The title - ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read’ - is catchy if nothing else, but Philippa Perry’s parenting book delivers on everything it promises, writes mum of two Suzanne Harrington.
The comedian Michael McIntyre says that parenting is basically a Sisyphean cycle of four things: getting kids washed, getting kids dressed, getting kids fed, getting kids to sleep. And repeat. Hence the mountain of parenting books about how to effectively do these basics without losing your mind, full of tips, tricks and life hacks on potty training, sleep training, weaning, tantrums, faddy eating, safeguarding, boundaries, how to get the little beasts to put their coats on. Parental tactics can often include distraction, bribery, manipulation, dismissal.
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry isn’t keen on tips, tricks and life hacks. She and her husband, the artist Grayson Perry, have one daughter, now in her 20s. She believes the most important aspect of parenting is not bedtime or school reports or organic broccoli or play dates, but the relationships we have with our kids.
She has just written The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did), about these relationships, and how they are influenced by the relationships we had with our own parents. And how to avoid using, if possible, distraction, bribery and manipulation as parenting tactics.
Instead, she urges us to invest time in listening to our kids, rather than dismissing their feelings, as ultimately, not only does it make for happier, better adjusted kids, but will actually save us time in the long run.
“The core of parenting is the relationship you have with your child,” she says. “If people were plants, the relationship would be the soil. The relationship supports, nurtures, allows growth – or inhibits it.” Her book is warm, wise, wry, uncluttered by jargon; I’d like to have read it 20 years ago, when pregnant with my first child. It goes straight to the core of what matters in families – feelings and communication.
“Parenting books tend to focus on the child, the child, the child,” Perry says. “But the child does not exist in isolation. They are part of a family, part of a community.
In order to do this, she says, we need to look at how we were parented ourselves – our own imprinted parenting legacy, and how it can impact our child’s present if repeated unconsciously, hence the importance of examining our own patterns and reactions, and how they serve us. Or don’t.
“Otherwise we are responding to our own past, rather than our child’s present,” she says. Before we ever start parenting, Perry suggests we do four things to counteract any lingering inner critical voice left over from our own childhoods: we recognise and identify it; we acknowledge it rather than engaging with it, or arguing with it; we expand our own comfort zone, by doing something our inner critic says we cannot, which builds our confidence, and quietens the critic; and we become aware of not unconsciously transmitting this critical voice to our kids.
That’s the theory anyway. How does it apply when you’re trying to shoehorn your kids into the car at 7.30am, Weetabix in your hair and one of them screaming that they’ve lost their favourite toy?
“It’s very rarely quicker to deny a child’s feelings,” says Perry. Instead, she advocates taking the time to soothe them, or ‘feeling with rather than dealing with’ – in other words, using empathy instead of applying distraction / manipulation tactics. “If you take a child’s feelings seriously and soothe them when they need it, they will gradually learn to internalise that soothing and eventually be able to do it for themselves.”
She urges us to stop trying to fix our kids’ negative feelings, or protect them from having any, but to embrace them: this both legitimises their feelings, and creates a deeper parent-child bond. Imagine, she says, telling your partner you’ve had a terrible day, and them trying to dismiss, diminish, distract, or ‘solve’ your feelings for you. Unhelpful, right? The same applies to kids’ feelings. They need to be heard and soothed, not fixed or ignored.
Perry also offers a masterclass in how to argue. All families argue — it’s how we resolve them which matters. How we get on within our family unit is far more important than how or where the unit is structured; she quotes a homeless refugee child telling a counsellor, “We’ve got a home, we’ve just got nowhere to put it yet.”
In other words, the child viewed their family as the home, rather than the building in which the family lived. Perry says there are several styles of arguing — such as over the washing up, always a reliable source of conflict in my house.
You can play fact tennis with it (I did it yesterday — yes but I wasn’t home for dinner — no but it’s still your turn — yet but how can it be when I was out etc); you can avoid conflict by pretending the washing up doesn’t exist (unsustainable, as you will run out of plates and create a biohazard); by being a martyr (again unsustainable, as the martyr will eventually become resentful); or by being a persecutor (you disgusting selfish slob, how dare you assume I’m going to do the washing up again). None of these tactics work well.
Also, conflict freaks children out: it “threatens their sense of security and leaves them less able to be open and curious about the world,” says Perry. Here’s how to argue with another adult — use ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements. Instead of ‘you never do the washing up’, try ‘I hate coming home tired to a sink full of washing up’. (This doesn’t work too well with teenagers, however, who tend not to care; don’t bother taking this personally or your life will become a prolonged washing up induced nervous breakdown.)
Interestingly, Perry suggests using ‘I’ statements with small children too, which seems both revolutionary and common sensical. We tend to say things like, ‘Come on, it’s getting cold, let’s go home now for dinner’, which legitimises the child’s response that (a) they’re not cold and (b) they don’t want dinner.
Reframe it, says Perry: ‘Let’s have five more minutes of playing and then we’ll go home because I’m getting cold and hungry.’
I try this define-yourself-rather-than-define-your-child idea with my teenage son, with hates school to the point of faking his own death every weekday morning. Instead of ‘If you don’t go to school, you’ll end up working in the sausage factory,’, I say, ‘I feel worried about you when you don’t go to school.’
The result is him rolling his eyes at me, rather than actually slamming his bedroom door in my face. Success.
Perry reminds us that teens, not unlike toddlers, are going through profound developmental changes, and “need love plus boundaries and a heavy dose of parental optimism that they will master their emotions and impulsivity”.
That their “behaviour is at its most challenging before a new behavioural milestone is reached”. Reader, we can only hope.
All behaviour is communication, she says. And our own behaviour is the biggest influencer on our child’s behaviour, if not now, then eventually. “We owe it to the world to love more than we judge,” says Perry. “And to consider our children’s feelings rather than automatically dismissing them as silly or wrong.” Because the hand that rocks the cradle, she says, does rule the world.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) by Philippa Perry, publisher Penguin Life, £12.99 / €15.20