Pink hair: when children become teenagers there are a whole new set of worries. Photo: Ryan and Sarah Deeds/Flickr
Show Hide image

Tracey Thorn: I’m still “going through a phase” and it’s not too bad at all

As your children keep changing, so does the job of bringing them up, each different phase bringing its own specific concerns, which vanish as new ones arise.

When my parents told me, as I’m sure they must have done at some point, that I was “going through a phase”, I didn’t realise at the time that a) they were right and b) this would continue throughout my life. I don’t mean that I’m still going through the same phase; I’m much tidier now, for one thing, and I play my music more considerately and call fewer people fascists. But this thing of going through phases – it never stops and it applies as equally to parents as to kids.

As your children keep changing, so does the job of bringing them up, each different phase bringing its own specific concerns, which vanish as new ones arise. So now, for instance, I find it very hard to get exercised about breastfeeding rates, or MMR vaccines, or homework for primary school kids, or what age they should be allowed a phone. We’ve passed all those milestones and they’ve faded into the distance – so huge and daunting while they were looming in front of us but now so small and insignificant in the rear-view mirror.

Once phases are over, you become blasé about them and develop a thicker skin on behalf of everyone else’s kids. “Oh, they’ll be fine,” you reassure any parent who’s in the throes of weaning or separation anxiety or their children’s first exams. You’re an old hand now, an expert.

But here’s the joke: to keep you on your toes, parenthood tucks a few surprises up its sleeve, hurling a new challenge at you every time you relax. I may be laid back about dummies now but I’ve become a parent of teenagers and that is a whole different kettle of ball games. Those with grown-up kids may smile fondly, give me a little sympathetic look, say, “Oh, they’ll be fine,” as I lay out before you all my new worries about unsupervised house parties and piercings and pink hair and walking home in the dark with earphones in.

You who have survived these years, you have every right to be smug. I don’t believe there is anything much that’s new about parenting teenagers now, whatever we may think about the internet and pornography and dieting. These are details, the current incarnations of an old problem that at heart is simply that these are the years when you can no longer, despite your best efforts, exert much control over your children or guarantee to keep them safe. And inconveniently, even as they start to become irritating, with their mood swings and their music, you remain desperately in love with them.

I am often cross that teenagers get such bad press when there’s so much that’s good about them but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to parent. And of all the things you have to watch them go through, the hardest to bear is sadness. When children are young, their sadnesses are often fleeting or fixable. Friendship ups and downs, bumps and scrapes – things that can be soothed with a plaster and a kiss. But teenagers are nearly adults and often their problems are adult problems, existential even, things you feel yourself and can’t even fix for yourself, let alone for them. Seeing a teenager gloomy about their present and worrying about their future can be heartbreaking – they’re leaving behind the safe world of childhood and they know this only too well. It’s still so recent to them, so close they can reach out and touch it, but it’s fading before their eyes and they will never live in it again.

Trying to console them that life actually gets better as you get older sounds lame and unconvincing to their ears. “Dad,” said our 13-year-old the other day, “once you’re past 50, you basically just start to decompose don’t you?” We laughed but it was rueful laughter. Here we are, trying both to hold on to and let go of them. Decomposing before their very eyes. And yet, unexpectedly, often happier than they are themselves.

I read India Knight’s In Your Prime last week, with an air-punch of solidarity at its acknowledgement of the pleasures of middle age. I’ve stopped expecting anything to be easy, so maybe that’s why it’s less of a shock that nothing is. It’s not such a bad phase to be going through.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.