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Mixed messages

Mixed messages


Nobody offers you lessons in how to be a parent which is a mixed blessing. Matthew Smith laments the fact that one of the biggest challenges of being a parent is dealing with all the conflicting advice you receive.

Many years ago, I remember talking to a well-known prep school headmaster. Being somewhat new to the nuances of the education world, I put it to him that teaching prep school children represented a unique challenge. 'Oh no' was his instant response. 'You don't realise – educating the children is the easy bit. It's educating the parents, now that's the problem...'

These words have stuck with me ever since and I am reminded of them when pondering over any dilemmas relating to my own children. Nobody offers you lessons in how to be a parent (let alone how to be a 'good' parent) and we are all, for better or worse, thrown in at the deep end. There are few poems as oft-quoted as Larkin's This Be The Verse, not least for the impact of its opening line and the effect parents can have on their child. For me, however, the more damning sentence is the second: 'they may not mean to, but they do.'

And that's the problem. Few parents are anything other than well intentioned when it comes to making decisions for their children but one of the biggest challenges is dealing with the conflicting advice you receive. If you read any parenting guides out there, you very quickly find yourself trying to decide what character traits you bring to parenting. Are you permissive and indulgent – 'one more Percy Piglet won't do any harm, will it?' – or something of a disciplinarian – 'we never had Percy Piglets in my day and I won't hear any more about it...'

Or maybe your style of parenting befits a more specific label. Are you a tiger (no, not Tony the Tiger or the one who came to tea, alas) or maybe a helicopter who likes to hover and step in to solve problems? There's lawnmowing, outsourcing, attachment, free-range, instinctive, jellyfish, dolphin, ostrich, limpet, and boomerang – the list is pretty much endless. I thought I had made half of those up but Google confirms not. No doubt there is even an Instagram parenting type by now – #icantstoptakingphotosofmychildandpostingthemtosocialmedia-lol. Pass me another Percy Piglet.

So, having decided that labels are quite unhelpful, we are back to Larkin. Was he right? Whilst we might not mean to, our parenting decisions can have an unwelcome effect – but not in quite the Larkinian way. He never mentioned guilt in the poem and, if there is one modern parenting affliction which is near universal, it's the ability to find guilt at every turn. You can feel guilty for not being on the touchline for every sports fixture, music concert or dress rehearsal. Or feel guilty for needing to use after-care to be able to hold down your job so you can pay the fees. You can feel guilty for just about anything and everything – it's pretty much whenever you feel you are not meeting the self-set bar of being a 'good' parent.

Unfortunately, if anything is likely to mess you up, it's guilt. And that's the best rebuttal against Larkin's charge. To be a 'good' parent, it seems, is to be constantly wrestling with a bucket-load of guilt, whether self-inflicted or otherwise. And if by some extraordinary feat you are not feeling parental guilt, we learned recently that 'ambitious parents' are using tutors to help them gain an edge when it comes to understanding their children's homework. According to a report in The Times, the motivation for some parents was a worry they might be 'hindering their child's education by trying to help'. Words fail me.

We are fortunate with this magazine to be able to include contributions from extremely experienced Heads. All sorts of areas are tackled in this issue alone – from dealing with disappointment through to trying to help your child to be happy – and they are offered simply in the spirit of open-minded advice. But what's particularly good about this advice is that it comes from people who can speak not as parents, but with the objectivity of teachers. When that particular Head expressed to me the challenges of educating parents, what he was really expressing was the difficulty in ensuring that as parents we always try to step back and remain objective. So read on, it's guilt-free.

Matthew Smith is the Editor of Attain.