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10 April 2019

Philippa Perry’s wise and tender advice for the modern parent

Don’t sweat it if you fail, Perry reassures: the point is always to repair minor mistakes or even serious harm.  

By Melissa Benn

There are few combinations of author and subject more likely to hit the sweet spot in the contemporary mainstream publishing market than Philippa Perry’s latest book on parenting: a quirky, fashionably long title, a bold cover, an author with clear expertise (20 years of experience as a psychotherapist), a national treasure of a partner (she is married to the artist Grayson Perry) and a striking, instantly recognisable author (no-nonsense squared-off fringe and colourful glasses). Sure enough, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) is already a best-seller in the hardback non-fiction market and within weeks of publication has garnered dozens of appreciative “this has already changed my life” reviews on Amazon.

And yet, call me perverse, but while reading Perry’s book, my mind kept wandering back to a (now little-read) short story first published in 1960. “I Stand Here Ironing” by the American writer Tillie Olsen is a mother’s heartbreaking reflection on the difficult circumstances of the babyhood and young life of her first-born child, Emily, 19. Raised during the Second World War, Emily had to be sent away several times during her childhood, through economic necessity or ill health, and was often left alone by her single mother, who had to go out to work. Later she was edged out by four younger siblings. A little girl who craved comfort but could not be easily comforted, she was, writes Olsen, “a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth.”

Olsen’s narrator speaks to some enduring, melancholy truths in the human condition: a lingering sense of retrospective regret about parenting that is common among adults, and the even sadder fact that despite the best intentions of so many mothers and fathers, some children’s lives are blighted by conditions far beyond a family’s control.

What Perry’s book does make clear, however, is the huge leaps we have made in our understanding of the psychological conditions necessary to raise reasonably contented human beings. Perry’s approach is rooted in the significant work of clinicians such as John Bowlby, the pioneering expert on attachment theory; Donald Winnicott, author of Babies and Their Mothers; and Joan Raphael-Leff. She emphasises the development of a reciprocal relationship with our children over the imposition of strict and inflexible rules.

As in education, parenting has been the focus of a long debate, stretching back generations, about the differing merits of tough versus soft approaches. Perry’s book is an accessible addition to what we might call the permissive or child-centred canon. Her great gift is to present her approach as obvious common sense, so much so that she need only administer passing, comical swipes at “get tough” popular philosophies exemplified by a raft of Nanny Knows Best programmes.

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For gullible parents such as myself – masochistically glued to such entertaining spectacles but constitutionally incapable of running a sticker chart or maintaining a naughty step for any longer than an hour – Perry illuminates the covert wisdom behind my woeful inability to be strict. These so-called tough methods may well foster obedience but they may also increase, by a process of inner alienation, the chance of later-life depression.

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Meanwhile apparently lax parents could be helping their children to manage their emotions and so put them on the path to greater adult contentment. Phew!

Perry serves up many helpful and easy to grasp concepts such as her suggestion that we try to disinter our own “parenting legacies” (those often buried memories of our early life) so as not to repeat the mistakes of earlier generations. (My fear is that one just commits fresh errors.) Equally as wise is her mantra that “all behaviour is communication” and that we should try to reframe difficult or demanding behaviour as “bids for attention”. A “clingy” child, Perry recognises, is one who has developed a strong bond with an early carer, a bond that we should try to respect, while a difficult child needs to be shown how to manage powerful feelings rather than constantly being admonished. This will help them to “self-soothe” as they grow older.

Of course, the parent of young children has to be forgiven for lacking endless patience with the often lunatic, obdurate habits of the thwarted toddler or teenager. The key word here is “try”. Don’t sweat it if you fail, Perry reassures: the point is always to repair minor mistakes or even serious harm, and such acts of repair can, she asserts, be initiated right into adulthood. 

Throughout the book, Perry warns us against playing “fact tennis”, the lobbing of apparently rational commands at our offspring, preferring instead honest statements of adult needs and boundaries. So instead of insisting that “It is time to leave the playground”, intoned in God-like fashion, she suggests that it’s better for an adult carer to admit, “I’ve had enough. I’m cold and tired, and I want to go home now.”

One of Perry’s most powerful points, all the more powerful for being so obvious, is that we should be as present as possible with our children and that time “invested” early on pays off later. (Even therapists, it seems, find it hard to escape the ubiquitous language of the market.) A child that has been paid authentic attention has, she argues, a far better chance of good mental health in later life – although, she is keen to stress, nothing in the fragile world of human relations is guaranteed.

Perry does not dip her toe into the fractious debate on gender fluidity in children or young people, but she is resolutely gender neutral when it comes to the question of parenting. She is careful not to imply that care of children is largely undertaken by mothers (she clearly has, in Grayson Perry, an involved and fully participating partner) or even by biological parents.

Such an assumption can, however, risk obscuring the important and banal truth that, even in 2019, most women still undertake the larger part of care for the young. Perry’s prescriptions, sane as they are, may well be incompatible with other demands on women (particularly the kind of women likely to read this book), such as trying to develop a career. It is also hard to be consistently patient and present with more than one child, and virtually impossible, I’d guess, with three or four.

Once upon a time, an understanding of the clash between two types of work (caring and paid) was grist to the mill of a thoughtful feminism. Today, such knowledge tends to be tidied away as a form of
social history: a nod to second wave feminism and what some characterise as all those tedious Eighties-style disputes over domestic life or public services. Meanwhile, pressures to be both successful in work and a hands-on parent have been ratcheted up in the past few decades, with few people calling out the impossibility of it all.

Austerity and inequality throw up much more profound dilemmas. The narrator in Tillie Olsen’s story knows only too well that her daughter Emily “is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear… All that is in her will not bloom – but in how many does it?” Perry’s wise and tender advice for the modern parent will surely enlarge and develop the possibilities of the already lucky. But I wonder if for many others it might just act as a wistful window on to a world, and a set of precepts for successful parenting that are forever out of reach. 

Melissa Benn is the author of “What Should We Tell Our Daughters?: The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female” (Hodder)

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did)
Philippa Perry
Penguin Life, 256pp, £12.99