'Say sorry': How to negotiate the minefield of parenting, according to agony aunt Philippa Perry

'Say sorry': How to negotiate the minefield of parenting, according to agony aunt Philippa Perry

05/06/2019

You can’t miss Philippa Perry, the psychotherapist, agony aunt and other half of the artist Grayson Perry. She’s tall and striking and walks with a youthful, springing gait.

She’s wearing cartoon-character orange-rimmed spectacles, her trademark Dora-the-Explorer bob dyed into geometrical stripes of black and white-blonde. Ten days before she is due to fly to Ireland to speak at the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas, she leads me upstairs to a quiet corner of the Hospital Club in Covent Garden – a private members’ club stuffed with media professionals wearing expensive trainers.

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She’s just published a new book, her third, and she thinks it may well be her last. The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read was, she says “quite a difficult book to write”.

“I think my life has been leading up to writing it,” she explains while sipping her flat white. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Ooh an idea that will make a good book’. It was, ‘I’ll have to write this book one day. This is the book I’m going to have to write’.”

It’s a guide for parents, based on expertise and insight drawn from her decades as a psychotherapist and her experiences raising her daughter Flo, who is now 27. It’s a rebuke to the industry of parenting manuals that counsel parents to approach children as things to be managed or trained, like you might handle, she says, a puppy. Her focus, instead, is on “talking about the psychological processes of being a parent, really, and how it’s about not doing to a child but about a relationship. It’s the relationship you have with your child – that’s what your child needs more than anything, a relationship with you. So how to maximise that relationship.”

But it’s a story that starts, of course, with her own parents. You could go so far as to say that it is the book she wishes her parents had read. “I suppose I found it really difficult to write, because I sometimes got angry that I didn’t have that relationship with my parents,” she explains. “I mean they were good people, but they didn’t really know that I wasn’t a puppy to be trained, I was a complex human being like they were… I’ve had years of therapy, I’ve been a therapist… And even though I’ve done all this therapy, I had to sort of do it again on myself to write the book, that’s why it was hard.”

Perry was born in Lancashire into material comfort. Her father was a major who served in World War II. She attended boarding school, but struggled with dyslexia, which at the time was undiagnosed. That was followed by finishing school in Switzerland. But instead of going straight from finishing school into an upwardly mobile marriage (which presumably is the point), she worked a variety of jobs, including a stint behind the register in McDonald’s before eventually marrying Britain’s most-celebrated transvestite and becoming something of a media star herself.

The prevailing principle of her early life was stiff-upper-lip. “I was brought up to just put up and shut up. Don’t talk about it. Certainly don’t cry. Button it all up,” she says. She was sensitive, and this was damaging. After exploring a number of different careers, she started to dip her toe into psychology. To start with, “I just read anything to do with psychology all the time. And then I thought, is it safe to explore feelings? I didn’t know it was safe to even talk about feelings, let alone explore them.” She volunteered for a suicide helpline.

“I started listening on helplines, and sometimes face-to-face, to people’s feelings. And then by witnessing this, I saw that not only was it safe to express how you feel, it really seemed to help. Then I thought, maybe I should have a go at this, and then I started therapy. I started really by being a helper rather than the helped. And I think a lot of people do go into therapy, because they get helped by helping others. I think I was one of those. When I witnessed other people working through their stuff, I thought, ‘they seem to be doing very well, perhaps I could dare to do this as well’.”

Therapy, she says, was a turning point for her. “I was helped quite a lot by it. Mainly in self-acceptance. This is who I am and that’s OK. Because I was brought up with quite a lot of, “You’d be alright if only you’d… so I never felt quite good enough. I thought that was immensely helpful, I would like to give that to other people.” Meanwhile, she’d met a promising young artist named Grayson Perry while doing a creative writing course in London. She once said that, in retrospect, she’d been looking for a baby-father, albeit unconsciously but today admits “he was a terrible choice on paper”.

“I didn’t really do job interviews. I just thought, well I’ll have some fun with this guy, he seems a right laugh, very bright, we spark off each other, it’s fun. And then you know five years’ later you are having a child with them. It’s sort of like a slow process getting to know someone. I think people with this online dating thing now – I think they do a job interview on the first date. I mean if I’d done a job interview with Grayson on the first date, I’m sure he would have rejected me and I would have rejected him.”

“Thing is,” she explains, “when you first meet someone, you’re two different people. When you’ve been with each other a bit, you rub off on each other and you change. There isn’t a perfect person out there for anyone. What happens is with mutual impact and mutual influence, two different shapes become better-fitting jigsaw pieces over time. Nobody is ready-made perfect. That is a ridiculous idea. That’s not how relationships work. They work via a process of mutual impact. They don’t work by, ‘I’ll have that one off the shelf please, it seems perfect. She seems perfect’. That disgusts me a bit, because it’s like picking people like shopping. Relationships are not shopping.”

What she and Grayson both agreed on when they became parents was that they wanted to do things differently from the way they had been raised. Grayson has spoken publicly of his unhappy childhood and is estranged from his mother. “We both sort of thought, let’s redo this. Let’s not do what was done to us. And we had different things done to us that we didn’t like. We didn’t think being slapped around the legs was particularly useful. It certainly doesn’t make you closer to your parent. It certainly doesn’t help the long-term relationship with your parent. And it certainly makes you more likely to hide from them, than confide in them. And that’s not a great idea.”

Her parents’ mistakes, I suggest, had an unexpectedly positive outcome in that they were the spur to her personal development and career. But she’s having none of it. “I don’t think we should, as parents, make mistakes just to try to put grit in oysters to make pearls. Life will throw up enough pets getting run over, disappointing relationships, climate change, for children not to have an easy ride of it. We don’t have to add to their troubles. I get given that a lot – but you know, your husband became an artist because of his difficult upbringing, you became a psychotherapist because of – I didn’t actually have a very difficult upbringing. I just had an upbringing where my experience of myself was not acknowledged. So that they saw me as something different to how I saw myself. So that’s quite a lonely place to be. But you know, it’s not in the realm of child abuse or anything like that. It’s just that some people are more sensitive than others.”

Her quest to rethink raising children began when she was pregnant with her daughter Flo. “I read every single book I could lay my hands on about child development, about the psychological process of childbearing, as well as more popular psychology,” she says. “I had piles of them. I was studying. Because I wanted to give her a different experience than I’d had. And then I thought I’d experiment with this being kind, rather than training, relate rather than training. Listen rather than dictate. Leave a space, have to and fro, apologise when I did things wrong. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. Turned out fine.” Her daughter with Perry is a grown woman now with her own career as a journalist. They maintain a close bond, defined by open communication. “Not that I’m an ideal, perfect parent. She has to tell me off quite a lot. I’m not sufficiently woke. I’m told off for being fatist sometimes. I’m quite rightly told off sometimes when I look in the mirror and go, oh God I wish my bum was bigger or smaller or whatever. And she says, ‘mummy, don’t make me into a body dysmorphic’. I have to go, ‘yeah you’re right’.”

She’s against parenting tips and tricks, designed to train a child into obedience, such as sticker charts and naughty steps. “I think we’ve lost whenever we think, does it work? Forget does it work, think, am I relating? Are we relating, are we on the same page?”

The fundamental principle of her approach is about maximising opportunities to connect with your child. “What you need to find in your relationship with your child are moments of connection. Whatever is happening, you want to be on the same page, you want to connect. You want to get each other. Whatever movement either of you need to make to do that,” she says. I’m curious as to whether her husband’s life as an artist ever presented a challenge to that goal. After all, artists have a reputation for being abstracted and work-obsessed, completely absorbed in their interior life. But she bats away the question with a touch of impatience. “Artists are just the same as anyone else. They have not got special parts in their brain that make them any more special. They are allowed no excuses for not doing what they are supposed to do. They can take the bins out as well as anyone else,” she says. “We’ve all got interior worlds. I’m not having artists as anybody special. I’m not going down there. I don’t think Grayson would go down there either.” In any case, despite her maverick spirit and her husband’s flamboyant public image, the life they provided for Flo was, she says, pretty conventional. “I think she didn’t have that different an upbringing than her friends, really. Even if her friends parents were two lawyers. My husband says about being an artist, if you want to be an artist, show up on time and put the hours in. It’s not like staying in bed waiting for inspiration. He’s not that sort of artist, he’s a hard-working 9 to 5 type. It’s not everybody’s idea of an artist but he’s a hard-working person.

“We’re quite a structured family. We weren’t wacky. Yes, Grayson is a transvestite, and Flo was once asked by a journalist, without another adult present, what’s it like having a transvestite dad. Aged 10 she went straight back at them and said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never had any other sort of father’.” 

Philippa Perry will speak at the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas next weekend. festivalofwritingandideas.com

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read is published by Penguin Life

The Philippa Perry way – four key principles

Consider your parenting legacy

When you find that an interaction with your child is triggering strong emotions of resentment or anger, instead of blaming the child, try to work out the origins of those feelings. According to Perry’s thesis, much of the time when you find your buttons are being pressed it is not so much about what the child is doing as that they are triggering “your own past feelings of despair, or longing, of loneliness, jealousy or neediness”. Reflecting on your past or how you were parented can help you respond by showing empathy rather then just shouting or losing your temper.

Say sorry

Perry understands that no parent gets it right all the time. We all make mistakes and behave in ways we later regret. But our mistakes matter less, she insists, than how we handle them afterwards. Perry stresses the vital importance of what she calls “rupture and repair”. The way to repair is to recognise your triggers and use that knowledge to react in a different way, and crucially, to say sorry for getting it wrong. ”What children need is for us to be real and authentic, not perfect,” she says.

Validate feelings

“Ignoring or denying a child’s feelings is potentially harmful to their future mental health,” Perry writes. “Feelings that are disallowed do not disappear. They merely go into hiding, where they fester and cause trouble later in life.” She counsels against trying to scold, deflect, distract or cajole children out of strong emotions such as anger and fear. Instead, parents need to learn how to contain their child’s feelings, by verbalising them for them, validating them and soothing them.

Instill boundaries

Perry explains the difference between a boundary and a limit, by saying a boundary is “a metaphorical line you draw in the sand that you won’t allow the other to cross. Just beyond that line is your limit and, if your limit is crossed that is when you lose your cool and cannot handle your frustration any longer.” She advises getting into the habit of instilling boundaries by defining yourself, rather than the child, using ”I” statements to make the boundaries more comprehensible to a child, such as, “I cannot allow you to have my keys,” rather than, “I’ve told you before you are not to be trusted with keys.” This works for teenagers as well. “They will be able to hear “I need you back at 10 for my sake,” more easily than “You are too young to be out after 10,” she explains.

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