Most things can be fixed’: Philippa Perry. Photograph: Pål Hansen/Observer
Philippa Perry takes one look at me and gives me a bear-hug. “You must be exhausted,” she says, and she’s not wrong. As a working mother of two small boys who never seem to sleep or slow down, I have gone past exhausted, straight into “desiccated”. Perry smiles reassuringly, banging me on the arm.“Come on, let’s get you an avocado.”
Perry, it turns out, is a very arm-bangy, let’s-get-you-an-avocado sort of person. As a renowned psychotherapist, author, journalist, and television presenter – as well as the wife of artist Grayson Perry – she could easily be aloof or intimidating. Instead, she crackles with a zesty optimism from behind her neon-rimmed glasses.
I’ve come to talk to Perry about her new manual, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did). It’s a very different book from the fat tomes offering ways to “hack” your kids into behaving. Perry’s book posits gently but firmly that being a parent isn’t a chore, duty, or something to be “hacked” at all, but a relationship to invest in and nurture – and one that will pay dividends in the long term. Much of the book’s inspiration, she tells me, as we clomp down a staircase into her basement kitchen (“Mind the glass floor on the landing; it’s a bit upskirty”) came from what she saw in her 20-plus-years of practising psychotherapy.
“Most of my clients did not have abusive parents. They had kind, nice, well-meaning parents who – because no one had told them it was important – couldn’t attune to their children. So their children felt lonely and the loneliness sort of grew into depression. And I thought: ‘All this mirroring and validating of feelings that I’m doing in this relationship, now, to put this person back on track – wouldn’t it be great if the parents did it themselves? If parents could do this from the off, surely I could give up being a psychotherapist – and arrange flowers instead.”
Would she like to arrange flowers? “Oh God, no.”
There are no flowers in Perry’s kitchen. Or, disappointingly, any of Grayson’s art. This is a rental, she explains, handing me some peppermint tea (the avocado is, for now, rebuffed) as we sit at a table lightly strewn with books, mugs, a single empty wine glass. Her own house is “full of builders”. I am, however, gratified to see her cat, Kevin, as I follow him on Instagram.
Perry’s book is about relationships – those we have with our kids, ourselves, our pasts, and the world around us. It tells us: “We are but a link in a chain stretching back through millennia and forwards until who knows when. The good news is that you can learn to reshape your link, and this will improve the life of your children, and their children, and you can start now.”
It is compassionately and lyrically written, but it’s not a passive read. Each chapter includes exercises that, warns the book, “may upset you, make you angry, or even make you a better parent”. We are invited to examine our own childhoods, find the sore spots, jab at them with exploratory fingers, and dissect our own reactions to our children. I wonder if some readers might resist this.
Perry shrugs – this is all work that she has undertaken herself. She has been facing up to the way she was parented since the age of 12. Her family was “good, kind, middle-class”, but raised children the way you’d “train a dog, with punishment rather than encouragement”. Ultimately, this damaged the young, sensitive Perry, and led her into therapy, and eventually a career in mental health.
'My parents didn’t comfort children because they thought children would just want to be upset more'
Her own revelation came when her daughter was a toddler: “One day Flo stood up underneath the grand piano and clonked her head quite badly. I was, like, ‘Oh, baby, that must hurt’ – many snuggles and stroking and breastfeeding and comfort – but my father said: ‘What are you doing? Make a fuss of a child like that and they’ll be hurting themselves the whole time to get that sort of attention.’ And I sort of said: ‘Hmmm.’ They believed in manipulating children, but didn’t realise it meant the children would manipulate them back. So, every time I hurt myself, it was, ‘Don’t be stupid’ rather than, ‘Oh, that must hurt.’ Basically, my parents didn’t comfort children because they thought children would just want to be upset more.”
Another tenet the book holds to is the idea that if you experience a strong emotion in response to something your child does, you’re probably reacting to your own past rather than something they’re doing. “Nice try, Philippa Perry,” I thought. But when I get crotchety with my kids first thing in the morning it’s because they’re loud and I just want to sit quietly with a coffee, it’s not psychology. However, the next morning as I sat cradling my coffee and my kids rampaged around me, I realised my own mother, a sometimes emotionally unavailable woman, would regularly “want to be left alone with a coffee”, and as a child this would send me into fits of insecurity, and I’d be even louder to try to win her attention. So I put my coffee down and got on the floor with my kids, and we were all much happier, even though I was slightly decaffeinated.
“All behaviour is communication,” nods Perry. The whining child may simply be confused by change. When their daughter was little, Perry would take her swimming every week. One week, Grayson took Flo instead, and the experience was so different for the child in so many ways that, when he accidentally went to go up the wrong staircase, she just sat on the floor, and said: “No.” “We only figured out why because I’m a psychotherapist,” Perry adds.
It’s after I have eaten my avocado (drizzled in olive oil), that I ask how she equipped Flo to deal with any negative comments about Grayson being a transvestite.
“We didn’t. When you are born into a family, that family is normal. Grayson doesn’t dress up as a woman all the time; most of the time he’s in an overall covered in dust, which might not be normal to other families, either. When he won the Turner Prize, a journalist asked Flo, then aged 10 – and without an adult present – ‘What it’s like to have a dad who’s a transvestite?’ and she said: ‘Well, how would I know? I’ve never had any other sort of dad.’”
I cast my mind back to my own schooldays, when I was picked on for being a “Paki”. Cruelty among kids can spring up at the slightest difference – how did Flo deal with kids’ negative comments about how her father dressed?
‘All this mirroring and validating of feelings that I’m doing – wouldn’t it be great if the parents did it themselves?’:
Philippa Perry. Photograph: Pal Hansen/The Observer
Perry cocks her head to one side: “I mean, Flo never had any difficulty at school, with: ‘Ooh, you know, she’s got a famous transvestite dad?’ When you come from a non-judgmental background, and you’re allowed to be open and curious, rather than going to judgments, you’re not in that dynamic of winning and losing. So, if somebody goes, ‘You’re a fucking loser with a funny dad,’ you think: ‘Hmmm, interesting person’, rather than saying, ‘No, I’m not,’ because if you haven’t engaged in those battles with your child, they won’t think of engaging with them.”
Earlier, Perry recounts discovering Flo, then a pre-schooler, admonishing her teddy bear over and over. It turned out a boy had pushed her over at nursery, and a teacher had advised her to say: “No, stop it. I don’t like that,” so Flo was practising on her toy.
I tell Perry I wish my parents had had this philosophy. They had never experienced bullying and just laughed it off when I told them.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Perry sighs. “That’s such a common thing for parents to do, as though if it doesn’t exist for them, it doesn’t exist. What I would do is say: ‘How do you feel? Oh yes, I can imagine. Look, first of all, we’re gonna have a hug and then we’ll sort this out. OK, we’ve had the hug. Right, now what ideas have you got for dealing with this? If this was happening to your friend, what would you advise her to do? Uh-huh. Shoot them. That’s something you could consider. Any other ideas?’ Whatever they come up with, you never dismiss it. Ideas are like shy, little woodland creatures and you mustn’t frighten them away. So, they come up with ideas and eventually you see what you can do about this together.”
I go home, my head buzzing with psychotherapy. Then, a few days later, I phone her with a breathless debrief. The previous day, my older son had thrown a tantrum in the street. At first I was taken aback, but then I realised – we were supposed to have been on a rare little mother-and-son date in the café, but instead a friend spotted me, and she and I spent the whole time chatting.
“Ohhh,” says Perry. “He didn’t have his date. It’s a horrible thing being torn when more people want you. When that sort of thing happened, I would say: ‘What do you think about that, Flo? Yes, Melissa’s husband’s left her. What do you reckon, Flo?’ Or whatever it is. It probably lost me a lot of friends.”
Also, I add, I’ve figured out why he habitually takes five million years to eat his dinner, and instead creates epic sagas using forks and pepper pots. It’s because, thanks to work and childcare, dinner is the only time we spend together as a family on weekdays.
'We’re all bad parents. It’s not the mistakes that matter so much as putting them right'
“He wants to make it as long as possible! Isn’t that a lovely realisation?” says Perry. “I mean, you can be strict to get things done, but make ‘I’ statements, not ‘you’ statements. So, ‘I can see you’re having a great time making a giraffe out of that old crisp packet, and that’s very clever, but if I don’t get back to the house when the electrician’s coming we’re going to have no electricity, so we have got a problem here. Can you help me out?’ Rather than ‘Come on!’”
Most comforting are the repeated reassurances in this book not to despair if you feel your parenting doesn’t measure up. Most things can be fixed. “It’s like monsters under the bed,” she tells me. “Children can’t articulate it. The monster might actually be: ‘I know I’m going to be alone now and I’m very scared about that,’ or ‘I’m sensing you’re irritated and I’m seeing that as a monster.’ So, rather than think: ‘I’ve all those invoices to finish off before bed,’ we’ve got to say: ‘This is more important. I’ll stay with you till you’re asleep.’ But what I really want to say is, we’re all bad parents. We all do our best and make mistakes. You can make amends. It’s not the mistakes we make that matter so much as putting them right. So, if we have dismissed the monsters under the bed, in the morning we can always ask: ‘How are your monsters by the way?’”
How are your monsters, by the way?
The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry, is out now (Penguin, £12.99). Buy a copy for £8.99 at theguardianbookshop.com