Who is Philippa Perry?
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry – wife of artist Grayson – is the author of graphic novel Couch Fiction and How to Stay Sane, which was written for a series published by the School of Life. Perry is also an agony aunt for Red magazine and contributes to The Guardian. She has presented several documentaries including The Truth about Children Who Lie for BBC Radio 4, Being Bipolar for Channel 4; and Truth and How To Be A Surrealist for BBC Four. Most recently, you might have seen her on E4 dating show Celebs Go Dating, where she uses her expertise to give the celebrities singles some much needed love advice.
Why has she written this book?
Unlike other parenting books, this is not a rule book but instead an encouraging, warm and wise read to tell us what really matters and what behaviour is important to avoid - the vital dos and don'ts of parenting.
Perry offers a big-picture look at the elements that lead to good parent-child relationships. Instead of mapping out the 'perfect' plan, Perry details each stage of a child’s life – from pregnancy right up to adulthood (with a family of their own). Throughout, she delivers sage, authoritative advice, but with the soothing tone of a close friend. This style makes for a unpatronising read that everyone can identify with, regardless of their parenting style.
Perry’s third book cover a breadth of topics, touching on everything from pregnancy and birth plans to post-natal depression, treating teens as ‘people’ not children, and coping with feelings of loneliness. There’s even a section on ‘What Happens When You’re Addicted To Your Phone?’ which, frankly, is essential, eye-opening reading for anyone who owns one, regardless of whether you have children.
This is a key part of the book: ultimately this isn’t a parenting manual – it’s not a how-to, and it certainly isn’t limited to those with children of their own. Rather it’s a series of conversations about how we conduct our relationships. Take the chapter ‘The Importance Of Engaged Observation’. Here Perry explains how we can apply the conversational cues with have with other adults to the ones we have with children, explaining: ‘Quite often, when we think we are listening, all we are doing is waiting for a gap for an opportunity to speak back; we use our energy to compose a response or reply rather than try to understand what the other person is trying to communicate.’ It’s segments such as these that challenge you to rigorously assess your own interactions – with children or otherwise – in order to understand the needs of others more effectively.
So, it isn’t just for new parents?
While this is undeniably a book aimed at mums and dads, it’s also an interesting read for anyone keen to understand how their own childhood has shaped the way they think and act today.
The book also offers advice for all types of communication, using a traditional couple’s relationship as a template. ‘Responding to someone’s bids [for attention] meets their emotional needs’, she explains in her chapter ‘Fostering Goodwill’. ‘These small, day-to-day interactions generate goodwill and reciprocal treatment, and without them our relationships cannot be sustained. So, this is the key to a successful partnership: be responsive and interested. And what is true for couples is true for all relationships, and especially for those with our children.’ This entire section – which focuses on a 1986 study of couples at the ‘Love Lab’ at the University of Washington – makes for a fascinating read and offers tips on how to become more responsive to others’ bids for attention and affection.
Perry also touches on the aspect of role reversal, when you own parents might require looking after during your adult lifetime. She explains: ‘Further down the line, if we are lucky enough to live long, we may have to let our children make decisions for us in the final stages of this life-long relationship. If we have learned to trust them, this will be easier on us, and on them.’ After all, parent-child relationships work upwards towards our own parents, as well as trickling down to our children. As Perry puts it, parenting is a never-ending process.
Will I enjoy the read?
Whether you have children or not, this is a fascinating insight into parent-child relationships. Clearly written, and with an emphasis on practicality, Perry details deft anecdotes throughout, which perfectly illustrate the logic behind each piece of advice.
Most usefully, each chapter is scattered with exercises. One includes unpacking a recent argument with a loved one. Without getting caught up in who was wrong and who was right, you’re advised to take a metaperspective to see the situation as a whole. Then, acting as a mediator, think about how it could have been handled differently – by both parties. Aided by tasks such as this and Perry’s raw and honest real-life examples, we closed the book ready to put some of these practical skills into action – and better all our interpersonal relationships.
SL Chats to Philippa Perry...
Please can you explain the ‘rupture and repair’ method you detail in your book?
It’s not a method. We need to think of our children as people we have relationships with, not as things we do things to, so I have no methods. ‘Rupture and repair’ is an idea so parents don’t despair and say things like ‘It’s too late, I have already ruined her.’ A child is not a project that you get right or ruin, but a person to relate to. All relationships, whether lovers, family members, friends, colleagues, partners and of course children, take a wrong turn from time to time. There will be times when we misunderstand or don’t get something or times when – and we do this especially with children – we take our bad moods out on the other person. Such things cause ruptures and it is important, if we cause this rupture, that we don’t get defensive about it and instead rebuild and repair the relationship: for instance, saying to your child that you’re sorry you snapped and took your bad day out on them.
How can we as parents go back in time to observe our own childhoods? Have you got any tips for getting yourself into the right mindset to approach a practice such as this?
When an exchange feels particularly charged for you, trace back to when you first felt like this. Or if you find yourself wanting to escape from your children rather than hanging out with them, it may be that you are just trying to escape the feelings they bring up in you. Don’t be afraid of those feelings, explore them and think back to when you first felt them. I give the example of Mark in my new book. Mark is resentful and depressed and is considering leaving his partner and their son Toby. Mark knows that part of his problem is that having worked so hard to get Toby with IVF, he was unprepared for the reality of what life with the baby would be like, but when asked about his childhood Mark reluctantly reveals that his father left when he was very young. He doesn't think it is relevant in first, but he comes to see that only by unlocking the pain he felt as a boy can he open himself up to being a father.
How can we make sure we don’t pass on our own insecurities and fears to our children?
It's a good idea to become more aware of our inner critical voice. Children seem to pick up on how we are hard on ourselves and in turn become too hard on themselves as a result.
Does apologising to your children or admitting you were wrong undermine your authority as a parent?
Our children don’t need us to be perfect, they need us to be authentic and open with them. They will know when you are not in tune with the situation or with what they feel and so if we pretend that we are, instead of apologising for having got it wrong, we undermine our children's instincts. Instincts are a major part of intuition. If we compromise those instincts, we are in danger of compromising our children's powers of perception.
How can we repair our relationships with our parents as adults?
We can try, though nothing is guaranteed to work. It helps when trying to find out what has happened and why it happened and if we can understand the feelings underneath these actions.
And the same in reverse – how can parents nurture their relationships with their adult children?
This is, in fact, much easier because we have power in that relationship between us and our children. We can self-reflect and think when we got things wrong and we can say so. For example, saying: ‘I was always so critical of other people when you were growing up and I can see it has made you distrustful of people. I shouldn’t have done that, it’s not your fault you’re like this’. Or even, ‘I found it so hard to pay you enough attention when you were a child because I was in a bad place, and now I see you are unsure of your worth. You are worthy and it is not your fault that you struggle to see this, I contributed to that and I’m sorry’.
How can new parents deal with feelings of loneliness?
Acknowledging it is a great first step. When we know we’re lonely, we can take steps to meet new people, especially other parents.
Children’s mental health is reported to be at crisis point. What are the key ways we can support our children?
We need to help kids work out what it is they feel, rather than try and force on them what we wish they felt. We must realise that every person, every child has their own point of view and not assume that our children will feel the same way we feel or felt about any situation. But more than that, we don’t need to a rush to make them independent. The more you push a child away when they still want your company, the less free they feel to explore their world because they will be preoccupied in trying to get your attention.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (And Your Children Will Be Glad You Did) is out now. Visit Amazon.co.uk