Learning to let go

Good parenting involves allowing children to make their own
mistakes in life and learning not to blame yourself when things go
wrong, writes Peter White.

For the hardest job most of us ever do, we receive no training,
have no preparation, and take it on with absolutely no experience.
I’m talking, of course, about being parents. So it is hardly
surprising that, to clean up Philip Larkin for Community
readers, parents make a bit of a mess of

As Larkin also points out in his painfully accurate poem, most
of us do it with the best of intentions, and those very same kids
who castigate us for our pathetic efforts will then go and do, not
exactly the same as us, but their own particular version of it. The
insoluble problem is that our mistakes are born precisely out of
the attempt to reverse the mistakes we believe messed up our

I can now acknowledge that I made a mess of bringing up my
children, and yet it’s probably the thing I have done in my life
about which I have thought most deeply. In my case, I think my
mistakes arose out of the need for me to go to boarding-school,
regarded in the 1950s as a “given” for a blind child. The result
was that I was determined that my children would have all the
security, warmth, comfort, nice meals, warm beds, privacy, and
freedom from rule-bound terminally stupid adults that, I reckoned,
had blighted my childhood.

On the whole my wife and I achieved these aims; but, of course,
the trouble is that once set on a course of indulgence, there is
always a risk you will take it to extremes. And that’s what I
believe we, or more fairly I ended up by doing. I tried to
anticipate every problem, exorcise every demon, gratify every whim,
and consult on every issue, as if our family were the most liberal
of cabinets. However, I tended to take the credit when things went
right, and the blame when things went wrong; which sounds a fair
thing for an adult to do, until you stop and think about the effect
it is likely to have on future adults. The danger is that the world
looks like a benevolent dictatorship, in which you are consulted,
but never pay the price.

Reasonably secure in the knowledge that my now adult children
will never read, or even have a long conversation with anyone who
reads Community Care, I will risk the admission that my
kids have grown up without the drive, or the need, to take control
of their lives. All three of them are warm, funny, clever in
different ways; polite, house-trained, compassionate. But none of
them yet has broken away or made a decision that will change and
direct their own lives; and when you think the eldest of them is
approaching his thirtieth birthday, and the youngest is 24, I think
that gives me the right to be concerned, and question my own role
in this outcome.

And they themselves say that their childhood was too good, too
safe, too much fun; why would they leave it, when I’m still hanging
around, checking the decisions, picking up the pieces, offering

I go into so much painful detail to try to illustrate the
impossibility of getting it right, and the inevitability of blaming
yourself, whatever you do. And of course the problem is that if,
God forbid, the worst thing that any of us can imagine – harm to
one of our children – happens, we will blame ourselves. Whatever we
did, whatever we didn’t do, we will assume that it was the decisive
factor in our child’s life. In a way, it makes no difference
whether the accusation is neglect, deprivation, abuse, or
over-indulgence, smothering, suffocation – the result will be the
same. When something goes wrong, we will assume it must have been
our fault.

And yet, except in the most obvious cases, such guilt is almost
certainly unjustified. Children’s lives, even from very young, are
much more complicated and diverse than being a reflection of their
parents. If you take one of the most common explanations for
children harming themselves, or even committing suicide – bullying
– how are you supposed to get it right?

Interfere too little, out of fear of embarrassment for yourself
or your child, and you might be said to have got it wrong.
Interfere too much, and make the problem worse, and you may be said
to have got it wrong. The fact is, the reasons will be complex,
deep-rooted and may have nothing to do with you at all.

Perhaps the lessons most of us need about bringing up children
are not learned from parenting classes – would I have attended them
even if they’d been available? – but accepting that you don’t own
your children, you don’t control them, and that you cannot be
responsible for everything that happens to them. Nothing can lessen
the pain when the worst happens, but in most cases I can think of,
guilt on top of grief helps no one. Perhaps that’s what my daughter
Cathy was trying to tell me when, aged 12, she chose to read that
Larkin poem to a meeting of the local parent teacher association. I
wonder how many of them took the message to heart.

1 P Larkin, This Be The Verse,

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