The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) is the latest book from acclaimed psychotherapist, broadcaster and author Philippa Perry. A Sunday Times number one bestseller, the book sees Perry examine the relationships we have with our children, concentrating on what really matters and what behaviour to avoid, as well as doing away with the notion of the ‘perfect’ parent.
On 19 September Perry joins us here at Southbank Centre to discuss her book, the research and analysis that fed it, and the lessons learned in its writing. Ahead of her appearance on our stage, we caught up with Perry to get some early questions in.
You had a number of jobs – and studied for a fine art degree – before moving into psychotherapy. What was it that drew you to change track and become a psychotherapist?
I don’t think I changed track as such, as one thing builds onto the next. I had always read a lot about psychology and psychotherapy and resisted training to pursue it as my job until I couldn’t hold off any longer.
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read… is your third book. With your own child now grown-up, I wondered what prompted you to write a book on parenthood at this time?
This is the book I have always wanted to write, even before I could put that wish into words, I have been rehearsing this book in my head for a long time; even when I wrote the other books. Then when I started to write it I was not as ready to write it as I thought I was, and it took me a couple of years longer to do than I expected. I had to work out some of it as I went along. I have been told that when you read the book it can be like doing therapy on yourself; when I wrote it I had to revisit some of my own issues too.
You’re not afraid to be blunt in your prose at times. I’m thinking of the passage – ‘If you tell them they are silly to complain when granny made them a nice lentil stew, they may feel they can’t tell you when the creepy piano teacher puts his hand on their leg’ – a point which other writers might perhaps have skirted round. Do you find – both in your profession and your writing – that people respond better to this frankness?
I have never been a tactful person, I know no other way of putting these things. Being direct means being clear I hope.
People will naturally be defensive of their own parenting style – no-one wants to be seen as a ‘bad parent’. Is it difficult therefore to write on parenthood without unintentionally coming across as being somewhat ‘preachy’?
In the book I thought it was important to address this habit we have of thinking of ourselves, and others, as a ‘good’ parent or a ‘rubbish’ one, and how unhelpful this is. We are the parent for this child if we have adopted them, fostered them or given birth to them; the child and us will have a bond. As in any and every single relationship there will be misunderstandings, there will be times when we feel unsure, or too sure and mistaken, or hurried and harassed. This isn’t being ‘bad’, it’s being human and the great thing is – as I say in my book – when we realise we’ve gone off course in any way, we can stop and try a different direction. As in any relationship there will be ruptures, it is important not to cling to being right, and to make the repairs. I hope this doesn’t come across as being preachy.
No, not at all. How do you feel about the trend of Instagram parents and mummy and daddy bloggers? Does the aspirational nature of many of these social media personas place an additional pressure on modern parents?
It’s not a world I know that much about. I think it may probably help build communities and may be a source of support for some. Or maybe it is about selling nappies and toys? I haven’t seen any research on this so cannot say. I think most people can tell if a habit they have is working for them or not, and so if they experience it as pressure they’ll probably know to leave off.
One of the things your book talks about is building the relationship with your child – making more time for them, listening to them, and involving them. With that in mind, is there a fine line between doing this supportively, and becoming a ‘helicopter parent’; one who is perhaps involved too much in their child’s development?
It isn’t 'one' of the things in my book, it is the thing. The most important thing for us growing up is a safe, secure relationship with the people who look after us, everything in the book is about that. My book isn’t about making more time for them, it’s about giving them what they need; that may mean more time, it may mean backing off a bit. My book is about making this relationship work for the parent and for the child so both can thrive.
Helicopter parenting as I understand it is when parents over involve themselves in their child’s lives. Like the educator Maria Montessori implied, it is disempowering to do something for a child that they can do for themselves – it would not help them build confidence in their abilities. Parental anxieties may lead to too much checking or accompanying or generally not knowing when to let go, but as I said above, if we find we are going in the wrong direction we can stop and work out with the child what would work better for them – we can repair the rupture.
For you, raising your own daughter, was it easy for you as a parent to trust your knowledge and understanding from your work in psychotherapy over say the methods innately inherited from your own parents?
I knew that I wanted to be different, in some ways, with my daughter than my parents had been with their children. Taking out everything you’ve ever known, covertly and incovertly, only putting back what works and what you need, and finding other ways of doing and being and thinking, is a long process, but a rewarding one that felt right and that worked for our family. But it wasn’t just my process and my family that has contributed to this book, the journeys that many of my clients have been on too, their childhoods and their parenting experiences and learnings also contributed to it.
Lastly, is there one key lesson, or point raised, within the book, that you wish your own parents had understood?
That would tie this up neatly wouldn’t it!
Well, it was worth a try.