Philippa Perry I have a bone to pick with you

Am I an adult human with valid needs and wants or am I just an emotional life support system for the blessed child?  This is a tension at the heart of Philippa Perry’s engaging, thought provoking and, in many ways, insightful new book The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did).

In TBYWYPHR, Philippa Perry reminds us, and it does need repeated saying, that children are small humans, deserving of empathy and respect, not just irritatingly non compliant minions. However, in making the case for a more responsive model of parenting, she creates a cartoonish-ly child centred world.

Philippa Perry is a nationally recognised psychotherapist, with a high profile due to her broadcasting work and being Mrs Grayson Perry, wife of the Turner Award winning artist. What she has to say about the nation’s emotional life carries weight.

There’s a lot that resonates in the book. She has a really warm, conversational voice and you can entirely imagine opening up about whatever’s troubling you in her psych’s office. There are three core messages in her book:

  1. That parenting is a relationship – not a chain of command. The foundation of a successful, enjoyable and functional parent child relationship and the process of parenting commences from that premise.
  2. The cornerstone of this, is the ability of the parent to empathise with the child, to make the child feel heard and acknowledge their feelings, even if the particulars (not wanting to go to bed/ brush teeth/ put on shoes etc) are non-negotiable.
  3. And that we are hugely influenced in our lives in general and our parenting in particular by the experience we universally have of being parented.

For a nation that’s still quite new to emotions, for the culture that gave us the stiff upper lip and keeping calm and carrying on, paying attention to, acknowledging and validating feelings at all, let alone **for children** is still a radical act.

Many of us, and by ‘us’ I mean my generation born in the 1970s – early 80s, will have experienced the ‘because I say so/ stop making a fuss’ school of parenting, with or without added smacking. Our parents, say born in the 1950s-60s, will almost certainly have been raised in that atmosphere and the further generations you go back, the stronger the emphasis on discipline and parental authority.

Philippa Perry tells an amusing anecdote that illustrates the absurd basis of the ‘stop making a fuss’ old school style of parenting. Her daughter Flo, then around two, was playing under her parents’ grand piano [side note: Perry comes from a fairly bourgeois family. I will write about parenting and class. At some point. When I’m feeling brave.] Flo stood up too quickly and banged her head on the underside quite badly. Cue much cuddling and soothing by Perry to the pre-schooler Flo. Philippa Perry’s father said, ‘What are you doing? Make a fuss of a child like that and they’ll be hurting themselves the whole time to get that sort of attention.’

It’s no surprise then, that Perry and other parenting experts such as Laura Markham are shifting the broader norms around parenting. The new parenting approach is more responsive and emotionally sensitive as a reaction to this old school, power based model of parenting, where a bump on the head isn’t worthy of a kiss and a cuddle but a brusque lesson in stoic forebearance.

I agree with all of this. I can see how recognising feelings, empathising, comforting is a good strategy, for compassionately dealing with a small human in distress.

But.

As Perry warms to her theme, the whole situation starts to become rather exaggerated and yet another stick for parents (read- mothers) to beat themselves up with.

Perry’s description of how she and her husband handled bedtime for their daughter is black humour to a parent knee deep in the battle of sleep VS small people. For the Perrys, bedtime was a long, drawn out softly-softly process of lying with Flo, talking to Flo, holding Flo’s hand while the pre-schooler Flo drifted off. All of this taking place in the marital bedroom, where Flo slept till she was four. All in aid of supporting Flo’s emotional balance.

For the absence of doubt, I don’t care if the kid sleeps in the parents’ bed. It’s all about the most sleep for the most people. I do care that Perry sets this up as the ideal model **for supporting a child’s emotional development**. No pressure, no judgement then, right?

Where then is the couple’s private life (such as it is post kids)? What about those of us (ie me), who would rather not share a bed with kids because they kick, snore and manage to take up 98% of a king size bed. An unslept mummy is a grumpy, snappy mummy on a short fuse, not ready or willing to emote and soothe and be responsive. The message with Perry’s approved bedtime is – put the child ahead of intimacy with your partner or your own sleeping preferences.

Things then take a turn for the ridiculous when Perry uses the example of a 10 year old attempting to kill himself by jumping off the balcony because he was so distraught at parental inattention. The parents worked full time, were loving and otherwise tried to spend time with their son and used a series of au pairs as part of their childcare. Perry is constructing a message that parents (read – mothers) should put their children ahead of their careers, somehow forgetting that the vast majority of mothers already do. If we didn’t, the gender pay gap wouldn’t exist.

What benefit can there be in using such an extreme example? Most working parents who are just trying to juggle something that passes for a career with something that passes for decent parenting. Why rub salt in that gaping wound with the kicker that their kids might top themselves if someone (read – the mother) doesn’t drop any level of personal career satisfaction to be completely available? Why?

At every point where Perry recommends a more child focussed, time consuming, empathetic approach, in the same breath she attempts to reassure readers that it’s not too late to undo any damage done or change your ways. These reassurances pale against the examples – like the suicidal 10 year old – and just add to the parental (read – mother) guilt.

I wanted to love The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) but there’s a smug certainty that pervades it that sets my teeth on edge. The bar for attentive parenting is set so high, it is practically impossible to fulfil if you have more than one child and a job. More fundamentally than that, it fails to adequately see parents (read – mothers) as independent humans who have the right to carve out a space for themselves, whether the blessed child likes it or not.

Whose agenda?

Modern liberal parents are raising modern kids, pretty liberal with their expectations. But whose agenda is it anyway?

When the babies are, well, babies, it’s entirely expected that the agenda is set by them. In those early weeks and months, it is their feeding and sleeping schedule that sets the rhythm of the newly post partum household. Which is only natural. They need a lot of calories, cuddles and snoozes to double their weight in something like 3 months. I mean, that kind of growth spurt is the baby equivalent of feeding an entire Olympic rowing team. And with their early starts, they need naps too. Then come the toddler lunchtime nap years. Depending on how free and easy you are (I’m not remotely free or easy) you either get on with life, doing whatever you’re doing with the toddler napping in the buggy on the go. Or you’re me. And the idea of napping on the go is so foreign you might as well suggest, I don’t know, I take up a spot of shark wrestling in my lunchbreak. Because that’s what I’m chasing in my regimented attachment to the at-home nap: a lunch break. A point in the day when I can sit on my own in silence and decide what to do. Or not do. It’s usually eat a sandwich, have a cup of tea and a biscuit and pootle about on social media or read something. But I got to choose it and I got to do it with two hands. Oh the joy.

Anyway, time marches on and suddenly you think, hey hang on a minute, you don’t nap; you go to school; your maths skills already rival mine; you have an advanced knowledge of English monarchs courtesy of Horrible Histories and a good line in puns, again courtesy of Horrible Histories. Why should I be constructing the agenda around you? You’re not a hungry baby needing a 3am night feed. You’re not a toddler who needs a nap. You’re not even a pre-schooler who cannot be taken out in public after 4pm for the sanity and safety of innocent passers by. Get a grip chick, you’re nearly eight so you can get on board with what’s happening, whether you like it or not.

However, with so much of my parenting and, I contend, modern middle class parenting constructed around the children, it is a hard habit to break and hard expectation for these agenda setting kids to let go.

On Friday, Eldest was Star Of The Week for challenging herself and caring about her class room environment. Could not have been more chuffed for her. As a ‘reward’ for being SOTW, the child gets to take Kyle the classroom bear home. I’m sure you know the drill: you take Kyle on your weekend adventures, photograph them, stick the photos in the collective Kyle book, the kid writes a bit about what they got up to and all us mummies get to stickybeak about what the other mummies did/ did not do with Kyle and whether we can see their kitchen in the background of the shots. No?

I had already mentally decided to print the pictures we had taken of Kyle and his adventure at our house on Monday at work. Much easier than setting up and fiddling about with our printer. Eldest had other ideas and threw a strop on Sunday night about printing them **right now** so she could stick them in the book and take it to school. I was pretty firm. I had schlepped the kids all over all weekend and come Sunday night, I wanted to sit down and eat my dinner, and eat it hot. I did not want to be faffing about with printers. Cue much wailing and pestering and, she threw at me “just because you don’t want to, that’s not a good reason”.

Huh. That right there seems to be the issue. Not wanting to isn’t enough of a reason for a parent to say no.

In the end she convinced her dad to set it up and print the pictures and, in the end, it wasn’t that much faff. But damned if I was going to.