A review of Philippa Perry’s new parenting book: The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did). Good advice, or just another guilt trip?
The latest best selling parenting book
This book “may upset you, make you angry or even make you a better parent”, so says the Foreword of Philippa Perry’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did).
Well, I’ve read it and you’re spot on Ms Perry. I’m both upset and angry. The jury’s out on whether it will make me a better parent.
Perry’s book is marketed as a ‘refreshing, judgement-free book’ which explains the vital dos and don’ts of parenting.
The central premise is that the way we behave with our children is a projection of the way we were parented. How we were brought up has a bearing on how we parent. If some of those parenting behaviours are sub-optimal, it’s up to us to break the cycle.
Picture the scene
Let’s imagine a familiar scene: you are enduring – sorry – enjoying a parent and toddler playgroup, when little Gary snatches a toy from baby Barry.
(Neither of my kids is called Gary or Barry – they’re in here for comic effect because where have all the baby Garys and Barrys gone?)
My playgroup days are well and truly over, but I can remember how I would have responded to this scenario. I would have:
- Got down to Gary’s level and asked him politely to give back the toy;
- Demonstrated, perhaps with some gentle coaxing, how to give the toy back to Barry;
- Tried to distract him with another toy;
- Widened my eyes, raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips to show I meant business;
- Raised my voice to demonstrate this is a serious matter;
- Snatched the toy away from Gary and given it back to Barry.
I’m not saying that’s the correct response, but it’s what I would have done.
Defending my inner child
In Perry’s world, this frustration I felt about Gary’s behaviour was my defence mechanism kicking in. His behaviour was supposedly threatening to trigger my feelings of despair, jealousy or loneliness I had at his age. I lashed out at him with angry words and impatient actions in defence.
In other words, if I became angry with my two-year-old for not sharing, it’s because my inner two-year-old was told off for not sharing. The reason I got upset when my toddler had a meltdown in Mothercare, was because it reminded me of not being listened to when I was a child. And if I don’t nip this reaction in the bud, little Gary is going to pass it onto his children.
Back at the playgroup though, the only thing I’m worried about passing on is Barry’s toy, back to Barry.
Perry is a proponent of the Philip Larkin school of parenting:
This Be The Verse
By Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Angry and upset
I just read Larkin’s poem in full and had to stop to cry. I’m full of hormones at the moment so am easily triggered, but the weight of blame is so heavy.
Why am I so angry? Perry says this isn’t a judgement of our parenting ability, and that it’s never too late to heal the ruptures of the past. She provides alternative ways to deal with situations like the one described above, which I’ll come on to. But she is judging and blaming the generation before.
Even the title is judgemental. This is the book ‘you wish your parents had read’, right? Bloody parents and their non-parenting-book-reading habits.
I’ve conducted an extensive survey of one, my mum. She first became a parent in the 1960s, and sure, parenting books were available, notably Baby and Child Care by Dr Spock, which has been largely discredited. Back then smoking was still acceptable in pregnancy and spanking was a conventional form of punishment.
My parents neither smoked nor spanked (although the latter was occasionally threatened). They used their common sense and if in doubt, asked their parents. Mine was a happy childhood, where I understood the boundaries my parents set and my place within them. I do not recall feelings of loneliness or despair.
The teenage years were more lonely. I felt like the third person in a friendship of two, plus one. Perhaps if Perry covered the teenage years, this theory of projection would come more sharply into focus for me. But the image of me as a lonely, anxious toddler just doesn’t ring true.
Picture the scene #2
So, what does Perry advise we do when Gary is kicking off in the middle of aisle four? She says denying and distracting are the wrong approaches. Rather than trying to explain that the massive shiny knives are not toys for two-year-olds (denying), but that the cuddly, less fatal teddy bear we brought with us is a more suitable plaything (distraction), we should empathise and validate Gary’s feelings.
For example: “Gary, I completely understand how much you want to play with that knife. It’s all shiny and I know how much you’d enjoy showing it to your brother. You don’t like it when mummy says you can’t have something you want. I’m sorry that’s frustrating for you.” And leave it at that.
(Again, the knives are for comic effect folks, don’t write in.)
Perry’s justification for this approach is that young children live in the present, so we must deal with the emotions they’re experiencing now. By investing in the present, communication will be easier in the future.
My kids are 11 and 13, so I’m at least ten years too late.
Reading through the case studies in her book made me feel increasingly guilty and upset. I didn’t parent my young children in this empathic way. I coaxed and distracted, rather than validating my kids’ emotions when they were little. Now that they can communicate on our level, I am much more empathic. But is it too late to undo the mistakes of the past? And what horrific damage have I done to them already?
One of Perry’s chapters is devoted to the controversial subject of sleep. I strongly disagree with her approach to being guided by your baby and their natural sleep pattern. She suggests letting them co-sleep with you until they decide for themselves to use their beds. If I had followed that advice, I would be co-sleeping with a teenager.
I know this is a very emotive subject and everyone has their own opinion. All I’m saying is that according to Perry, not only was I wrong, but our sleep training was cruel, and now my kids will pass these mistakes onto their kids. And so it goes on.
This book dialled up my anxiety. It’s not like I’m nailing everything else. I only just found out that you’re meant to wear hair grips wavy side down and I’ve been peeling bananas from the wrong end.
A better parent?
As predicted, this book made me angry and upset, but has it made me a better parent? The surprising answer is yes.
Over the last couple of weeks when my sons have been upset, I’ve approached the situation differently. Rather than dismissing their problems as nothing to worry about, or trying to provide a solution, I listened, empathised and demonstrated that I understood how they felt. They wanted to be heard and consoled – not fixed. Their problems didn’t go away, but they felt better about them.
You’re a good mum
We carry so much guilt and blame. The rules keep changing. Of the 100,000 parenting books listed on Amazon, I wonder how many contradict each other.
When was the last time someone told you you’re a good mum? I’m lucky to have incredible friends who are brilliant mums and they’re generous with their reassurance too. Most public discourse about parenting is critical and negative.
Are your kids happy, healthy, attending school, not getting into trouble? Then you’re doing a great job. The fact that you’re reading this blog about parenting is probably an indication that you’re a caring parent.
By all means read the next bestselling parenting book – hell, read this one if you must – but don’t take it all to heart. Pick and choose the few tips that work for you.
Have you read The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did)? What did you think? What parenting books would you recommend? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment below.
Much love, Vx[Disclosure: Affiliate links used.]