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.

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