How to raise happy children with good mental health – without losing our own
Philippa Perry advises parents to argue well, admit mistakes and show interest
Grayson and Philippa Perry attend the V&A Summer Party at The V&A in London. Photograph: Mike Marsland/ WireImage
Even as I said it to one of my colleagues, I knew how cringingly petty it sounded: I tell horror stories about my children because I want other people – particularly those without offspring – to know how hard being a parent really is.
Ah, I think to myself when talking to some young one, you weren’t able to get your usual 12 hours of sleep last night because you were doing vodka shots and having sex? Poor baby. I haven’t slept in seven years and spend most of my time with two people who have absolutely no regard for me.
But after I left my colleague, and after I berated myself for being a bad mother, I realised that the reason I cling to my horror stories is because they are all I have.
How sad is that?
Then I picked up The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did), published by Penguin Life. With empathy and wisdom, psychotherapist and mother Philippa Perry offers practical advice on how to raise happy children with good mental health – without losing our own in the process.
Perry, who is based in London, starts off by arguing that the labels of “bad” or “good” parent are not helpful to anyone. “Let’s drop ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as attributes for mothers and fathers,” she writes. “No one is wholly saint or sinner. I’d go further. Just as we shouldn’t judge ourselves, we should try not to judge our children.”
Instead of judging, parents should focus on building their relationships with their children. And the key to successful relationships – with your children or others – is to be responsive and interested.
Perry, who has presented BBC and Channel 4 documentaries, recognises that taking the time to be responsive and interested can be challenging, as people juggle responsibilities of work, relationships and parenting, while battling lack of sleep and an erosion of personal space.
But while recognising this, Perry offers insightful advice and helpful steps that parents can take to improve their relationships with their children and help their offspring to lead healthier, happier lives.
The first step, argues Perry, who is mother to grown-up daughter Flo, is to look at one’s own upbringing, in order to understand one’s own triggers and emotional outbursts. She argues that we can lash out at our children when we are suddenly reminded of similar situations from our own childhood. Recognising that we are reacting to something in the past is important to changing our behaviour in the present.
Acknowledging our mistakes and apologising to our children when we make them is much more important than saving face
Perry understands that none of us is perfect, and we will inevitably make mistakes, when we yell at our children or do not respond to their cries for love and attention. But she says acknowledging our mistakes and apologising to our children when we make them is much more important than saving face.
In fact, if we pretend to be perfect all the time, our children will pick up on this incongruity, and stop trusting their instincts. “A child’s own instincts will tell them when we are not in tune with them or with what’s happening and, if we pretend that we are, we will dull their instincts,” Perry writes.
“Then they can become more vulnerable to people who may not have their best interests at heart. Instinct is a major component in confidence, competence and intelligence, so it’s a good idea not to damage or warp your child’s.”
Most parents (and those without children) have a constant stream of negative chatter streaming through their minds: they’re bad parents, they make bad choices, they’re losers, they are ugly – the list goes on.
But because children so often do as you do and not as you say, vanquishing your own inner critic is crucial if you want to save your own children from judging themselves and others too harshly.
Practical steps to avoid negative spirals include recognising when you are being too self-critical, setting those criticisms gently to one side – as you might an annoying colleague who voices their opinion out of turn – and expanding your comfort zone. In other words, doing the things that your inner critic says you cannot do. “If you want your children to have the capacity for happiness, the thing that may get in the way more than many others is your self-critic,” Perry warns.
The environment in which our children grow up is comprised not only of the physical space but their primary caregivers, their school community and extended family and friends. Crucial for children is whether they feel safe and secure in their environment, or not.
To help foster safety and security, Perry says parents must learn to argue well, in order to create an environment of respect and collaboration. Vollying blame back and forth between yourself and other grown-ups in your home does no one any good. Instead, the ideal arguing style is based on understanding, not winning.
Perry, who is married to artist and campaigner Grayson Perry, recognises that when you are parenting 24/7, having the emotional reserves to foster goodwill can be tough. But the two main things to focus on are responding to your family’s bids for connection or attention, and finding solace from each other, rather than seeing them as adversaries or annoyances. “So this is the key to a successful partnership: be responsive and interested,” writes Perry. “And what is true for couples is true for all relationships, and especially those with our children.”
Being responsive and interested is, in turn, key to forming a strong bond with your child, which will also help them feel safe, secure and bolster their mental health.
I believe the happiest parents are those who are open and willing to learn from their children
But how can you create a bond between you and your children, one that encourages a capacity for health and happiness in both of you? Listening, observing and responding to them, says Perry, from the day they are born, and letting them influence you as much as you influence them.
“I believe the happiest parents are those who are open and willing to learn from their children, to keep expanding their viewpoint by taking in their children’s,” Perry writes.
“A child whose person and point of view is respected learns innately to respect others. They can take it for granted that there is more than one way of seeing things and experiencing things.”
All these things take time and energy, which parents often have in little supply. But unlike other parenting books, which so often lead to further feelings of failure, Perry’s book offers a glimmer of hope that, just perhaps, you and your children can come out the other side with everyone’s mental health intact.