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

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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt