Ironically I wrote this column shortly before the new management of the Sunday Times decided to cancel my column. But at least I’d been profiled in a national paper once…
I have been writing this column for the Sunday Times for some years now but I have never properly introduced myself to you, the reader. And because I haven’t yet been profiled for a glossy magazine or featured on a reality TV programme (where I could debut snappy catch phrases like “Get your grown-up on” or “Who’s the mommy’’), I thought I would do the obvious thing: interview myself. So here goes.
Where do you get ideas for your columns?
I read widely to keep up with current ideas in child development, and justify hours of surfing the internet as research into trends, debates and controversies in the area. But mostly I listen to clients and colleagues and observe what’s happening around me for clues as to the everyday concerns of parents, teachers and care-givers. Just last weekend a friend’s 13-year old daughter said she gets really nervous every time she sees her mother talking to me. Her fear is that whatever issues she’s been having will be broadcast to the world as a parenting column on “How young is too young to date?’’ or “Is it really wrong to read your daughter’s diary?”
What are you currently reading that might help parents?
I have just finished How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. It is an overview of the research into which factors contribute to long-term success. He argues that personal qualities such as resilience, curiosity, optimism and the capacity for self-control matter most when it comes to raising children who succeed. He also cites a broad range of research that supports his argument that character is directly and powerfully related to the quality of early interactions between children and loving, consistent caregivers.
What else is on your mind?
I am now immersed in the dauntingly thick but compelling book by Andrew Solomon, Far From the Tree. He writes movingly about parents who face the painful reality of raising children whose identities are shaped by profound difference and disability. For example, parents whose children are transgender, autistic, prodigies or conceived of rape, and families managing deafness, dwarfism, Downs Syndrome and schizophrenia. The book challenges parenting assumptions, and explores how parents can face the truth that loving someone and finding them a burden are not incompatible feelings. It also shows that love can transcend prejudice, pain and disappointment.
Does being a psychologist with an interest in parenting ideas make you a great parent?
No. Definitely not. I wish I could say differently but it’s always easier in theory than in practice. In theory I am a calm, rational and warmly accepting mother who sets limits appropriately while allowing my son to explore and take acceptable risks. All this while earning a living, whipping up tasty and nutritious meals, encouraging wholesome activities and limiting his TV, computer and digital gaming hours. Right. Cue sardonic tone.
Do you analyse people all the time?
Only if they pay me. Otherwise, the therapy mode is switched off.
What was your worst parenting moment?
My husband’s was when he lost our son for a few minutes in a public place. ‘There is no way to describe the gut-wrenching anxiety that overcomes you,” he said, “the sudden fear this might be the rest of your life.” Mine is any time my son coughs while eating. I am deeply neurotic about choking (there is a long backstory to explain the roots of my anxiety, but that’s for another column) and I have no faith that I will remember my First Aid training come a crisis.
Can a parenting column make a difference?
Most of us have to parent instinctively, which is neither good nor bad. But I have the luxury of focusing my professional attention on research on parenting and the world of new ideas. I can be a conduit for those ideas but, in the end, what really makes the biggest difference in parenting is trying hard to be the person you want your children to be. Being more, saying less.
Are there any parenting theories or ideas you don’t like?
I am suspicious of anyone who promises a quick fix or who rigidly holds to one theory of parenting that will fit all children or all situations.
Finally, what are the essential things you would like parents to know?
- It’s never too late to make a difference.
- It’s inevitable and necessary to make mistakes, but we can learn from these failures.
- Fathers matter and the absence of interested and involved fathers impacts negatively on society.
- School is a marathon, not a sprint. Some children only really thrive after finishing high school – but what happens during the school years lays the foundation for that success.
- Above all, and to repeat an earlier point, infants and young children need consistent, connected caregiving from birth to make them human, to wire their brains for empathy, thinking and resilience.