Philippa Perry gives parenting advice

27 Feb|Philippa Perry

In advance of our upcoming discussion at the Marx Memorial Library, author Philippa Perry agreed to play agony aunt for some idle parents in need of advice. 

Dear Philippa,

My son has been awarded a scholarship to a private secondary school, which makes us very proud. However, there are a group of boys in his new class who have all come from a prep school and refuse to welcome him into their group. My son went to a normal state primary school and doesn’t understand why these boys all know each other, when he is going into the new class without any old friends.

How can I explain this without making him completely jaded about the unfair divisions in our education system?

You don’t have to explain. What you have to do is listen. Listen to how he feels, don’t rush in to fix it. We hate it when our children are unhappy and because of that we rush to try to make it all better, but when we are in such a hurry to move onto the solution, they often just feel pushed away by us. Rather than telling him “well you should do this” or even “it’s because…” what you actually need to say is “Gosh that sounds really tough…. How does it make you feel…. I can understand that.”

When you thoroughly understand the situation, don’t feel like you have to fix it but rather empower him by getting him to brainstorm solutions. “If you had a friend in your position what would you advise him to do?…” “What would make you feel better?…” “What do you think the answer is to feeling so left out….” I bet your lad is a clever fella and he has got some ideas. When brainstorming, it’s good to be playful and silly and never reject a single idea that he comes up with. Ideas can be like shy woodland creatures. They look to see how the first little bunny rabbit is treated before any more creatures will come out. And after all the daft ones are gone, he will think of something in time. And remember: while your son may take a while to make new friends at school, you are his friend.

It’s a tough thing for a parent to face up to but we cannot protect our children from everything that life throws at them, but we can be by their side and feel with them which can help enormously. And, if after a couple of terms, it’s a complete disaster, you both might conclude he’d learn more if he returned to the system where his old mates are. We always learn more when we are enjoying ourselves.

Dear Philippa,

I have a teenage daughter who works hard at school, is kind and caring to her younger siblings and lets me know if she is going to be home late. A dream, you might think. But given the famously rocky relationships between most mothers and teen daughters, I worry that I haven’t allowed her to express herself enough to me. She will go to her friends for advice and reassurance if she is upset and never brings her frustrations to me. My fear is that our quiet, solid relationship will be remembered by her as functional but ultimately cold.

Am I worrying too much?

Maybe reframe your question a little? It’s no bad thing to ruminate about how you are together and what you are both bringing to the relationship. But remember, as soon as an adolescence hits puberty they explore their own identity outside the family and therefore some teenagers do keep, often harmless, secrets from their parents. Teenagers may also lie, or lie by omission, to create this space for themselves.

If you’d like to take practical steps to bond a little more during this time, why not ask her advice for a problem you’ve got at work, or ask her what you think you should wear? I’m not saying confide in her about your marriage or your sex life, that would be too much (!), but show some vulnerability and be grateful for her advice. Don’t knock it back even if you can’t follow it. It’s much easier to be vulnerable with someone if they have opened up to us first. And I think there’s a high probability that once she’s at uni, knows her tribe and is secure in who she is, you’ll never get her off the phone.

Dear Philippa,

My youngest daughter is very solitary, spending hours happily reading or playing computer games in her room. I am proud to have raised such an independent child, but I worry that she will grow further and further from her old friends. My wife does not seem worried and tells me that she was similar at that age, but I have so many fond memories of going out on my bike with the boys next door or climbing trees that I can’t imagine growing up without that nostalgia.

Has childhood just changed in the 21st century?

Remember, your daughter is her own person and what makes you happy isn’t necessarily what satisfies her. No children are the same, just like no adults are the same. Some of us are party people and some of us are introverts. We are so desperate for our children to be happy we can forget to listen to them and try to understand what it is that they feel and what they want. We can feel so close to them that we cannot comprehend that they may have a different view of the world and want a different things than we would in their situation. And, to answer your question about 21st century children, it was ever thus.

Philippa Perry is an author and psychotherapist. She joins Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson on the 13th of March for a discussion on the Secrets of Parenting.