Saturday, 25 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A fellow parent confessed to me recently that she was struggling with her adolescent daughter. Her behaviour was erratic, she had lied on a couple of occasions and she was lagging behind in her exams. All part and parcel of parenting, I thought. Then, she made a comment that left me scratching my head for a nanosecond before realising what she meant: “You see, I don’t want to be like those other parents”. She didn’t point at anyone in particular, there were no other parents around us and she kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she spoke. Whether she was feeling embarrassed or guilty, I don’t know. What I did know was what she meant by “those other parents”.

Retrospective analysis is a powerful tool. Especially for those with no past in the country to which they have relocated. I came to live in London facing the imminent arrival of my son (my wife was heavily pregnant) and an almost-zero knowledge on parenting on arrival. Whatever I had experienced during my previous stay in Londontown (just the one month) was nothing compared to upping sticks and moving here permanently. Talk about challenges! A new culture, new ways of being, expectations (both of myself and of my future home) and a baby craving attention.

A few of the difficulties were overcome pretty soon. I found a job and I got used to the British accent (especially the London twang) almost immediately. It was the parenting bit that took me longer (has taken me longer, I should write). That is why I was able to understand this fellow parent’s concern.

As soon as I settled in London, I, ever the observant, began to listen carefully to what people said and to watch what they did. The outcome of this gave me a powerful insight into the world of parenting in the UK.

Being a parent/carer is not easy. Along with education it is the profession that almost everyone has an opinion on, whether parents themselves or not. Note the use of the word “profession”. Being a parent is a job, just not a paid one. We are raising little human beings with the hope they will become responsible citizens in the future.

What that parent was telling me on that day corroborated the suspicions I had long harboured about parenting in the UK: it is a much divided element of society with a silo mentality that conspires against the very world we want to create for our children.

Let us go back to that parent for a second. What she was confessing to me would not have made anyone bat an eyelid. In fact, we would all have chimed in with our own anecdotes of stroppy teenagers. Yet, the more I scratched the surface, the more I realised she was being snobbish.

Look at the gates of a modern primary or secondary school in Britain and you will be exposed to a modern urban zoo. Whether a comprehensive or an academy, it is the same spectacle: parents forming their own mini-tribes and clans with very strict rules on who is allowed to join in. Forget The Who singing “the kids are alright”. It’s the adults who are screwed up.

Class, I noticed in those early years when my son was in reception, had an overarching, albeit thinly-veiled, influence on parents’ integration into the school community. The scruffy-looking, hair-up-in-a-bun, chain-smoking parent – usually, a mum – was shunned. The 4x4-driving, high-flying, dapper-looking progenitor was welcome. As I mentioned before, this was not openly done. Like a secret language, the way parents interacted with each other was full of codes and signals.

What this other parent really meant when talking to me was that she did not want to be seen as a rubbish parent. After all she did not yell at her daughter on the street. Or, give her fast food for breakfast and dinner. Or, she was not the type who refused to play with her little one, choosing to be on her mobile 24/7 instead. No, she was the other kind: the one who used to take her bairn to the museum, who always took advantage of free drama workshops or who baked cakes together with her daughter.


Let me say something really controversial: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. There is, however, challenging parenting. How could there not be? You go from thinking mainly of yourself (OK, maybe, the boy/girlfriend, too) to caring for another human being who, in the first years of their life, cannot articulate clearly what their needs are. It is enough to make someone want to blow their brains off. Add ingredients such as class, race, gender and age and public perceptions of them and you have a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, with the government’s latest announcements on the new education policy, there will be even more division in the school community. The proposed return of grammar schools and the expansion of academies will contribute to the entrenchment of privilege. Those parents with greater means will flood the grammar school a mile away, whilst the local comp, unable to compete, will just die a slow death. Guess whose children will attend the former and whose the latter? 4x4 glamour parent’s and chain-smoker’s respectively.

My answer to my fellow parent’s worries was that sometimes we need to get to know the other parent before rushing to judge them on their appearance. An appearance that occasionally includes a sign hanging from their neck with the caption "Please, touch me with a bargepole". By the same token that parenting is hard, it is unfortunately an opportunity to get up on one’s high horse and point our accusing finger to all and sundry. As Philip Larkin said: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”. The trick is in understanding that this is never intentional. Remember: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. But, boy, is parenting challenging!


© 2017

As usual, this is my last column before the Easter break. I hope you have a very relaxing time and get to do all the things you have been planning to do but have not found time to. I know I will be doing more cycling around London (if my bike allows me to). I shall return late April. Until then, take care of yourselves.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Let's Talk About...

the good old days. C’mon, you know what I’m on about. We live in times when even people in their early 30s preface their sentences with: “Do you remember when…?” When, what, exactly? When you were born and Thatcher was in power

Let’s talk about a certain epidemic sweeping through these isles. It’s a “selective memory” condition that reminisces about past times, carefully and skilfully leaves the bad bits out and focuses mainly on the good ones.

It is not an ailment that affects solely the Brits. I had the opportunity to see the same phenomenon in my country of birth when I visited last summer. Perhaps, because Castro’s demise was imminent, but I ran into people who went out of their way to romanticise a past they had only slagged off three years before on my previous visit.

The elements that make up this “golden era” evocation in the UK are different, though. We live in times when technology, to mention but one factor, has challenged normal conventions. Social norms, educational practices, human interactions, they have all been transformed. For many, these changes have been for the worse. Loss of manners, addiction to gadgets and lack of social etiquette are some of the side-effects of swiping and scrolling. It is natural, therefore, to look at the emotional spaces carved out in one’s childhood as a comfortable refuge to inhabit.

But beware. Bygone eras do not come all under the same banner and with the same content. Let’s talk about the good old days, but what years exactly? Before the 1910s, you say? If you were a woman you did not have the vote. If you were poor there was no free healthcare and seeing one’s offspring dying was common. 1930s? Rise of antisemitism in Europe, so, if you were a Jew, you were not safe. 1940s? There was a war going on. And whilst Britain fought on the side of what I call “the good guys”, the truth is that when your city is being bombed to bits, you do not look back on those days with fondness but rather with horror. 1950s? OK, I’ll give you that one, but only if you were not gay, you did not need an abortion and you were not black (the racially-motivated Notting Hill riots took place in 1958).

This is not to say that these eras lacked pluses. There were many: outdoor play was part and parcel of growing up; allergies were not as rife as now (as spring time comes upon us, I am already fretting over which allergy will attack me first: pollen-caused hay fever, the tree variety or the grass type?); dieting was mainly the preserve of celebrities and community carried a real meaning.
Say what about my health?

The danger is that as our future becomes more frightening we retreat further away from it. And by moving away we invariably drift towards that “past as a foreign country”. Of course they do things differently there. For starters, they have not got mobile phones. They did, however, cane you. Remember that?

Let’s talk about the good old days. But when we do, let us remember, too, that not everything was rosy pink. Outside toilets, bullying, bigotry, and domestic violence were so normal that people would not bat an eyelid if you brought these subjects up in conversation. That is why I think it is better to think that no era was golden. They all had their pros and cons and idealising them does no one any favours. Plus, at least we have mobile phones now, don’t you think?

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th March at 6pm (GMT)

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