I don’t have any children of my own so I don’t know what kind of kids I would have had, or what kind of parent I would have turned out to be, though I guess and fear. However, the experience of being a teacher – particularly a guidance teacher – and a headteacher does mean that I’ve had plenty of experience of parents. I reckon I’ve talked to about 15,000 parents about their children during my career, and plenty of young people about the adults that are raising them.
Still, even after all this, the most I can conclude is that parenting is very hard, possibly the hardest thing most people do in their lives, the cause of their greatest stress and worry but also their greatest joy. Every parenting experience is unique, and there is a weight of responsibility on both sides – parent and child – to get it right. The balance, of course, shifts – the world of a three-year-old is entirely dominated by mum and dad, or mum, or dad, or granny, or big brother, of whoever is doing the parenting.
As the child ages and become more independent, that domination, no matter how hard a parent may try, lessens, until, at last, responsibility often shifts entirely to the child, to provide their aged parent with companionship, or accommodation, or money or love – to be there with them at the doctor’s, so they can tell them what has just happened, or try to. Eventually, to suffer with them as they age and falter.
Some parents, and some children, get this gloriously right, some muddle along, some fail, and some never try in the first place. Some of this is written in the history of our parents’ own parenting, and their parents before them. Often, when young people were complaining about their parents, I wanted to ask them what their grandparents were like, and to say “remember, your parents were brought up by these people”, at their worst, Larkin’s “fools in old style hats and coats”.
Along the path of this change in responsibility, most of us move from wholehearted acceptance of parents, as if they held us in the hollow of their hands, to a more measured view, though it can, of course, never be objective.
It is a trope of adolescence that we shun, even despise, our parent, for the brief hormonal passage of puberty. Once, in a distant galaxy, thousands of years ago, I was at a parents’ night – this was back in the days when the young people themselves were not present, leaving the parents to translate the message for them, in the car travelling home on murky November Edinburgh nights, a translation often less positive than what had actually been said.
Anyway, a rather older pair of parents, clever people, old-fashioned, listened to me waxing about their only son – his intelligence, his creativity, his generosity of spirit, his sense of humour, his maturity… “he often hangs about at the end of the school day for a chat…”
Mother looked at father, who smiled, bitterly. “Mr Wyllie,” he said, “he hasn’t spoken to us for six months, and we don’t know why. Might you ask him, during one of your wee chats?”
The fault, of course, lies on both sides. Every 15-year-old should be compelled to sit, one day, under formal exam conditions, and write an essay called ‘How I Feel Today’ in which they outline their hopes and dreams, their fears and worries, and, in particular, in which they talk about their parents, knowing that their words will only ever be read by themselves.
For these documents would then be taken and sealed, and left unread until that young person was themselves the parent of a 15-year-old, their eldest child, when they will be returned for reading – say, 25 or 30 years later. That would, I think, in many cases, lead to a greater level of understanding of their own child’s fragile adolescent experience.
I don’t know what I would have said myself, when I was 15 – a small late developer, obsessed with pop music, with a growing sense of being gay, cheerful, talkative, quite clever, with a father who unequivocally loved and supported his two very different sons, and a mother whose own troubled childhood led to an emotional volatility which meant I crept about on the thinnest of ice trying constantly to please. Would I have known all that then? Or would I just have written a lengthy appreciation of the Beach Boys and Mama Cass and how pleased I was with my first pair of jeans – from Top Man.
In essence, we have to forgive our parents, unless we are in the very small minority of people who have been so badly used in childhood that we can never do so. When we are about 40, we need to say something serious to our parents, and they to us: maybe we should have a ‘Forgive Your Parents’ ceremony! However we mark it, we need to recognise that parenting is astonishingly difficult, completely unpredictable, a witches’ brew of genetics and experience and love and raw instinct.
And we need to accept that rough patches happen and we need to be kind about that, so that our own children will reward us with kindness in their turn. That is, those of us who actually have children.
Cameron Wyllie, a retired headteacher, publishes a blog called A House in Joppa