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 divisive element of a 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 that mum 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 (Motherland, a sitcom currently showing on the BBC, is a brilliant example of this). 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 took 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!