Parenting is a tough job. I have been at it for nearly 22 years (more, if you count time in the womb, and why not?) and it doesn’t get any easier. Over the years I’ve tried various methods of lightening the load, including outsourcing (to family, friends, nannies, nurseries, you name it) and even abdication (staying in the office flat for the night and refusing to go home).
But if I find anything harder than parenting my own children, it is parenting other people’s. Nothing, in my experience, gets people more wound up than criticism of their offspring. So whenever the three cost centres have friends over, I do always wonder how far I am allowed to exercise my role as surrogate parent. And after all these years I am still wondering.
When children are little, it is about table manners. Can I tell someone else’s child that they must not start eating until everyone has been served? Or that they should ask to get down from the table? Perhaps they are never made to eat vegetables at home or, worse, their rules at home are entirely more lax than mine.
Then it all moves on. Over the past year I have had to take various visiting children aside and speak to them about matters rather more serious than a refusal to eat vegetables. Such as, no, it is not acceptable to arrive for an overnight stay in our house with a bottle of spirits hidden in their sleeping bag. And, no, nor is it acceptable to turn up bearing a stash of marijuana that you have procured in Camden.
So I was very happy to meet someone who is a surrogate parent to more than 800 children. Andy Schofield is the headmaster of the Wellington Academy, a non-selective state school in Wiltshire that opened in 2009, replacing a failing comprehensive. Half the students at the Wellington Academy are from families of military personnel, which makes it even more appropriate that it is sponsored by Wellington College in Berkshire (annual fees £30,000), whose motto is Heroum Filii (“sons of heroes”). I met some very impressive students at the academy, so much so that I thought at first that they must have been from the £30k Wellington. Schofield says that the overwhelming majority of young people in ordinary schools like his are engaging, responsive and funny. “They’re just younger than us and it is part of their role to make the same mistakes as we did when we were younger,” he told me. Golly, I hope that my own children don’t make half the mistakes I made when I was younger.
What is his advice to others? “What works for me is not being too judgmental – the tut-tut mentality – and not crushing their spirit, while providing the moral guidance they need.” That’s quite a statement.
I wonder what he would think of an experience I had recently, watching someone dealing with someone else’s child. My Longest Standing Girlfriend was staying with her husband and 10-year-old cost centre in a medieval hamlet in Tuscany where they have fractional ownership. I repaired there for a week with CC#3, age 12, while I finished writing my next book. LSG provided the childcare, but her own tut-tut mentality was severely tested when CC#3 bought himself a crossbow with his pocket money during an excursion.
LSG’s husband was in charge of the cooking. On a couple of evenings though, he demanded a rest from his duties, so we ate in the village trattoria alongside selected other fractional owners, including an Eminent Barrister from Manchester. One evening, CC#3 turned his nose up at a vegetable pizza. After I failed to coax him into eating it, EB, deploying his superior oratorial and persuasive skills, had a go. He didn’t tut-tut once. CC#3 listened to him intently then looked him straight in the eye. “Please,” he said, “will you stop back-seat-parenting me?”
Let’s hope he doesn’t have his sights on a career in the law. And see? Even if you are an EB, parenting other people’s children is never easy.
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