This month I have been reading a great deal of the current thinking about bringing up girls to be healthy, happy and hopeful. I have learnt girls aged 10-14 need to be helped to find the passion out of which a powerful life-interest or a career may bloom (Steve Biddulph). It seems children need to be left to grow some grit and gumption rather than having the ill effects of their errors constantly swept away (Paul Tough). Also, young women must be given every encouragement not to make their appearance their chief project (Natasha Walter).
I have two girls but when I read about what young women need I am usually thinking of yours truly. I raised myself, to a large extent, deciding how I wanted to be and trying to bring it about, so I am always looking for tips.
Not praising your children is having quite a fashion moment just now. Yet praise is meat and drink to adults, and children are people too. Do we really want to return to that disgusting English thing of doing our children down all the time? Ten years ago phrases such as “little horror”, “monster” and “tyrant” were pretty acceptable in the playground. You could buy photo-mugs printed with these words for Christmas gifts. Babies were said to be manipulative little devils when they cried, as though they were trying to pull the wool over your eyes and get a free cuddle in the night, but you can’t say these things any more, thank God.
I despise that kind of talk. Shouldn’t we insist on a culture in which our neutral gear towards our children is one of high regard? It is surely nonsense to present ourselves as impartial judges of their achievements. They are not stupid. They know we are foolish and fond. We go overboard (being specific and precise in our praise, of course) and they roll their eyes and shake their heads, and smile and colour. Where’s the harm?
In the café where I work I often hear successful businessmen complain about their children’s lack of drive. They talk about the tremendous odds they themselves overcame to become the impressive beings, bursting with backbone, that they are today. Some lost a parent and became the men of the house when they were still in short trousers. Some were carers, living in homes riven by mental health problems. Most were children of divorce. There is resentment in their voice when they say things such as, “My children want for nothing, and d’you know what? They do nothing.” Sometimes, although I affect to be minding my own business, they ask my advice.
In the past, doling out advice was my favourite hobby but I am bigger than that now. And yet I long to let the grown-ups have it: “OK, so you were driven to success by a certain amount of fear and anxiety in life but part of that success has meant creating an environment for your children where fear and anxiety have no house room. Your children’s sense of comfort ought to be a badge of honour, it ought to bring immense pride. It’s unfair to resent it.”
I leave it unsaid. They shrug. Mixed feelings aren’t for the fainthearted. Then, with the next breath they drop a remark that is exactly where shame and pride meet, such as: “So when my children got off the aeroplane at Miami, one of them said – you’ll never guess, and this is really embarrassing – ‘Dad, do we have a house here? I can’t remember.’ ”
There is a fortune to be made with a company that would insert mild, improving obstacles in the lives of the children of the prosperous. It will take the kind of child who is given to exclaiming, “Oh my God, Dad, there are lots of strangers on our plane,” and turn him into one who might instead murmur: “Just going to take some soup for the lady next door. I’ve sieved it twice ’cos of her operation. She has such interesting stories about the war.”
In the main I let these things wash over me, retaining the good and dismissing what doesn’t suit by murmuring smugly to myself, “Every shred of evidence supports me,” which is my new favourite way of starting a sentence. But I must admit to being startled this morning when I read that we should not let our daughters watch too many musicals. Apparently, it plants a false idea about relationships in their mind, that could lead to life-long problems in the romance department. Could it be true?
If so – oh, what a terrible morning! Oh, what a ruinous day! I’ve got a nightmarish feeling, I have failed in every way.
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