Parenting Archives - The School Of Life

There’s a story going on, a very lovely one, but we can’t know the details for certain. In this respect, we are standing outside a window ourselves, in the most agreeable of ways.

Jacobus Vrel, Woman at a Window, Waving at a Girl, c. 1650

We can guess that the relationship is a kindly and tender one. This is Granny, Mummy, Nanny or Auntie, and just beyond the window, through those delicate panes of 17th-century Dutch glass, there is little Maries, Annelies, Sofie or Wilma. Maybe it’s a game: I’ll run outside and wave to you and your job is to wave back. Or: You cover your eyes, I’ll duck beneath the window, give a little tap and then you have to spot me before I drop down again. Or, more simply: When I have to go home after a day with you, I miss you so much and I like to say goodbye many times: four times in the room, twice from the hallway and once again at the window.

In other words, in some undefined way, this is a portrait of love. An adult, probably quite a serious one who has known many cares and has considerable responsibilities, is bending to the sweet and imaginative will of a small person, in whose reflection she sees a version of herself (Vrel hints that the window is a mirror; the old woman is gazing at a version of her younger self). A grown-up who could easily have humiliated the child – said she was busy or that it was all too silly – is joining in enthusiastically and giving the ritual or game her all (she might even fall off her chair).

One of the unexpected origins of something as serious and consequential as adult mental health arguably begins right here. If we find ourselves as grown-ups feeling creative, knowing how to appreciate ourselves, understanding how to remain calm and ready to give affection to others, it is almost certainly because at some point, a long way back, someone did for us what the woman in Vrel’s painting is doing for the little girl: giving us attention, making us the focus of tenderness, appreciating us on our own modest but vital terms.

Children who end up sane have been spared the need to be very good or very reasonable too early. We can’t know much about the economic status of Vrel’s figures. What we do know is that such games and the love behind them belong to what it really means to have had that most invaluable of things: a privileged childhood.

Some people assume that you can’t really say what a good — or indeed a bad — parent actually is.

Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

But we don’t agree. So we’ve designed a checklist of what we think makes up a good parent.

1.

Firstly and most obvious, a good parent adores their child. They’re simply overjoyed that they exist and don’t mind telling the offspring that fact, in direct and indirect ways, at small and large moments, pretty much every day. There is no risk of spoiling anyone like this: spoilt people are those who were denied love, not those who were regularly bathed in its calming waters. 

2. 

Secondly, the good parent is attuned to their child; they listen — very closely indeed — to what the small person is trying to say. This means getting down on their knees and calmly paying attention to certain messages that may sometimes sound extremely weird or frustrating. Maybe the child is saying that they are very sad, even though it’s their birthday and the parent has gone to enormous trouble with the presents. Maybe they are saying that they are angry with the teacher, even if education is in principle very important and the school was difficult to get into. Children are filled with complicated emotions; a good parents allows these room.

3. 

A good parent isn’t envious of their children. They are strong enough to allow them to have a better life than they did. 

4. 

Good parents are on top of their issues: they don’t think it’s a good idea to make someone very unhappy because maybe someone else made them miserable long ago.

5. 

Good parents know about boundaries. The game was hilarious for a long time, but now it’s the moment to wind down, to put the paints away, to get back to work or to go up to bed. The good parent doesn’t mind being hated for a time in the name of honouring reality.

6. 

Good parent don’t seeming a bit boring and predictable. Small kids don’t need excitement and drama from their parents. They want a secure base from which to explore the world.

Now we might think back to our pasts and give our carers a score out of ten to measure how things went. It isn’t unfair or mean sometimes — in the privacy of our own minds — to hold people to account.

Pick up a pen and paper as we run through a list — and score each option out of 10.

We don’t need a score of a hundred and twenty to be robust, but if things were to drop much below sixty, there might be grounds for a good deal of reflection and sorrow. 

The best thing, if you haven’t had a great childhood, is to be as knowledgeable as possible about what went wrong and why.

One of the things it’s easiest to forget about children is that they are aliens recently descended from another planet. In the way they look at everything around them, in the wide open stares they give to ways of living and being that have grown utterly familiar and therefore invisible to our eyes, they may as well have stepped off a galactic aircraft in an unobserved corner of a wheatfield. Coming from so far away, everything on our earth is to them new, interesting and worthy of examination. Nothing is to be taken for granted. There are so many questions to ask. The whole world is, via their as yet unmarked minds, born anew.

Photo by Michael Herren on Unsplash

In a much more limited way, we know from our experiences of travelling how much, in an unfamiliar country, we suddenly notice and are stimulated by. A scene which leaves the locals entirely unimpressed will appear to us filled with wonder and surprise. Shortly after landing in a new place, we might – for example – head out into the bustling streets of the capital. We might spot a man in a barbershop and reflect on how extraordinary the shaving ritual looks here, staring in utter bewilderment from a traffic island, and being almost run down by a family on a scooter (carrying a chicken) in the process. There might be a cave-like shop displaying hundreds of different sorts of nuts and spices of a variety we had never guessed existed. Across a stall two women might be engaged in a passionate discussion about a famous local singer whose stellar career and colourful love life we had never suspected. In a corner by a pomegranate juice stand, a man might be reading a large newspaper and we would ask ourselves what roiling political events might have provoked the flowing, curling words of a headline splashed across the front. A little time in this new realm hints at priorities and concerns completely detached from ours, the foreign land is a symbol of a basic idea: that the world is so much bigger and more mysterious than we suppose day to day; that what we know comprises only a tiny part of what there is – and that there is never a good excuse for feeling bored or imagining that we understand very much of anything.

Travellers aside, the other group who cannot forget how surprising, beautiful and worthy of deep examination everything is are artists. The basic precondition of being an artist is not so much that one knows how to draw, sculpt or photograph, it’s that one refuses to get bored, that one insists on being amazed. Think of Albrecht Dürer at the start of the sixteenth century, already thirty-five years old, but looking at hands as though he had never seen any before, and appreciating with some of the intensity of a visitor from planet Kepler 22b in the constellation of Cygnus the bizarreness of how fingers interlace, how foldable they are, in what varied shapes and textures they come in, how different the skin can be on a thumb compared to on an index finger, how expressive a knuckle can be and what wonders of complex geometry lie in a folded palm.

Albrecht Dürer, Study of Hands, 1506

Or think of the American photographer William Eggleston, his attention detained in a cafe somewhere in suburbia not by any overtly grand political event or high-status local, but by the sight of a condiment display on a table, a small bottle of tabasco illuminated by a shaft of light revealing itself as a near transcendent object around which more pious societies than our own might have chosen to found a new religion; or a set of pickles emerging from his lens as no less awe inspiring than a specimen jar containing the limbs of a long deceased leviathan of the deep in the vaults of a natural history museum.

William Eggleston, Untitled, c.1983-1986 

Like artists and travellers, only more so, small children too cannot see anything as ‘normal.’ They spot the button on our jacket and ask themselves: what is this dazzling object (easily as interesting as a lightswitch or my toes), what enables it to stay where it is, what would it taste like, what would happen if one struck it with a knife, how would it respond to being coated in apple sauce, might it make a noise if one blew through the four little holes at its center, how strongly might it resist a tug? Then there is a pencil: by what mysterious combination of elements does this contraption appear to leak out a grey line when pressed against paper, but lets out not very much at all when pushed against a blanket or a sister’s cheek; does it matter what direction one is holding it up in, what would happen if one threw it at the dog across the room or dropped it quietly in the sink?

All the great scientific discoveries and works of art have been made by people who looked at things with the naivety of children – and conversely, all the world-weariness and boredom has been the result of decades-old humans allowing habit to get in the way of astonishment. We should, in the area of curiosity, all become children’s attentive pupils.

The problem is that the questions tend to come far too fast, the curiosity is too rampant, undisciplined and at odds with what we’re trying to get done – so we end up wishing there might be a bit less curiosity and a bit more apathy. We’re also quite tired. Irritated, we say that it is just the way it is and has always been and could you please, please get a move on. It’s understandably a bit more important to make it to the shops to pick up a magazine than to stay rooted in one spot for over four minutes, staring at a weed growing out of a wall, as if we might be the 19th century German explorer Alexander von Humboldt investigating the flora of Ecuador’s Chimborazo volcano. We are sending out a message: that being curious and poking at the apparent ‘normality’ of things is not a particularly estimable activity. If a child wants to be like us one day, a respectable impressive adult, they should take care to be rather less amazed.

The tension often comes to the fore around vacuuming. The child is, understandably, dazzled. A machine the size of two pillow is letting out a thunderous sound. At the end of a slightly squashy hose, something is sucking in air with terrifying but also mesmerising force: you can put the car keys thirty centimeters away from the hose and they’ll actually start to move across the carpet and promptly disappear with a fascinating clink-clunk-clink-boom sound into the bowels of the machine. Then there’s a button you can press and the entire tangled cable to which the beast is fixed to the wall goes taut and fairly yanks back the contraption as if it were a furious dog on a leash. There is little option for a child but to be as transfixed as the most beatific early customer in adverts from the 1950s – when wonder was, in this area at least, still allowed.

And yet, naturally, that’s hardly the state of mind of the busy parent, cursing housework, without much energy to contemplate young Alexander von Humboldt or Michael Faraday tinkering on the carpet beside them.

Much the same dynamic is likely to be repeated around aeroplanes. How bored we are of these dirty machines and how revolted we are by airports, how weary we’ve become of cabin announcements and moving maps, of inflight trays and safety cards; how cold our hearts are to the sight of the engines slung beneath those long flexible wings powering us over puffy small clouds like those in the backdrop of a Piero della Francesca altarpiece. But the child knows that nothing up here is normal and isn’t about to let go of their fascination, even if it means a scream or two. From an opposing window seat, William Eggleston, understands only too well.

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1971–1974

We sometimes ask ourselves what the Romans might have thought of our modern bathrooms, or what a Medieval knight might have made of a shopping center or phone. We can more accurately ask ourselves what the first man or woman to emerge from Africa’s Rift Valley would have made of our lives – because we have our very own version right to hand.

Every new human provides our species with a chance to return to first principles and rethink everything from the ground up. We should allow the child to ask its questions and to pop as many things as safely possible into its mouth. And when one can’t say why or how, we should – rather than look cross or bored – end by saying that we’ll go and out find out together and keep a list of topics of enquiry somewhere in the kitchen: how car indicators make that sound, why trees bud in spring, how clouds move, how long it would take for sheep to grow back their wool and why granny looks a bit cross whenever dad is in the room? A child’s greatest gift to us is to keep insisting that nothing is ever very normal.


The Good Enough Parent
New Book Out Now

The Good Enough Parent is a compendium of lessons about how children’s minds operate and what they need from those who look after them so they can develop into the best version of themselves.

Written in a tone that is encouraging, wry and soaked in years of experience, The Good Enough Parent is an intelligent guide to raising a child who will one day look back on their childhood with just the right mixture of gratitude, humour and love.

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A near-universal goal of parents is to try to imbue their children with confidence; to try to lend them the energy, self-belief and courage to eventually be able to act decisively in the world. With sufficient confidence, they will know how to go up to strangers and ask for help, push their interests forward at work, articulate their wishes to prospective partners and trust in their decency and right to exist.

But how to imbue this confidence remains a complex matter. The standard approach involves trying to remind children of their qualities: whatever they may sometimes feel, they are clever. Whatever a few mean people might say, they are special. Whatever they may think in front of the mirror, they are beautiful. Whatever they sometimes fear, they are neither idiots nor fools. With such generous sentiments in their ears, children will – we trust – have a chance of confronting challenges without being interrupted by a sense of inadequacy. They will know that despite the difficulties, they are competent and deserving – and that the world should be grateful for their presence.

Photo by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

Although this sounds generous, exulting a child in this way may unwittingly generate whole new levels of doubt. The implication is that grounds for confidence are primarily derived from being clever, talented, beautiful and deserving. Yet by equating confidence with wondrousness, the child is being burdened with a forbidding picture of what is required for success. The bar is unconsciously being set in an elevated position; one is just being assured – slightly unbelievably – that one will clear it.

It might be better to push in a slightly different direction. Sensitive children are in danger of overestimating the adult world and thereby of throttling their talents and sense of initiative out of misfounded respect. It can seem to them as if teachers must know everything, so there is no need to think sceptically about most of what they teach. It can seem as if people at the top of important professions have been endowed with unusual degrees of intelligence, which makes their jobs impossible to get. And in their own peer group, it can look as though the popular and attractive people must have life securely worked out at every level, and could therefore have no need for a new friend or partner.

In this context, it may help a young person to be given access to some apparently dark but in the end liberating truths about the adult world. Despite certain appearances, and a lot of puffery and decorum, human beings are not on the whole an especially clever, competent, knowledgeable or respectable species. Indeed, as a rule, they are properly idiotic and rather damnable. The path to confidence is not to build up a child; it is to knock down society as a whole.

To appease a child’s terror that they might be stupid, rather than telling them that they are brilliant, one should let them know a far more cheering and believable idea: that they have foolish sides, but so has everyone else. They are definitely sometimes idiots, but so is the headmistress, the geography teacher, the president, the finance minister, the Nobel Prize winner, the great novelist, the zoologist, the movie star and all parents who have ever lived. There is no other option for a human being. We are a planet of seven billion idiots. We walk into doors, get things wrong, proffer moronic ideas, spill things down our fronts, forget our own names and ruin our lives – and these aren’t exceptions; they are the general rule. A worry that one might be a bit stupid doesn’t therefore mark one as special or specially damned; it makes one more like every other human in history. It certainly isn’t an argument for not trying to join a team or asking someone on a date, for refusing to apply to a particular university or imagine oneself in a given career.

We should remind children that they know themselves from the inside, but can know others only from the outside – that is, via what these others choose to mention, which results in an unhelpfully limited and edited picture of normality. While they will be aware of every detail of their own inadequacies, there will be little evidence of the inadequacies of others. We should stress to children that beneath serious and self-assured facades, all peers and impressive grownups are sunk in doubt, fear and regret. Wishing to make his readers more confident, the 16th-century philosopher Montaigne wrote: ‘Kings and philosophers shit and so do ladies.’ Shitting was here intended as a representative term, symbolic of all the lower, more embarrassing and weaker dimensions we know about in ourselves but have a hard time remembering exist in others. Montaigne might have added that these august people also tend to worry, feel ugly and say daft things. And not only them, but also presidents, heads of law firms, top footballers and serious-looking teachers.

There is a kind of child who won’t dare to act, thinking that one mistake will place them forever in the camp of the contemptible. One should reassure them that being a fool is not a personal risk; it is a common and inviolable rule. If they took action and ended up doing one more silly thing, it wouldn’t be special grounds for shame; it would merely be confirming what they had understood from the start: that we are all, often in rather endearing ways, error-prone beings. The path to confidence is not to banish fears that one might be silly; it is to not let knowledge of one’s silliness become grounds for a refusal to act. The task is not to tell children that they are amazing; it is to model for them how one might live a decent, self-accepting, humour-filled and confident life knowing one is very imperfect – but, fortunately, so is everyone else.


The Good Enough Parent
New Book Out Now

The Good Enough Parent is a compendium of lessons about how children’s minds operate and what they need from those who look after them so they can develop into the best version of themselves.

Written in a tone that is encouraging, wry and soaked in years of experience, The Good Enough Parent is an intelligent guide to raising a child who will one day look back on their childhood with just the right mixture of gratitude, humour and love.

Shop Now

The useful thing about children is that they don’t let their imaginations get hampered by the more irritating or incidental aspects of reality. They will take one look at a sofa and see in it the basis for an ingenious spacecraft capable of travelling swiftly and comfortably to adjoining galaxies. An unprepossessing backyard will make the ideal premises for a new kind of restaurant offering fascinating combinations of food not yet developed in the ordinary restaurant sector. They will know how to size up a sibling and recognise a brave, disciplined and resolute national leader who will be able to lead her country out of its troubles and invent a new way of doing politics.

Children don’t see a need to wait until every practical detail has been sorted out before beginning to imagine fresh schemes and develop original proposals. They know the gist of what has to be done and are keen to sketch out at speed the broad strokes of their plans. They have none of the normal adult respect for so-called sensible objections to every new idea, or obedience to the many reasons why something should not be tried and the status quo left morosely undisturbed.

Little children tend to be right in their hunch that the practical details can generally be sorted out with time, but that what one really needs at the outset is vision. Most impressive developments have been works of the imagination long before they were feats of engineering or politics, art or science. They were ideas that needed to be pictured with a fanciful, confident and unfrightened mind, one that would not curtail its freedoms by pointing out that something might cost too much, or that some members of the team might be unsettled by an innovation, or that there were government rules against that sort of thing.

Take flying as an example. On the one hand, powered flight was a practical breakthrough reliant on some steady work around wing shapes, petrol engines and landing gears. But there was arguably as much imagination in the plane as there was engineering; the plane had to be dreamt of before it could be designed. A lot of this imaginative work was carried out by pioneers of playful thought in the 19th century, the great age of technological daydreaming, when utopian big children imagined how one might fly between cities in miraculous heavier-than-air machines – and one day make it from Paris to New York in only a few hours.

Albert Robida, Leaving the Opera in the Year 2000, 1902

J. Xaudaro, Concorde before Concorde, 1920: ‘Thanks to the air express, New York will be only one and a half hours away from Paris. Price of the trip: 1,000 dollars.’

These pioneers of technology also imagined email, submarines, cross-Channel tunnels, vacuum cleaners, mobile phones and digital education. It is a tribute to the scale of their ambitions that reality still has to catch up with their thoughts around jetpacks and winged firefighters.

Children don’t only have things to teach us around playfully imagining the future. They are also canny at coming up with imaginary friends. Reality can be very poor at providing us with the kinds of people we actually need in order to feel understood and comforted. What we long to hear and the sort of interactions we crave may not always be possible in the compromised conditions of a typical home. But this rarely holds children back. They will latch ingeniously onto a promising-looking thirty-centimetre piece of cloth and stuffing with button eyes and decide that this is the friend they always wished for and deserve: someone who can understand their sorrows, will have comforting things to say when they are confused, will want to have cups of tea with them in the night and will always, always be ready for a hug.

This teddy bear, housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum’s teddy collection, is named Little Tommy Tittlemouse. It was the much loved companion of the donor, a Mr J. H. B. Gowan. He continued to send birthday cards to his ‘son’ after he had given the bear to the V&A in 1965. This tradition only ended with his death. Tommy’s birthday is on 24 November and the V&A continues to receive cards for Tommy from all over the world.

Later on, they may discover books and try out a similar move. These so called bookworms learn how to feel connected to a person who might have died in 1420 CE or 300 BCE and who tells them important things with a freshness and clarity no one in their vicinity can match. They take to carrying this friend around with them in a bag wherever they go, and don’t mind if its corners get dirty or pages mottled. They stay up late with the ‘friend’ and might weep at a tenderness and understanding that seems so far from what they receive from their own acquaintances. A few of these children even go on to become writers, and one day confide to a page what it feels hard to express to others in person – a grown-up version of the move they might once have made in childhood, when their frayed bear patiently heard their upsets. Bookshops, the toy shops of big people, end as places where our disappointments with others can be mediated and redeemed, and friends not found in life can be secured through the grown-up game we soberly call ‘literature’.

The ideal position of play in life was first explored by the Ancient Greeks. Among all their gods, two mattered to them especially. The first was Apollo, god of reason and wisdom. He was concerned with patience, thoroughness, duty and logical thinking. He presided over aspects of government, commerce and what we would now call science. But there was another important god, a diametrically opposed figure whom the Greeks called Dionysus. He was concerned with the imagination, impatience, chaos, emotion, instinct – and play. The ‘Dionysian’ involved dreams, liberation and a relaxation of the strict rules of reason. Importantly, the Greeks did not think that any life could be complete without a combination of these two figures. Both Apollo and Dionysus had their claims on human lives, and each could breed dangerously unbalanced minds if they held undiluted sway.

When children have driven us to the edge of sanity with their games (along with the attendant shrieks, follies, destroyed sofas and gluey potions), we should keep in mind how much we, weary guardians of Apollo, remain in debt to all the young followers of Dionysus and their ever-present call to bend reality in the direction of our dreams.


The Good Enough Parent
New Book Out Now

The Good Enough Parent is a compendium of lessons about how children’s minds operate and what they need from those who look after them so they can develop into the best version of themselves.

Written in a tone that is encouraging, wry and soaked in years of experience, The Good Enough Parent is an intelligent guide to raising a child who will one day look back on their childhood with just the right mixture of gratitude, humour and love.

Shop Now


The most basic and never-to-be-forgotten fact about any infant is that it is born into a state of radical immaturity. It cannot understand its condition; it doesn’t know how to communicate; it has no way of empathising; it can’t help but be muddled about its own needs. Over many long years, it must be guided into developing into that most prized but elusive of beings: an emotionally mature adult.

The distinction between adult and infant is, confusingly, never assured by age alone. It cannot be determined simply by looking at someone’s face and body, let alone their outward status or profession. There are nonagenarians who, in emotional aspects, are still mired in toddlerhood, and 9-year-olds who rival many so-called grown-ups in their responses to life’s vicissitudes.

The curriculum of emotional maturity, of the journey between infancy and adulthood, encapsulates some of the following transitions:

– An infant believes, touchingly and unavoidably, that it is the centre of the universe. An adult has had to learn, through considerable sorrow and inconvenience, that other humans appear to exist as well.

– An infant insists vociferously on its wants. In its rages it is as categorical as a furious emperor. An adult has had to come to terms with the idea of compromise. It has learnt to be a diplomat. It has come to know that, oddly, there may be other points of view.

– An infant believes that others around it will be able to understand its wants and intentions without it needing to speak, that being loved means being magically understood, and falls into vicious sulks with those who do not correctly intuit its intentions. An adult has learnt the tedious requirement to speak calmly and explain the contents of its own mind: it has learnt to teach the world about itself.

– An infant cannot understand the influence of its body on its moods. It cannot tell that its despair has to do with tiredness or its excitement with an excess of sugar. An adult has learnt to coexist with its own body; it knows that at certain bleak-seeming moments, rather than giving up on humanity and its own life, it may simply need to drink a glass of water or have an early night.

– An infant is a relentless idealiser: those who please it are wondrous creatures to whom it freely gives affection and tenderness. By the same measure, those who frustrate it risk being framed as demons and monsters who deserve to be bitten or destroyed. An adult realises that there is no such thing as a wholly good or bad person; it does not fall in love quite so regularly – or in hate.

– An infant imagines that an adult must know exactly what it is doing After all, it’s so big, it can kick a ball many metres into the air and drive a car. An adult knows how to tread a more nuanced path between trust and scepticism; it knows, in a benign way, that everyone is to some degree making it up as they go along.

– An infant is not aware of the pain or inconvenience it puts others to. It is blithely and beautifully selfabsorbed. An adult has acquired correct measure of the difficulties it causes others, especially those it loves; it can feel appropriate degrees of guilt; it can say sorry.

– An infant is wildly and erratically afraid: of being eaten by tigers, of being destroyed by teachers, of being swept away by the wind. Some of these are its own aggressions projected outwards. The adult has correctly repatriated its fears. It has a sound sense of where terror belongs.

– An infant is often either in tears or delighted. An infant is a creature of hope constantly buffeted by disappointment, and capable of being instantly thrown into rage or ecstasy. An adult has acquired a talent for poised melancholy leavened by wry humour.

– An adult doesn’t mind noticing aspects of its character that aren’t wholly mature. An adult knows that, at moments, it will revert to infancy. A child, especially an adolescent one, will insist with telling and implausible vehemence that it is fully done with childhood.

– An adult is someone who knows how to look after a child – chiefly because, somewhere in a fortunate past, someone else nurtured the child-like parts of them.

These lessons and many others like them belong to the process known as emotional education. Tediously, this cannot be imparted quickly. It may take at least five times as long as learning how to master a foreign language. Patience, therefore, has to be one of the central prerequisites of any parental instructor. The module on the unyielding nature of reality will, for example, have to be taught on a thousand occasions before it takes root: over Nounou’s broken eye, a sudden stain on a favourite pair of trousers, the end of screen time, the miserableness of going to bed, the boringness of the long car ride, the death of Granny, the entirely unnecessary arrival of a sibling – and a thousand other tragedies, small and large, besides.

Unlike a curriculum for a language, the emotional curriculum lacks a well-defined timetable. There aren’t clear sections like those on improper fractions or the use of the definitive article; one can’t limit lessons to Thursday afternoons or Monday mornings. There will be days when five separate learning modules will have to be taught before breakfast is over, and with no warning of an upcoming challenge having been given.

The child is at all times on the journey of striving to become a grown-up. Every waking minute the young brain is pushing on to become the more mature self it is destined to become. This doesn’t mean that emotional maturity is what everyone will eventually accede to, no more than every oak tree will reach the forty metres of which it is biologically capable; it simply means that this is the direction an infant is oriented towards and will be striving for unless impediments are placed in its way.

It is worth emphasising that all elements of immaturity – egocentricity, boastfulness, idealisation and so on – belong to health at a given age. The child has to go through every stage of juvenility in order one day to settle into an authentically mature position.

Parents who succeed at teaching the emotional curriculum should not expect particular prizes or signs of gratitude. The reward, if and when it comes, will be more indirect but all the more sincere for that: an offspring who is inwardly alive, who can be kind to themselves and knows how to care for less mature, still struggling others – perhaps, most touchingly, their own offspring.

This essay is an extract from our latest book The Good Enough Parent. Read on to find out more.


The Good Enough Parent
New Book Out Now

The Good Enough Parent is a compendium of lessons about how children’s minds operate and what they need from those who look after them so they can develop into the best version of themselves.

Written in a tone that is encouraging, wry and soaked in years of experience, The Good Enough Parent is an intelligent guide to raising a child who will one day look back on their childhood with just the right mixture of gratitude, humour and love.

Shop Now

A few lucky ones among us get on easily with their parents, but for most of us, mothers and fathers are the source of continually complicated and emotionally-draining trials. One strategy to try to simplify matters is to confront them. We may come to feel that we have said too little for too long and must – finally – have our say. We will pick a moment and then explain how they hurt us and what they still misunderstand. We will lay out how their inadequacies took a toll in our childhood and continue to damage our chances today.

It is a moving ambition, but rarely a very successful one. Instead of meekly agreeing with our verdict, parents have a habit of turning around and, with surprising and humiliating authority, blaming us for being ungrateful and immature. Or at the final moment, sensing their vulnerability and inability to understand whatever we are trying to say, we may have to pull our punches, because it would be unbearable to inflict pain on them. Or they may seem to take it all on board, they may thank us for our candour, and at the very next encounter, express an opinion that makes it obvious that they have understood nothing at all. After another wounding conversation, it may feel as if the sane thing would be never to have anything to do with these dangerous people again. 

The situation can be especially complex when a parent isn’t an outright monster. They may be maddening in truly debilitating ways but they can also at points be sweet or bright, funny or tender. Unfortunately, we can’t merely dismiss them as catastrophes. In the background, often out of sight, we may have deep reserves of love for them: there’s a favourite photo of them helping us build a sand-castle at the beach when we were seven which brings tears to our eyes. We are moved by their familiar smells and routines. We hate them and, even more troublingly, care for them rather a lot. We want them dead and will be devastated when they are gone.

To simplify our relationship, it may help to depersonalise the pain. The exact reasons why we can’t get on with our parents will be specific, the fact that we can’t is very and cathartically general. Every parent brings a great deal of trouble into their child’s life; every parent substantially harms and burdens the small person they would – in theory – wish simply to help. If they are unduly irritable (because of their own background terror and disappointment), the child will be cowed into timidity. If they are highly gentle and indulgent, the child may fail to notice or temper its own aggressive and egoistic tendencies. If the parent is (from concern) overly controlling, the child will struggle to acquire an independent sense of direction and won’t learn to face the obstacles to the realisation of its better potential. The possibilities for error are infinite. We naturally resent the unique mistakes our own early care givers inflicted but we are, in truth, through our development, participating in a more or less universal fate. It’s not our parents who were particularly the problem: it is that infants have no option but to allow their minds to be formed by a random set of averagely but very consequentially flawed big people.

Because a parent is a generation older, much of what shaped them stemmed from a world with priorities, values, anxieties and hopes that seem strange – even reprehensible – to us, but that were, and still are, urgent and real for them. Given where they came from, it isn’t a surprise that they cared so much about money or status, manners or education,  but also so little about honesty and trust, warmth or calm. Should we have a child, we can be sure that they’ll feel the same boredom, resentment and bafflement we currently do, around a host of attitudes that we haven’t even thought to notice or reign in in ourselves.

It’s perhaps unsurprising if our parents retain a vision, as irksome as it is constant, of us as children. They remember, as we can’t, how long it took for us to mature. Our first tumbling steps and our earliest attempts to string a few words together are still, for them, vivid and perhaps deeply fond memories. At some level, it’s almost understandable if they are condescendingly amazed that we have a job or can drive a car and doubt whether we should ever really be allowed to make our own choices around whom to marry or where to live. 

A greater degree of simplicity in our dealing with parents must spring from a recognition of the inherent complexity of what we’re trying to do, which is get on well with someone who has unavoidably damaged us and whose outlook on life can never reasonably align with our own. 

Resignation can sound bleak but it also brings with it limited, but mature, hopes. In a simpler relationship, we anticipate that certain occasions are bound to be difficult and thereby help them to be slightly less so. If we spend a holiday with them, we know that they will within minutes put a finger on our most vulnerable dimensions. If we have lunch with them, we know they’ll steer the conversation to our ineptitude (as they see it) about money or love. These occasions are no longer to be dreaded, because we’ve already forced ourselves to consider them understandable and beyond our control. 

In a simpler relationship with our parents, we wouldn’t keep trying to get from them things that they had evidently shown themselves unable to offer. We would know that we would never be able to get them to understand our childhood sorrows or why we had chosen a particular partner, so we wouldn’t launch into futile attempts at explanation. We would focus, as much as possible, on the few areas where we could be peaceable together. We would remember that they liked talking about their friends, so we would be sure to ask many open ended questions about how they were getting on. If they were keen on gardening , we would draw them out on their tomato plants. 

We would be strategic too about where, and for how long, we would meet them. If they had a tendency to grow fussy and snobbish in restaurants, we would suggest a walk in the country. If we liked their taste in kitchen utensils, we might fix up a trip to a department store to get their advice about a new breadboard. We would know never to stay overnight with them. With a clear sense of all that could go wrong, we would be free to focus our attention on the few things that might reliably deliver mutual satisfaction. 

A parent and an adult child are emotionally intertwined, in intricate ways, for reasons that have nothing to do with personal preference. We’re tied by history and biology – rather than by choice – to a being who was a god-like giant when we were tiny but whose flaws we have since come to know in great and very painful detail. Outside families this never happens: we’re never forced into a death-bound union with someone who – given our divergent temperaments, tastes, habits and attitudes – we would never dream of selecting as a friend. It is in the end simply a strange, yet constant, feature of the human condition that we are tethered emotionally for life to someone who is both an irritating stranger and the person who wept for joy when we were born.

The working assumption of modern societies is that every ‘normal’ person should seek to have children – and should in every way be enabled to do so. 

Yet wisdom may point in a different direction. In our heart of hearts, many of us do not necessarily want to have children, but feel an enormous pressure to produce them anyway. After a few years together, a young couple will come under a barrage of questions as to when a baby will be on the way, and of judgement that there must be something extremely wrong (physically or morally) with them were they to have no interest in delivering one.

And yet a society that properly loved children would know that the single greatest contribution to children’s welfare is the removal of the idea that everyone should automatically have them. A good society would give equal prestige to childless and childful states. We best honour children, the born and the unborn, by accepting that parenting should never be the automatic choice – just as the wisest way to ensure that people will have happy marriages is to destigmatize the single state. 

If we haven’t travelled, if we don’t yet know what we want, if we have a hard time staying with anyone for a while or remaining friendly with them when we part, if we like to be admired a lot, if our real passions lie at the office, if the purpose of our life is to be famous, if we don’t especially like to listen, if we have trouble being calm, if we have been very badly scrambled by our own parents, then we might consider whether – in all fairness to everyone involved – this is really for us. Some of the best people in existence do not make ideal parents; the truly great ones know this about themselves and act bravely on the knowledge.

In a better arranged world, a sizeable share of the population, perhaps a majority, would remain childless. They would find life without offspring challenging and rewarding enough. When they occasionally felt a desire for a child, they would be afforded ample opportunity to spend time with one for a while. Just as national museums have prevented most of us from needing to own masterpieces personally, so too we might spend an afternoon with a small treasure owned by someone else – mitigating any pressure or inclination to go and get one one of our own. 

Those who really wanted to have children would then be considered rather in the way that were, in the ninth century, the dedicated minority who left behind the ordinary comforts of existence in order to become nuns or priests. One would admire their devotion while privately shuddering at the price they had paid for it.

In a painting by the Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler, a young child sits on a mother’s knee. She is carefully ladelling something, probably warm milk, from a cup. All those who have been in a similar position will instinctively know what a child that age might weigh, how cosy they would be to hold, how soft their hair would feel, how protective one’s hand would be around their chest and how satisfying it would be to witness a young person’s fascination with simple elements like a cup and a teaspoon. But the parent would know a few other things besides: how rare these moments of peace generally are, how long it took to get them dressed, how angry the child was when we tried to put on their boots, how quickly they will need another change, how much they have screamed, how little recognition one is ever given for one’s labours and how exhausted (and sometimes close to despair) one will feel by bedtime.

Ferdinand Hodler, Mother and Child

The world is never unhappy because of children who have not yet been born, it is grief stricken by children who have been placed on the planet without anyone to love or protect them adequately. We can cope with fewer children; what we need above all else are parents sufficiently dedicated to the tasks of love.

For much of the modern era, the story of becoming an adult has been told to us as one of psychological liberation: people will notice – as they grow up – how many of their difficulties, especially around love and work, can be traced back to inadequacies in their childhoods. They will realise, for example, how much their low self-esteem owes to their relationship with a withholding mother or how much of their timidity at work can be traced back to an over-anxious father. Slowly they will develop their full potential by reflecting on what happened and by untangling the past with the help of friends, diaries and, most importantly, the minds of kind and well-trained psychotherapists. 

This story, though powerful, tends to miss out on a crucial stage: what happens when these victims of childhood become – one day – parents themselves. While the conversation typically revolves around the hardships suffered by vulnerable small people, relatively little is said about what these former children might do when they take on the mantle of parenthood in turn. How might they fare with the momentous responsibilities that their parents mishandled? How might they ensure that their own children do not have to suffer from another cycle of psychological mishap? How might they avoid passing on their ‘issues’?

It is helpful to be categorical and unsentimental on this score: there is no option not to pass on some of one’s issues; there is no way of parenting that does not inflict some form of psychological damage on children. The most psychotherapised person in the world will not be able to avoid generating neuroses; there is no such thing as a blameless parent. Above the door of the nursery, the most mature couple should still hang a sign: We love you – but we will give you issues.

Once this idea is established, the conversation can shift. It is no longer a matter of claiming to avoid damage altogether but of doing one’s best to mitigate it. The onus is on the parent to understand their issues in good time and to be able to give thoughtful, self-observant rejoinders to the question which every decent parent should be ready to answer long before buying a pregnancy test: how are you mad? 

There should not be thought to be anything insulting or unusual in this enquiry; it is a precondition of being human that we are a priori mad. However, the way our minds work can shield us from an accurate awareness of quite how and in what areas we might be so – information that is crucial in softening the damage. In order to kickstart our awareness, we might undertake a small exercise to try to evoke for ourselves some of the many ways in which we are disturbed and likely to mess up the lives of those we adore beyond measure.

POSSIBLE PARENTAL ISSUES

– I might be so traumatised by the memory of harshness and arbitrary commands, that I might be unable to set boundaries or say ‘no’ when I should.

– I might alternate between great relaxedness and sudden fury which could bewilder a sensitive child.

– I might be unable to prevent the enormous anxiety which I feel at work and in my soul from spilling over into family life.

– I might – because of a hugely introverted nature – be unable to participate regularly and intensely in family activities as I would like to.

– I might, because of certain sexual compulsions, be unable to play the role of the reliable family man or woman.

– I might, because of deficiencies in my current relationship, overinvest in my child and thereby prevent them from developing healthily.

– I might because of my fragilities, lead a child to need to take care of me emotionally in a way that could prompt them to become responsible far too early.

– I might because of my envy and resentment at the way I’ve been treated in life give my child a sense that the world is an unwelcoming place they should fear.

– I might feel jealous of my child’s success.

– I might be drawn to have a favourite and play one off against the other.

– I might get appalled by a child’s vulnerability and tell them, far too young, to grow up and stop whining.

– I might have difficulty with a particular gender of child – because of my experiences with that sex.

– I won’t be able to stay sane around mess and noise.

– I might take it personally if they weren’t sufficiently impressive at school.

This is only a start, there could – naturally – be so much else to discover. The crucial point is to know that one has a large number of issues and that their effect is likely to be powerful.

The next step is to share the information – in the least dramatic way possible – with its likely victims as soon as they are in a position to understand. It is a huge drawback for a child if their parent is over-interested in promoting a facade of sanity and psychological competence. In the interests of maintaining troop morale, many a parent will feel under pressure to put up a good show – especially in the early years, framing themselves as always sane, inevitably calm, perpetually smiley and invariably on top of things. But in order properly to assist children with their mental well-being, it would be far more helpful if these parents could shake off their pride and gently hint at how they were in fact less than perfectly formed. It is an enormous privilege to receive advanced knowledge of one’s parent’s neuroses from the parents themselves, especially if the information is imparted with self-deprecating humour in a very unalarmed and unalarming style.

This child won’t subsequently have to spend a few decades on the therapist’s couch trying to work out whether and how their parent was disturbed. The information will have been freely and intelligently shared a long time before. 

Parents often like to explain – and children to hear about – where a family originated: where granddad was born, who grandma married the first time, what dad did after finishing school and so on. To these external movements, one might think of adding a psychological layer, explaining the patterns of emotional inheritance. A child might then be able to give a friend in the playground or an interested adult a handy summary of the issues their parents were afflicted by:

Mummy’s father was quite depressed and that means she’s found it hard to trust men, but eventually daddy came along and got her to relax – but still she’s quite independent-minded and likes to be alone for ages – and that leads them to conflicts. Daddy had a very distant mother and judgemental father (maybe that’s why he picked mum!). It makes him pretty anxious and on a bad day prone to shouting. It also makes him a bit fussy about me and cloying and always hovering around, like he wants everything to go right for me to compensate for what went badly for him. That’s also probably why I tell him to go away a lot quite fiercely.

The greatest available form of sanity isn’t to lack issues, but to be willing to understand and admit to them. The more one knows them, the less likely one is to have to play them out – or encase them in a layer of denial. It is a huge source of relief to children to grow up in a family where issues are discussed with as little embarrassment as one might a sore back or a headache; it should be as customary to hear an adult complaining about their anxiety as about their bad toe, or about their feeling of low self-esteem as about their worries about politics. Far from creating a child who will be fussy or susceptible, one will be modelling how to foster a self-aware, relaxed, undefensive relationship to psychological difficulties. Being able to share issues belongs to a slow pattern of progress whereby humans learn to come to terms with their vulnerability, to stop pretending they are gods, and to accept themselves with well-founded humility as only intermittently rational apes; our real glory lies in finally being able to accept our true nature.

One of the greatest skills any human can possess is a capacity for soothing: in a better arranged society, we would celebrate not only gifted athletes and canny entrepreneurs, but also those gentle souls who are most effective at delivering reassurance to their fellow frightened creatures in the face of the many physical and psychological torments to which our species is continually exposed.

In premodern societies, the need for soothing was well understood at a collective level. In Christianity, the faithful turned at moments of need to their primordial soothing figure, the Virgin Mary – a figure who knew about suffering, who would listen to one’s sorrows and extend sympathy at moments of particular dread and panic.

In a comparable spirit, Buddhists would turn to the figure of Guanyin, another female deity with a sound sense of the difficulties involved in trying to survive – and a ready supply of sweetness and compassion.

In replacing religion with medicine, we have too often forgotten to find a place for soothing, an art which few medical school teach their students – though whatever power one’s pills may have, tenderness and encouragement remain essential medications at the bedside of the distressed patient.

The primary experience of soothing should ideally occur in the relationship between a parent and a child. One might go so far as to propose that there is nothing more important required of a parent than a capacity to soothe, this being the skill to which all other parental capabilities ultimately point. This is some of what a gifted soothing parent will know how to do:

– Identify that soothing is even required:

Not everyone who needs to be soothed is aware of the fact nor grateful to be reminded of it. Some of us who would most benefit from soothing present as angry, defiant and aggressive; it looks as if soothing would be the last thing on our minds. But the soother looks beneath this independent bluster and insists on their soothing offer nonetheless. They know that there is never a case of nastiness or deniance, cynicism or viciousness that does not have at its core a disguised longing for love. The truly soothing person is canny and generous enough to keep gifting assistance even to the prickly wounded ones who need kindness so badly they have forgotten how to ask for it.

– Normalise the need:

Admitting one’s need for soothing places ones in a vulnerable position. So the good soother subtly and quickly indicates that a search for soothing is ‘normal’, respectable and dignified. They have at the back of their minds a philosophy that life is constantly at risk of overwhelming even the most capable of humans, at a physical and psychological level – and therefore that there is nothing shameful whatsoever in seeking assistance. Not being able to cope doesn’t require any special permission: it could happen at any time of the week, the soother doesn’t keep to a version of a doctor’s surgery hours, they are on call at any time for whatever comfort one might seek. Nor does the problem necessarily need to be vast. One might need soothing simply because one is feeling a little sad or a bit weak for reasons one can’t exactly identify. Soothing isn’t reserved for those with life-threatening or critical troubles; it is something we should be able to draw on during all our travails, large and small. We don’t have to be more or less dead before we can say we can’t cope. A good parental soother teaches a child to have an honest relationship to their own vulnerability, helping to stamp out the scourge of machismo, the dangerous pressure to pretend to be stronger than one is… that ends up making one weaker and lesser than one should be.

To those who worry that offering so much soothing to a child risks turning them into malingering attention-seekers, we might reply that attention seekers are never people who have had too much attention, they are people whom the world tragically forgot existed. No one who has been properly and consistently soothed will bother spending their adult life in bathetic bids to be noticed; the most logical outcome for a child who has been well soothed will simply be to devote particular energy to the task of soothing other people.

– Holding:

A primary weapon against distress is touch. At the news of anxiety, the soother doesn’t hesitate to hold the other person tightly in their arms, giving them a visceral sense of being a protective figure who is on their side against their foes. The panicked breathing and racing heartbeat have a chance to align with the steadier rhythms of the soother. In the early days, a soother might place an infant on their shoulder and stroke their head and back. Later on, it might be a cuddle on a knee, and later still, a standing hug. But the message will remain the same: the suffering will not have to be borne alone.

– Singing:

Lullabies reveal the extent to which it’s not necessarily words that can make us feel more tranquil. The baby doesn’t understand what’s being said but they are calmed all the same by even the clumsiest (but most heartfelt) song; this shows us that we are all tonal creatures long before we are creatures of understanding. Ancient Greek mythology was fascinated by the story of the musician Orpheus, who had to rescue his wife from the underworld. To get there he needed to make his way past Cerberus, a ferocious three-headed dog who guarded the entrance to the land of the dead. Orpheus was said to have played such sweet, enchanting music that the wild beast calmed down and became – for a while – mild and docile. The Greeks were giving themselves a reminder of the psychological power of music. Orpheus didn’t reason with Cerberus, he didn’t try to explain how important it was that he should be allowed to pass, he didn’t speak about how much he loved his wife and how much he wanted her back. Cerberus was – as we ourselves are at times of distress – pretty much immune to reason. But he was still open to being calmed. It was a matter of finding the right channel to reach him, the channel of a song. 

– Concern:

At the first mention of a physical ailment, the good soother puts into motion some well-practiced responses: most importantly, a suggestion that one lie down on the sofa (for challenges shouldn’t really be faced in a vertical position), then a blanket (probably oversized, thick and a bit worn) and afterwards, a hand on the forehead to check for a raised temperature. Soon after, it might be time for a tray.

– Food: 

Hunger isn’t the point. It’s the idea of nourishment that counts: a priority is to go and make something to eat or drink. The good soother will at once offer a range of dishes; hot chocolate for sure, but also toast, lemon cake and – almost certainly – a soft boiled egg. The rituals of preparation are central, familiar smells should come up from the kitchen along with the gentle knocking of pans and crockery, active symbols of concern and kindly bustle. In one of the most soothing paintings in the world, the 18th century French artist Chardin shows us a woman in a plain kitchen taking the top off a boiled egg. The title of the painting, The Convalescent, lets us know that the food is destined for someone who is unwell, but cleverly, Chardin has kept them out of sight. He is on this occasion out to celebrate the carer rather than the cared for. He wants us to notice the woman’s qualities of patience, concentration and genial concern. We are being reminded of what love involves and how deeply indebted we are, all of us who enjoy a measure of health and sanity, to those who once soothed us.

        
– Supplies

The good soother knows that this is not the time for Heidegger. They therefore bring us colouring posters, puzzles, pens, very silly but compelling books and even sillier and more compelling magazines. 

– Nicknames:

The good soother renames their charges during their difficulties. Like a patient in a hospital whose wrist is ringed with an identifying code on registration, the soother assigns their offspring a new name for the duration of the crisis, ideally one that indicates both smallness and bravery, vulnerability and strength: ‘sweet soldier’ or ‘brave mushroom’ perhaps, or ‘gutsy button’ or ‘poor potpot’ (alliterations are especially good). This might be supplemented with the prefix ‘my’, to imply – like a general with his troops – that one is very much fighting this together, be it a virus or a bout of sadness.

– Being boring:

The most soothing people are a little boring, in a good way. We aren’t looking to them to entertain us or dazzle us in our moments of woe. While a crisis lasts, we just need them to be pottering around quietly, realigning books or sorting out the photos, and telling us a few simple things about local life: what’s going on with the neighbour’s rabbit, what the lady in the postoffice said about her son’s exam results etc. This isn’t a time for big ambitions or perplexing theories, we’re retrenching and can be cheered by nothing larger than a small walk around the park or the sight of a vase of pretty spring flowers. The normal horizons and ambitions have fallen away, we’re taking it a day – or a few hours – at a time.

– Loyalty

The good soother leaves us in no doubt as to where their loyalties lie. We don’t even need to have finished recounting our mistreatment at the hands of others for them to be ready with their outraged interventions on our behalf: what absolute cheek; they need their head examined. What a monster. If they dare to lay a hand on you, I’m going to… A normally gentle soul reveals they have a backbone – and more. They would fight to the death for us. They are suddenly a fearsome combatant and the thing they’d risk their life for would be us. They don’t expect us to be perfect, we might be to blame as well, but for now, they are on our side. It’s the way they are built. They may respect the law in theory, but in principle, they’d do pretty much anything to try to spring us out of prison. This is what it means to have had a ‘privileged’ childhood.

A household in which soothing manoeuvers unfold sets a child up for life. It won’t then matter what troubles they encounter, they will be armed with the finest psychological weapons with which to slay them. Even better, the soothing voice won’t merely be a voice outside of them, it’ll become the way they speak to themselves. Years later, when the soothing parent might no longer be with them, and time might have greyed and aged them, they will still be able to minister to their own needs with the tenderness they learnt in their long-distant childhood; they’ll know that the storm will pass, especially if they find a way to have a small lie down and, perhaps, a boiled egg.