If you are an adult, how much do you respect your parents? Do you think they know anything? Do you think they have learned anything since you grew up? Or are you convinced they are idiots and have nothing to pass on, that would be of any use to you?
How you feel about your parents is important, because it could be, that your children will feel the same way about you. Somehow these feelings get passed along the line. Psychologist Oliver James wrote a book called They F*** You Up. The title comes from a poem called This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin:
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
In the book, James explores the reasons why he thinks parents mess up their children. It’s a fascinating book and worth reading. I just wonder when we will learn enough before we become parents to stop fucking up our kids. I examine my own childhood often and I think about the ways in which I was hurt by bad parenting. My mother was widowed young, so that was not her fault. You could say my father, a musician with a liking for wine and cigarettes, might have lived a healthier life, but in those days, everyone smoked and he was an Italian, so wine was mandatory. I had bossy siblings who acted like extra parents and it was probably their behaviour towards me that was occasionally damaging, but nothing that I wasn’t able to shake off, as I grew up.
I know one thing; I respected my mother, for all her faults. I recognised at about twelve years old that she wasn’t infallible, and at the time, it was a shock. But once it had sunk in – that she too had faults – I was able to accept them graciously and our relationship developed into healthy mutual respect. When I had kids myself, one of my greatest pleasures was to see the joyful way they reacted to her and I really respected her role as a grandmother in my life. Today, so many grandparents are cut off from their grandchildren through divorce or separation. Grandparents are often vilified for the most trivial of reasons and it is the children who lose out.
I believe that if you are fortunate enough to have decent, loving parents you should respect them. But what does that actually mean? How do you show that you respect someone? Is it in the way you speak to them? The way you talk about them to others? Are you always saying, they must earn my respect! The payback comes when parents show disrespect towards their parents or parents-in-law in front of their own children. Children are like sponges. They are learning every minute of every day while they are awake. When they see this sort of behaviour, they learn that this is normal; my Mum and Dad did it to their Mum and Dad so that’s what I will do to them.
Bringing up kids is the hardest thing any one does in a life time. But there are rewards and as with the bad stuff, the rewards can be passed down the generations, too. Compassion and understanding, love and patience are top of my list. Those qualities enhance parenting a million fold and will be handed on to the next generation. It’s learning how to be compassionate and understanding, how to have patience and how to love that is the issue here. It’s not taught in school. There is no university course you can study. I think that these qualities come from your own childhood; from the way you were treated when you were small and vulnerable. You pass on the things you have experienced yourself. So if we do fuck up our kids, as the poem says, it probably did happened to us.
Could it be that in the last 30 years we have not improved our parenting skills as much as we might have? The influences on parents today are many and varied. We have programmes on TV like Nanny 911, showing a plump, jolly woman coming into a family where the kids are behaving badly. She starts to lay down the law for both the parents and the children. Improvements in behaviour are usually the outcome, but these situations are played out in front of a camera crew, and who knows what chaos the family descend into once Nanny and the crew have left! In real life, there are also other malevolent influence on families; the lack morals, greed for material wealth above all else, getting what you think you want at all costs, especially at the expense of your children’s mental well-being, a disregard for the old, the disabled, the homeless… It’s so easy to give a few quid to Children in Need and feel sanctimonious – that’s my good deed done for another year!
In Oliver James’ book, he puts forward the notion that the way you are cared for in the first six years of your life has an enormous effect on who you are and how you behave. The influences on us when we are small stay with us for life. Considering that the Western World has such a high rate of mental illness, in adults and in children, I would say that something is not working. We need to be far more prepared for parenting than we currently are. We need to be able to differentiate a good moral code from a bad one. We need to instill the right values in our kids and show that we respect and flag up those values when we see them in our own parents and in other role models.
I fear for future generations who will have few boundaries and no respect for anything. Last August, we saw London engulfed in riots. Many of those participating were children. Most were young people under the age of twenty-five. What an indictment of our society. What had parents passed on to those kids who looted and burned in London last August? What had their grandparents passed on? What examples do those in power give our children and young people? Bankers justifying huge bonuses while disability benefits are pared to the bone? Old people being treated without dignity or compassion in our hospitals? Our greatest asset, our young people, unable to find work or saddled with huge debts after going to university, families having to make a choice between eating or paying an electricity bill, exploitation and corruption everywhere. I know this may seem to some as a simplistic description of what is happening in the UK today, but that is the way it looks to people struggling to survive, and we have become a nation of people struggling to survive.
Thinking about all this, another fear I have is that our welfare system and our National Health Service is slowly and systematically being dismantled by successive governments, no matter what their political affiliation. We still have a class system and the divide between rich and poor widens by the year. Politicians are often parental and patronising in the way they communicate with the people, once they are in power. They dole out sweeties for good behaviour. This year we have the hugely expensive panacea of the Olympic Games and the Royal Jubilee. I am not a kill-joy by nature, but the conspicuous spending of millions of pounds on such events, does nothing to reassure me that those in power know what they are doing. Yes, we should host the Olympic Games and we should celebrate the fact that we have had a peaceful monarch who has respectfully done what she was asked to do for fifty years, but maybe some of the money that has been allocated to these extravaganzas could have been siphoned off to make sure that failing kids in failing schools get more help; that university fees come down, that the NHS is not juggled like a pack of cards in a game of poker, yet again!
So, I come back to respect. Respect for each other, for kids, for grandparents, for the old and the young, for everyone. Respect for money and the way it is spent. Respect for fairness, justice, morals, ethics and integrity, for the lives of ordinary people. Without it, we have little hope of a peaceful and productive future.