How Not to Repeat Your Parents’ Mistakes

A popular new book argues that parenthood should come with a trigger warning

SSince its publication last March, the parenting guide The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) has proven that it deserves its ambitious title. Authored by an English psychotherapist and advice columnist, Philippa Perry, the little book with the bright-orange cover has become an enduring and widely praised bestseller in the U.K. But on the heels of its U.S. release, it remains to be seen whether Perry’s brand of warm and wise — but emotionally challenging — advice will find an audience with American parents.

In the crowded field of American parenting literature, breakout titles tend to be those that connect family life to broader cultural controversies. Books like Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) or Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun (2014) invite impassioned responses in the op-ed pages and around the dinner table. Alternatively, they frame child-rearing as baffling drudgery — in the vein of Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep or the stand-up routine Perry quotes at the beginning of her book that hinges on the notion that all parenting boils down to a daily battle to get kids dressed, fed, washed, and put to bed.

Perry’s book, on the other hand, relies on neither cultural panic nor gallows humor. Instead, she demands something much harder from parents: that they first turn the light of analysis on themselves.

It’s rare that parenting books begin by asking readers to reflect seriously on their own upbringings and the ways that they, as adults, behave in their closest relationships. But these are the inquiries that form the first third of Perry’s book. How did our parents treat us, our siblings, and each other during our formative years? What did it feel like to be a young child with no real power over our lives? Many of us prefer to smooth over those memories, especially those that may be difficult. We come up with stories that explain or excuse our parents’ behavior, or we fall back on “I turned out okay” to reassure ourselves that our early treatment doesn’t matter all that much.

But when we become parents, this habit of rationalization makes us susceptible to unexpected triggers from our children. Perry asserts we carry these painful memories in our bodies even if we don’t remember them consciously and that, as a result, we often unwittingly start to push our children away at the same age we experienced rejection ourselves. If we can strip back our defenses and empathize with our younger selves, she argues, we’ll be less likely to feel the need to protect ourselves by turning away from our children when they dredge up unpleasant emotions.

Perry illustrates this with the case study of “Mark,” the parent of a toddler, who felt bored and ground down by the work of parenting, alienated from his partner, and pushed out of his family — to the extent that he had almost convinced himself that if he were to leave, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. He eventually revealed that his own father had left when he was three years old, but he considered this irrelevant. He’d turned out fine, he thought, so his son would be fine, too. It wasn’t until he’d begun to address his father’s desertion in therapy and the anger and grief he’d buried that he was able to show his son love and attention — and to understand why it was necessary.

Case studies like these appear throughout the book to illustrate Perry’s core principle of “feeling with, not dealing with” our children. They also demonstrate how much variability there can be between families. In her book, Perry repeatedly refuses to give even ballpark ages for children’s developmental milestones or to offer tips or advice on specific stages or situations. Instead, she emphasizes the importance of treating children as people with whom we’re trying to build a relationship rather than objects to be molded or problems to be solved.

Especially for anxious, affluent parents bent on “enriching” and “optimizing” childhood, Perry’s emphasis on simple communication and time spent together may feel radical. Her goal is to build a foundation of love and support within the family, not to raise a child who can compete and win in a global marketplace.

Accordingly, that relationship begins with feelings. No matter how high we might prize our adult powers of rational thought, none of us begins life able to reason or communicate in words. This doesn’t mean that babies aren’t people. Instead, they’re a reminder — often a painful one — that “human beings feel before they can think.”

We are all emotional creatures of feeling, no matter how good we get at hiding or denying the unpleasant feelings. Perry argues it’s imperative to let children experience the full range of their emotions and help them to voice them, including the negative ones that scare us. Of course, she recognizes that parents want their children to be happy. But any child who appears happy all the time has simply learned to bury their sadness or rage — perhaps because they have been told or shown that their parents don’t want to see it.

Witnessing those emotions takes strength, patience, and effort, Perry admits, and she offers pointers for how to approach this. Ultimately, the aim is suspending judgment, of our child and ourselves, and accepting that we may not always get it right. The good news is that when parents make mistakes — perhaps by turning away from their child’s feelings or letting those feelings affect them too strongly — it’s possible to acknowledge the mistake, apologize, and try to do better tomorrow.

The central message of Perry’s book is intuitive and easy to sum up. Indeed, she spells it out on the first page: “A child needs warmth and acceptance, physical touch, your physical presence, love plus boundaries, understanding, play with people of all ages, soothing experiences, and a lot of your attention and time.” It is not the novelty of the philosophy that has made the book a bestseller but its gentle affirmation that no parent is merely a blank slate. Perry offers wisdom from which we can all benefit — not just parents, but everyone who has ever been a child.

Writer, critic, curator, cultural historian. Author, THE EXTRA WOMAN (2017). Words at Slate, New Republic, Washington Post & more. www.joannascutts.com

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