My parenting style is very different to that of my own parents. They had me late in life and I was a much-longed for child: they found great joy in indulging my every whim. I assumed I would want to treat my own children the same way, but to my great surprise I didn’t. Even though my love for Flora was greater than anything I could have imagined, I still wanted some space from her occasionally. I wanted free time every evening, a reasonably tidy house and, if at all possible, a decent night’s sleep in my own bed. And I soon came to realise that if I wanted all that, my husband and I would need to set boundaries and learn how to say no to our child. Which we duly did, much to the bemusement of her besotted grandparents.

But I did wonder: was Flora missing out on some of the fun I’d had growing up in a more permissive household – and maybe some of the valuable lessons I’d learned about making my own choices, too?

She was ecstatic when we told her and started planning

We had been reading Danny the Champion of the World together and I found myself thinking about Roald Dahl’s epilogue at the end, which I remembered passionately agreeing with as a child. “A message to Children Who Have Read This Book: When you grow-up and have children of your own, do please remember something important. A stodgy parent is no fun at all. What a child wants and deserves is a parent who is SPARKY.”

Was I sparky enough? I wondered. A little voice in my head said no. I had read about other parents doing similar experiments with their children

 and it all going horribly wrong, but I told myself optimistically that because Flora was an only child, it would be pretty straightforward to follow her rules. She alone would be in charge, with no bickering siblings to contend with, or any other children with competing demands for us to have to manage. And it was only for one day. How hard would it really be to let her do anything she wanted to, for just 24 hours?

I’ll never forget how ecstatic she was when we told her. She was six and immediately started planning. Making a list of all the normally forbidden things that she would get to do and eat and fantasising about how much fun it would be seemed to be a real source of pleasure in itself. And once, when I refused to let her do something, she replied: “That’s fine Mummy, I will do it on my in-charge day instead.” I was taken aback, but then I realised what she was really saying: that knowing she would have 24 hours of living by her own rules was helping her to live by our rules the rest of the time.

As the big day loomed closer, I found myself getting tense. Would I be able to say yes to everything? Would it all end in tears?

The first thing she wanted to do was have lunch at McDonald’s. As I sat there, tucking into french fries and nervously awaiting her next command, a sentence from Where the Wild Things Are came to mind: “And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

Twenty-four hours later…, we were exhausted but amazed. Without realising we were going to, we had enjoyed every second. Every nerve-racking, exhilarating crazy second. And every year since has been the same.

As we expected, Flora likes to stay up late, eat lots of junk food and watch lots of screens. But she also derives a lot of pleasure from simple, innocent pastimes, like choosing sweets in a sweetshop or having a picnic or cuddling up in bed at night with our puppy (not usually allowed). She likes dressing up in voluminous dresses and going out to the cinema where she can have popcorn and ice-cream and sweets. She likes curling up in bed with a good book and a slice of chocolate cake.

It’s not difficult to let her follow her own rules for 24 hours, in other words. It’s delightful.

I was particularly touched to discover that she has a strong desire to relive specific happy memories of times we’d had together – a bike ride in the local park, a game we played, pancakes for breakfast. Moments of collective joy that I hadn’t realised, at the time, meant so much to her.

She ate an entire box of Coco Pops and confessed she felt sick

The other thing she loves doing is “parenting” us. That first year, she gave me a bath and washed my hair. Then she brushed our teeth, read us stories and put us to bed at 7.30pm – while she stayed up, watching endless Octonauts and eating an entire box of Coco Pops.

We didn’t plan to fall asleep, but the feeling of being nurtured so sweetly by a six-year-old was overwhelming. I woke up at 11pm and dashed downstairs to discover her sitting happily on the sofa, surrounded by chocolate biscuits, marshmallows and the aforementioned box of Coco Pops. She confessed she was feeling a bit sick.

She did manage to achieve her objective of “staying up past midnight”, cuddled up next to me, but never again expressed any desire to watch Octonauts. Or eat Coco Pops, for that matter.

But mostly, the person who learned lessons is me. Like the other parents who tried this experiment, for a clearly defined period of time I find it liberating to say yes to my child all the time. Both my husband and I feel so carefree, so unburdened by the need to persuade her to do anything she doesn’t want to do or take her places she doesn’t want to go. We realised that, by putting her in charge, we were actually giving ourselves a day off.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not planning to put her in charge all the time. It would be bad for her diet, clearly. But the experience has taught me to live more in the moment and say yes to her, more often, on other days, too. I learned something I had somehow managed to forget: that children really do know how to have fun. And that if, as a parent, you are brave enough to put your child in charge, even for just 24 hours, one thing is for sure. Your life is about to get a whole lot more sparky. 

Let the wild rumpus begin: dos and don’ts

Do
• Give your child time to plan the day.
• Set ground rules: nothing illegal or unsafe or too expensive.
• Put one child in charge at a time. Send siblings off to a relative or friend to avoid arguments.

Don’t
• Make suggestions. This is their day.
• Think about the mess.
• Say no.

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