Relationships Archives - The School Of Life

We’re unlucky enough if we meet with people who want to do us wrong, show us contempt and take advantage of us. But this is as nothing next to the monumental bad luck of encountering people who do all this to us while also being extremely skilled at pretending that they aren’t; those master manipulators who are at once innocent-seeming and, deep down, profoundly scheming. These people won’t only hurt us, they will do something far worse: rob us of our understanding of ourselves, strip us of basic trust and, along the way, for a time, make us lose our minds.

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However good we might be at fighting overt antagonists, many of us are constitutionally unprepared to detect ones that have entered our intimate lives; we expect and can deal with enemies at the office, but the bedroom feels like a sanctum where our guard is down. Yet this doesn’t mean that some very dark things can’t unfold there. There are people we can take up with who have been so badly hurt by something in their early lives that they are committed to exacting revenge on anyone who comes too close to them: they may semi-consciously be seeking to exorcise on their partners a latent rage against a dead or depressed parent, they may want to punish a bullying sibling or release themselves from a sense of intolerable vulnerability created by an incident of early abuse.

Such dark possibilities are rarely spoken of in useful terms. There are plenty of popular references to ‘psychos’ and ‘lunatics’ but far fewer patient analyses of how exactly other minds can be distorted and how widespread longings for vengeance may be beneath smiles and good manners.

When we meet with difficulties, we have two explanations to fall back on: the first is to doubt ourselves. The second is to wonder whether, and how, the other person might be ill. If we almost always pick the former, it’s because of how familiar and reassuring it is not to take our own sides. It is so much easier for us to think that we are (as they also quickly tell us) irrationally prone to anger, over-excited, ‘insane’ and complaining for no reason — rather than deep in a relationship with a cruel soul.

Those who are most prone to being gaslit in adult love are, sadly of course, the very people who may have been gaslit by their own parents. The idea sounds yet more curious, but parents too can be adept at polishing their reputations and will insist that they are kind — while simultaneously expending enormous hostility on their thoroughly confused child.

Despite decades of training in self-doubt, we may need to do a remarkable thing: trust in what our unhappiness is telling us about those we think of as good. The test isn’t whether they tell us they love us, it’s how at peace they make us feel. We may have to accept that the world is filled with some very dangerous people who look entirely safe to our fatefully untrained eyes. We may need to think a bit less badly of ourselves and substantially worse of some sweet-seeming characters who claim with great sincerity to love us — and don’t.

One of the finest things about being a baby is that our minds can be read by others. Without us needing to say anything, people around us will have a guess at determining what we intend — and, typically, they’ll get it right. They’ll correctly surmise that we are craving some milk or that the sun is shining in our eyes, that it’s time for a snooze or that we want to jiggle the keys again.

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This may be highly gratifying and important to us in infancy, but it can set up dangerous expectations for the rest of our lives. It can breed in us the sense that anyone — especially anyone who claims to care about us — should be able to determine our deepest aspirations and wishes without us needing to say very much. We can stay silent; they will mindread.

This explains a widespread tendency to assume that others must know what we mean and want without us having actually told them anything clearly. We assume that our lover must know what we’re upset about, that our friends should realise where our sensitivities lie and that our colleagues must intuitively grasp how we want things done in presentations.

Furthermore, we assume that if they don’t, then it must be a sign that they are being wicked, deliberately obtuse or stupid — and we are therefore justified in falling into a sulk, that curious pattern of behaviour whereby we punish people for having committed offences whose precise nature we refuse to reveal to them.

But in all this, we have, somewhere along the path of our development, forgotten the fundamental importance of teaching. Teaching isn’t a distinctive profession focused on imparting knowledge about science and the humanities to the under 18s. It’s a skill that we must put into practice every day of our lives — and the subject we must laboriously and patiently become experts in and deliver ‘lessons’ on is called ‘Ourselves’: what we like, what we’re scared of, what we’re hopeful about, what we want from the world and how we look for things to be formatted… 

Babies, for all their intelligence and charm, only care about a handful of things; an average adult has thousands of very set ideas on all manner of topics, from the right way to govern a country to the right way to shut the fridge door. We should strive to deliver a few ‘seminars’ on our views before allowing ourselves to grow resentful and sullen.

Yet how understandable — in a sense — if we should fail so badly in our teaching duties. We’re not necessarily being lazy or unkind. It’s merely unbelievable that strangers would actually require us to talk them through yet another chapter of the dense instruction manual of our deep selves. We never had to bother with all that in the early years. We may be more nostalgic for our infancy than we might have dared to imagine.

It can seem very confusing why certain long-term relationships survive and some don’t. It can — from afar — look as if it’s the most cruel and alarming sort of lottery. Trying to explain love to a child or a visitor from another planet promises to be a perplexing matter indeed: all couples on their wedding day are united in wanting to make things work. Then, for reasons beyond anyone’s comprehension, some of them simply seem to dissolve and others don’t.

To remove some of the terrifying element of apparent chance (and encourage us to work on the right aspects of our own couples), it may be helpful to become deliberately reductive about the real reasons why breakups occur.

We need — in this regard — first to discount certain causes that gain far too much airtime relative to their actual likelihoods. Of course, sometimes people break up because one party wants a younger partner. Or because they want better sex. Or because they are seeking a more exciting companion. Or because their hobbies or political views have drifted apart. Or because things have — somehow — grown ‘stale.’

But let’s quickly try to reduce the role we give to such explanatory factors: given the costs of break-ups, given the massive investments that people make in being together, given the chaos generated if there are children, one can assert with a high degree of confidence that almost no one ever splits up for such familiar reasons.

The real reason lies elsewhere; the real reason for break up lies in one or both spouse’s sense that they have not been heard, that something very important to them has been disregarded, that their point of view has not, at a fundamental level, been acknowledged and honoured. It doesn’t matter what the subject of this non-hearing happens to be: it could be that they haven’t been heard about their views on money, or on the way the children are being brought up, or on how their weekends should be managed, or on how intimacy occurs or doesn’t occur.

It’s feeling unheard for our differences that is unbearable; it’s never the presence of differences per se.

We don’t break up because a partner doesn’t agree with us. We could stand not getting what we want. We could stand a partner who votes another way than we do. Or who is no longer as young as they once were. Or who has annoying friends. Or different tastes in holidays. What we can’t stand is someone who blocks us when we try to articulate how troublesome we find these areas of divergence; when our unique way of looking at existence seems a matter of basic indifference, that is too lonely and enraging to bear. It’s better to be single than unseen; after all, the unseen are alone anyway, whatever their ostensible relationship status.

There is a big difference between a partner not doing what we want and a partner not hearing what we want. It’s entirely possible that one would remain with someone who doesn’t share most of our interests — so long as they happen to accept, and signal an understanding of, how much these interests matter to us. It would be possible for us to live with someone who doesn’t want the same sort of sex as we do (or wants no sex at all), so long as they can at points see matters from our position — and can give a modicum of empathy to our hopes and longings. We could be with someone whose needs for affection run in a different direction, so long as they have the courage to listen to how ours operate. We don’t need partners to agree with us on everything; we need them to give off signs that they can accept the scale and legitimacy of our vision. ‘I understand’ is the phrase that could single-handedly rescue more long-term relationships than any number of anniversary celebrations or therapy sessions; it deserves to known as the most romantic phrase in existence.

There is a lot of hope in this thesis. If we want to stay together, we don’t need to be exceptionally beautiful or rich. We don’t need to rely on chance. We don’t have to have brilliant sex or a friction free alignments of interests.

We just need to make sure that we are people who listen; who when the partner has something very important they need to get across to us, can bear to take things on board, can bear to acknowledge an opposite position, can bear to say: ‘I can see this matters a lot to you… and I will try my hardest to think about it and see what I can do about it.’ From here, it really doesn’t matter if things radically change or not; the vital work will have been done — and the relationship will have been assured.

People described as ‘defensive’ may have a thousand charms. But we should know that the most flawed open person is preferable to the most seemingly accomplished defensive one. The person we should settle down with isn’t the most attractive or the cleverest, it’s the one who feels no pride or compunction in readily saying: ‘I can hear what you are saying and how much this matters a lot to you… I get it…’ Or, ‘because I love you, this makes me curious, tell me more…’ This person will surely one day annoy or frustrate us mightily (everyone does). We’ll just be highly unlikely ever to want to break up with them.

We call them, for good reason, ‘adult’ relationships — that is, relationships entered into when we are grown up, and committed to the principles and virtues of a mature existence.

What can be paradoxical therefore is the extent to which —in the finest couples — the atmosphere owes a debt to certain of the moods and interests of early childhood. For a start, we might want to call the partner ‘baby’, and they might call us ‘poppet.’ We might speak in slightly younger voices and in a higher register. We might buy them a furry giraffe and they might buy us an equally adorable soft toy version of a golden retriever. The two animals might even play games with one another and give each other cuddles when they are sad.

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

It can all look — in the bright light of day — highly unfortunate and regressive. But this would be to overlook how much adult love necessarily sits on a base created in childhood and therefore should, when it is going well, share certain characteristics with the better moments of our pasts. It is no sign of folly when we use diminutives with our loved ones, it is evidence that we have found our way back to the vulnerability, defencelessness and need that we once knew how to express and entertain with refreshing guilelessness — and that we must reconnect with in order to have a chance to love even if we are, in the rest of our lives, mature defence attorneys, senior cardiac nurses or lauded venture capitalists.

We might — in turn — wonder at those who appear too keen to dismiss sentimental child-based play as ‘baby-ish.’ We might ask what happened to the infantile part of them and why it had to be disowned so forcefully. We might explore how hard it is for them to be witnessed as fragile — and therefore, perhaps, to be gentle around the fragility of others. True maturity doesn’t — ultimately — mean quashing all evidence of weakness or immaturity. It means according the younger part of us its due within the totality of our capacities. It calls for an ability to mother or father the younger self of the partner — and to allow them to do likewise to us. 

We may have to wait until we are real adults before we can re-learn how to play — and love — with some of the authenticity and uncensored frankness of our three year old selves.

For most of human history, relationships were relatively simple for a banal yet immovable reason: it was extremely hard to meet anyone acceptable – and everyone knew it. There were only a few people in the village, travel was expensive and social occasions few and far between. 

This had many drawbacks: it encouraged people to accept offers from suitors they were unconvinced by, it meant that characters who would have delighted each other died lonely and unfulfilled because there were a few mountains or a river between them.

Our technologists have used their genius to correct these historic obstacles and provide us with unending choice. Meeting someone new is now a constant possibility. But this breakthrough at the level of introduction has obscured an ongoing challenge at the level of ultimate purpose: we may have become easier to meet, but we are not any easier to love.

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We remain — each one of us — highly challenging propositions for anyone to take on. All of us are riddled with psychological quirks that serve to render an ongoing relationship extremely problematic: we are impatient, prone to making unjust accusations, rife with self-pity, and unused to expressing our needs in a way they can be understood by others — just to start the list…

That we can meet so many people has beautifully obscured our ugly sides, breeding in us the charming yet misleading idea — which engulfs us any time we hit difficulties — that we are in trouble because we have not until now met ‘the right person.’ The reason why there is friction and longing has, we tell ourselves, nothing to do with certain stubborn infelicities in our own natures or paradoxes in the human condition as a whole, it is only a matter of needing to hunt further for a more reasonable candidate who will, at last, see things our way.

The promise of choice has drained us of the patience and modesty necessary to grapple with the tensions that are prone to come our way whomever we might be with. We forget that almost everyone is a charming prospect so long as we know nothing about them. Part of what it takes to be ready for love is to imagine the difficulties that we cannot, as yet, know too much about in detail; the bad moods that will lurk behind the energetic smiles, the difficult pasts that lie beneath the lustrous eyes, the tangled psyches that reside beneath a stated love of camping and the outdoors.

Even though there are hundreds of other people we might meet, there are not — in truth — so many people we could really love. Dating apps may have made it infinitely easier to connect but they haven’t helped us in any way to be more patient, imaginative, forgiving or empathetic, that is, any more adept at the arts that make any one relationship viable. Most of the issues we experience with a given candidate will therefore show up, in comparable guises, with almost anyone we might stumble upon.

The real work we should be doing isn’t — once we have had a reasonable look around — to keep trying to meet new people; it’s to get to the root of what makes it hard to live with any one person we could alight upon.

We will be ready for love when we surrender some of our excited sense of possibility and recognise that though we might have many choices, we don’t — in reality — have so many options. It may sound dark, but this will, in its own way, be a liberating realisation that can help us redirect our energies away from the exhausting circuit of new encounters towards a search for the kind of mutual emotional maturity on which true love can one day be built.

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Most of us have a general understanding that ‘games playing’ in relationships is a bad thing – and that all good people are opposed to them. ‘I don’t play games,’ is a favourite mantra declaimed by hopeful people at the beginning love stories the world over.

However, it can be less obvious what games playing really involves – and therefore how definitively to avoid its dynamics. We too often associate this “so-called sport” with its most obvious manifestations in the dating phase: for example, when a person hides their desire beneath a veneer of indifference, or goes cold as soon as love is reciprocated.

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But there are plenty of other forms of games playing that are far more insidious, invisible and, in the long run, dangerous. They occur whenever we decide to stop saying something difficult, vulnerable or hurt that is on our minds and camouflage an injury instead.

We play games when our partner does or says something that wounds us but we choose not to reveal it, we stay silent and smiley, because to be honest would make us feel exposed, desperate, cloying and weak in front of someone who (we fear) might simply not care enough about us to listen. Therefore, we opt to initiate a so-called ‘game’ in which we do the following. We bury our ruffled feelings about this or that problem, but we do so deliberately badly, in the hope that our partner will in time realise their offence and then feel sorry for it and apologise – without us having had to be naked about our upset. 

The ‘game’ sets out to provoke guilt as an alternative to emotional frankness. So rather than tell a partner cleanly that we’re a bit upset that they didn’t — for instance — buy us the medicine we asked them to pick up on their way back from work, we play the “game” of blithely not caring about their forgetting. We stay silent, and then, the next morning, we go to the chemist ourselves, and leave the box and the receipt prominently on the kitchen table. When (as we had hoped) they spot it and immediately say, ‘Oh god, I’m so sorry,’ we smile casually and reply, ‘Oh don’t worry, that’s fine, it wasn’t a bother for me.’

It may seem like a tiny incident but the seismologists of relationships will know that this is likely to be the harbinger of something far bigger: a fateful pattern of not declaring what is wrong, of hoping to be read without explaining, of not daring to speak about what matters, all of which can over time lead to a grave erosion of trust and destructive indirect methods of communication that bring anger and resentment in their wake.

Games playing is a subset of behaviour we know as sulking. When we sulk, it’s because a partner has in some way offended us. They have told a story in public that we wanted to be kept private, they have shown us a lack of tact, they have forgotten an important occasion, they have failed to listen to us. But the sulker acts as if from an unhelpfully romantic hope: that they should be interpreted without needing to speak. They dream that someone who truly loved them would guess what they were upset about, without requiring the offence to be spelt out to them in a medium as clumsy and as slow as language. They want to be understood without words.

Anyone who fails to do this is quickly taken by the sulker to be badly intentioned. There is little space to believe in innocent failures of empathy. The partner hasn’t merely failed to grasp what is going on, their failure is willed; they are doing this on purpose. To a feeling of abandonment, the sulker adds a layer of persecution.

Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

For the sulker, it is a great deal more tempting to devote the next six hours to answering curtly, insisting that nothing is wrong and affecting a pained and melancholy look — than to strive to delineate the nature of their hurt.

We are taking our first steps towards a less fraught kind of coupledom when we are finally able to tell someone who has upset us that they have upset us – preferably within the very half hour in which they have done so.

A true commitment to not playing games involves a profound effort directly to say everything that has upset us at once. It could sound like we are being  ‘difficult’. However, so long as we are polite, communicating hurt is anything but poor behaviour. It’s the greatest privilege to be in love with a true adult who can tell us what is wrong precisely when a problem occurs –  and is brave enough to present themselves as weak so that love can stay strong.


There is a particular kind of person who is always – it seems – unlucky in love. Despite their best intentions and efforts, they seem to move from one unsatisfying candidate to another without ever being able to settle. One lover turned out to be secretly married to someone else, another – after an initial period of enthusiasm – never called back, a third turned out to be alcoholic and violent… We can only express sympathy for what seems like so much bad luck.

And yet, if one examines the problem at closer range, we’re liable to find that bad luck can only explain so much – and that there has, in addition, been a process of careful curation at work. The unfortunate lover has not simply stumbled upon a succession of frustrating or mean-minded partners, they have actively sought these out and invited them in, while simultaneously ensuring that no kinder candidate could ever gain a foothold. They still deserve a lot of sympathy, but not for the problem they have ostensibly complained about.

It is logical to imagine that what we naturally want in love is someone who will treat us with respect and tenderness, with loyalty and thoughtfulness. But however much these may sound desirable in theory, in reality, such qualities are, in some, liable to provoke huge anxieties and – on occasion – feelings of revulsion.

It might seem uncomplicatedly beautiful if someone makes us breakfast in bed, gives us endearing nicknames, tells us how much they miss us, cries a little when we go away on a long trip and offers us a thoughtful-looking teddy bear to pack in our case. There could surely be nothing nicer, except that is, if we are in any way in doubt as to our own value.

For the self-hating ones among us, such attentions are likely to trigger acute discomfort and anxiety: why does our lover seem to think so much better of us than we think of ourselves? Why do they hold us in such high esteem when we, for our part, cannot bear our reflection? How have we come to be so heroic in their eyes when we are so despicable in our own? Why do they call us beautiful and kind, intelligent and thoughtful when we feel as if we are none of these things? Their attentions end up having to be met with all the disdain we accord to false flatterers. We are sickened to receive gifts that we are, deep down, sure we do not deserve.

It’s as an escape from this form of nausea that we may run into the arms of people who can be relied upon to be satisfactorily cruel to us. They aren’t delighted when we walk into a room, they have no interest in our childhoods or what happened to us today, they show no particular enthusiasm for sleeping with us, they flirt with others and give us no guarantee that the relationship will survive until tomorrow. It sounds appalling and in a sense it is, but it may feel a lot less appalling than to be showered by a kindness we are certain in our bones that we have never earnt. At least the meanness on display accords perfectly with our assessment of ourselves. 

Whatever we may claim, there are almost always a host of potential romantic partners ready to treat us very nicely; it is just that – without any awareness of the process – we have probably become experts at dismissing them at the first opportunity, tossing them aside with terms like ‘boring’ or ‘uninspiring’ – by which we really mean: uninclined to think as badly of us as we think of ourselves or unlikely to make us suffer in the way we need to suffer in order to feel we are receiving the sort of attention that befits us. 

In truth, these kind people are generally very far from dull or stupid. They have cleverly spotted something about us that we have not yet taken on board: that we are not appalling and that beneath our defences, we remain kind, sweet and worthy. These observers just frighten us because, with their kindness, they challenge a fundamental pillar of our psychology, the idea that we are owed punishment. 

We will learn to see many such kind lovers waiting for us in the wings, and will be far readier to let them into our affections, the moment we can accept that, for all our many (yet utterly normal) flaws, we don’t deserve to be treated badly for the rest of our lives.

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.


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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
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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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