Can the children of middle class, successful people suffer from
feelings of insecurity and inferiority because their parents appear
to be so good at all that they do? Do these feelings offer serious
barriers to a fulfilled life? I would answer yes in both
For people who grew up in families that were poor, where nobody
went to university, where there were no books on the shelves and no
role models to speak of, life offered extraordinary possibilities
as long as your parents gave you the self-belief that you could
achieve what they didn’t. My daughter and some of her friends – all
children of high achievers – do feel disempowered by the success
that is sloshing around them and the too many role models pushing
them to compete and aim higher and higher.
I wish sometimes I could re-create for her that sense of mission I
had that was all about getting to places which my cousins,
siblings, parents, aunts and uncles didn’t even know existed. (My
father was a reader and thinker and the community used to think him
mad, especially as he was also deeply uninterested in making money.
Sadly, he was also deeply uninterested in looking after his
family.) I remember reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover
brazenly in the sitting room and people saying fondly what a good
girl I was, so interested in reading books in English.
Parenting is hard and for most of us immeasurably rewarding. For
marginalised groups or people who still have to see the benefits of
living in one of the most advanced countries in the world,
parenting becomes an act of faith and resistance. I often wonder
how black and Asian Britons ever had the courage to have children
especially in the 1960s, 70s and even 80s when racism was so overt
and in your face, physically too. Neo-fascists hate our children
and our “breeding” as they still describe it in their loathsome
rags. And although many of our children have been lost because of
this racism, disillusionment, poverty, drugs and crime and poor
parenting, a vast number of second and third generation black
Britons have risen to the top; David Lammy MP, Bruce Oldfield the
fashion designer, journalist Gary Younge, Baroness Pola Uddin, who
is a mother of five including one son who is severely disabled,
were not born into beds of privilege. They have defied all plans
and expectations of those who wanted to keep them down.
The same is true for white British families who were born to stay
at the bottom. Too many of their children fail to make it, too many
are taken into care, but what is undeniable is that large numbers
do, in particular those whose parents gave them a strong sense of
who they are. Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill are the most obvious
examples. And I personally know two extraordinary high-fliers whose
mothers have been mentally ill since they were children.
With so much evidence of good outcomes why is there such
nervousness about parents with learning difficulties? Given the
right support, why should they not be able to infuse their children
with ambition and drive to succeed beyond anything they could dream
of? They may indeed do this with greater passion than parents who
can take their lives and futures more for granted and such children
too may develop exceptional skills.
You can see the special qualities that develop in the children of
people with physical impairments. Children of blind or disabled
parents assume extraordinary responsibilities and are often more
competent than over-protected children who are spoilt with
abundance of good fortune.
Let me further provoke the wrath of other middle class parents. Do
we ever stop to think that many of our children would head for the
rocks without the army of support that money can buy? Our children
are deprived in ways that we don’t talk about. They don’t get
enough of us, our time or our attention, and quality time –
whatever that means – is no substitute. We manage to muddle through
in the end because of nannies and child minders. Parents with
learning difficulties could also do a good enough job of parenting
with proper support, maybe people who can help with homework,
reading, and other stimulating activities, exactly the kinds of
stuff paid nannies do. Only we accept the latter and throw up our
hands in horror at the very thought of people with learning
difficulties having children.
And they say eugenics is dead.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a journalist and