Being a Family: Raising children well

This is the talk given at the 2003 March national meeting in London by Mary MacLeod, then Chief Executive of the National Family and Parenting Institute. The feeling at the meeting was that this was an exceptionally powerful and valuable address, and so we have decided that everyone should have the opportunity to read the full text.  It remains a profound and very moving read.

I am especially pleased to be here because I am so impressed with your network. Our research has found that people feel most supported in raising children through informal networks rather than formal services -through family, friends and conversations with the 'real' experts: other parents. I am not here as an expert from a position of 'knowing best' but as someone who thinks, like you do, about how to love well, about relationships, about how we 'do' family and learn to be a family. And I hope some of the things I say will spark off thoughts and conversation.
But I have found it tough to think of what to say.
. First, surely it has all been said. There have been torrents of words about the family and child rearing. Battalions of researchers, commentators and journalists writing and talking - is there anything further to say?
. Then there is the Debate. Talking on the family is risky. The family is the focus of so much debate: what is a 'real' family? Everything is framed in oppositions so, in saying things, we are liable to be misheard and misunderstood. And it is easy, inadvertently, to hurt people. We all listen to discussions of family from the point of view of our own relationships and feelings - sensitive to every nuance that might say something about ourselves.
. And family relationships are a bit like birth and death Families are a universal experiences, banal, ordinary, yet absolutely unique and special to each person.

Parents and children, even partners of very long standing, understand their relationships quite differently. Yet, like many things we have personal experience of, it is only too easy to generalise from our own experience and assume that what we like and what we do is right for everyone and would be best for everyone. But as George Bernard Shaw said: 'Don't do unto others as you would have them do unto you because they're different and they won't necessarily like it' This tendency is especially risky for someone like me involved in public policy. We need to be careful about pushing ideas onto people, even well-intentioned ideas based on sound research. Policy interventions can have inadvertent perverse consequences, bringing about what they are set up to prevent - especially when people feel the state nagging and finger-wagging, intruding on their individual freedom to make judgments about their lives.

Feeling told what to do and how to live brings out resistance. . And it is difficult to talk about family because the family resists categorisation. Just asking children who are their family - as two recent books have done - reveals how fluid the concept is even for those most acute family observers, children. They define family according to their feelings about family members and friends and their understanding of what the concept family means - and that depends on their individual family and cultural history. The very first question I was asked on the BBC Radio Today programme when the NFPI was set up was how did I define family. They wanted me either to say mother father two kids - or not: either would have been controversial enough to provoke a spat in the war about the family over what is the best form of family structure.

Structure tells you little about good and bad but does it tell you about likely stresses. Perhaps fluidity is what makes family relationships so intriguing to explore, it certainly makes researching the family and developing policy and practice tricky, and it makes 'living family' hard, too. So when it comes to the family, where do you start? According to T S Eliot, at home: Home is where we start from. As we grow older The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated Of dead and living. Not the intense moment Isolated, with no before and after, But a lifetime burning in every moment And not the lifetime of one man only But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. .. Love is most nearly itself When here and now cease to matter.

I turn to poetry because it has space for the language of feelings. Whereas in public and research discussion on the family, the language of feeling is largely absent. We talk family breakdown, communication, warmth, attachment, relationships skills - not the stuff of poetry is it? And all the while in our own hearts and our own intimacies, we talk of love, loving or not loving and of being loved, and of hating, envying, needing and desiring. 'I can't get enough of you' is the lovers' phrase as they try to voice the urgency and hugeness of their desire of the other. 'I could eat you up' say parents to their babies to describe how delectable their baby is. Our expressions of love are visceral as well as cerebral; about the guts and the head. . Policy So it is most off-putting when the things that matter most to people are discussed in terms of economics and social capital rather than the language of feelings. People have relationships, marry or not - if they can - and have children for their own, not the social, good.

That society benefits is not the primary purpose of any family relationship or friendship - that is a byproduct. We want the freedom to make personal decisions according to our own judgment about our own lives. We do exactly the same about children. And public policy disrespects that at its peril. And yet, never has so much public attention been spent on family relationships and their rights and wrongs - now even through reality TV; never so much anxiety about 'the family'. All this noise does have an impact on us on our feelings and on what is it like to be a child, a mother or a father. A great deal of the focus and anxiety is about family change. And there have been huge demographic changes, especially if now is compared to the 50's.

These are some of the changes that alarm:
. Family and social change
. Increase in poor and fractured communities & until recently child poverty
. Increase in 24/7 culture
. Increasing diversity and uniformity = uncertainty
. New technology and media
. Marketing & consumption pressure
. New circumstances = new rules = uncertainty
. Family isolation & disaffected youth
Family and work . More women in work place and working longer hours
. UK has the longest working hours in Europe
. Many mothers feel forced to return to work too early following the births of their babies
. UK fathers with young children work longest hours
. Childcare provision patchy, poorly coordinated and staffed by low-paid staff
Family structure change . 1 in 3 families likely to divorce or separate - highest divorce rate in Europe
. Fewer marriages & more cohabitation
. 1 in 4 families are headed by a lone parent
. Birth rate declining to 1.64 (greater aged pop supported by smaller young pop)
. Rate of teenage pregnancy highest in Europe
. One in 12 children live in a stepfamily
But there is research which tells another story: . Belonging to a family is the most important thing in life for 3 out of 4 UK people
. Most UK children (75%) are raised in two-parent families
. More people include close friends as part of the family offering day-to-day support
. Children now spend more time doing things together with their parents than in the 1970's
. There are more ways for family members to keep in touch - telephone, mobile phone, email and visiting
. Most young people feel loved and cared for in their families - only 1 in 15 said their parents made them feel bad about themselves
. Most young people feel they can talk to their parents about any problem they have
. Family life is becoming more 'democratic' - children are involved in 'family decisions' more
. New family values: care, respect, fairness and dialogue

And so books tumble off the presses as the crisis of concern about the family plays out and parenting is the hot topic. As for journalists, they can't keep off it for a minute. Columnists only have a whiff of family to go off on a rant; or a rant at a rant. And the books and articles all have a point of view. The newspapers are full of headlines often from research - headlines that hurt and punish. Generally, it is bad news and generally it is parents to blame. I, like many parents, used to anguish over how much time my son spent glued to the computer screen playing computer games.

A couple of years ago, research from the States was announced in the press: computer games make children aggressive - proved. I thought, 'Maybe I can terrorise him with research.' He did look thoughtful and seemed to play a bit less until he showed me the report in the Guardian Online section that took the research to bits line by line. It has been a lost cause since. A couple of weeks later, he brought an envelope home from school with a questionnaire.you can guess what it was about - his TV and computer use habits and what proportion of time spent was educational. So all the questions were how much, how long? However neutrally phrased, the assumption underneath did not feel neutral - time on computers, the subtext said to me, was a 'bad thing'. I even felt criticised by the questionnaire. This is the fourth time my family has been targeted for research in the past few years. Am I in the Bermuda triangle of research? I was worrying that all results come from studies based in Muswell Hill.

But there is a serious point here. I don't think I am alone among parents in feeling fed-up about the constant reports of bad parenting. And I know because we have asked parents and they do feel persecuted by the attention. They mistrust expertise and resent it, they are perfectly willing to hear about health issues but are wary of advice about parenting because they - rightly - know that each relationship is individual so 'generalist' responses are viewed with suspicion. And they are fed up of 'improving' literature. As one parent put it, wouldn't it be good if one leaflet could be called, 'don't worry, you're doing a great job'. The word parenting is a bit of a problem itself - it does have the advantage of being gender-free, but it is a word that denotes activity. And we don't only do parenting: we are parents; it is an identity.it says who we are. Once we have children, it is probably the most powerful aspect of our identity, and our own self-esteem is most profoundly invested in it. It needs to be; if that were not the case, we wouldn't be able to love our children in the way they need to be loved. And yet we do want to face looking at truths - many of them uncomfortable - about being better parents and about our own emotional business with being a parent.

We don't want to delude ourselves that anything goes when it comes to children. In your network you have the opportunity to talk with each other. And when you do talk directly with children and with adults about families - and many research studies have done this - across comes a vibrant picture of people 'doing'/ living family life rather than being the passive recipients of genetic or structural forces. But now, our aspirations for relationships are extremely high. And though relationships might best be sustained by people believing in them as they really are, not as an ideal burdened with expectations it cannot live up to. Research has shown that, early on in our relationships (whether as adults in love with each other or as parents with our new babies) we are reluctant to face the possibility that we are going to face difficulties and problems. And really are we surprised? We cannot easily live if we anticipate sorrow and loss, and really knowing what we have to face would be unbearable. We can be ready for parenthood but I don't think we can be prepared. But there is an urgency to live relationships well - hence the parenting books and magazines; they are like wallpaper.

So here are the key messages from research about good parenting -

. Most vital things are love, warmth, stability, consistency
. It is overall parenting style rather than particular techniques which produces the goods
. Parents use a range of techniques; stress produces a higher level of less-productive style.
. Techniques which help parents avoid an escalation of tension and difficulties are helpful
. Parenting styles have been studied and 4 broad styles identified:
Authoritative Neglectful Authoritarian Permissive
. Authoritative = warmth, 'demandingness' and respect for child's psychological autonomy = good outcomes for children
. What counts as 'authoritative' is culturally and 'time' specific
Key Principles
. Put yourself in your child's shoes . Praise 5 times for every 1 scold
. Listen to children
. Express feelings
. Be clear
. Give reasons
. Be realistic
. Practise what you preach
. Let them find their own ways through
. Say sorry if need be
. Laugh a lot
So what we have are sets of general principles but it is in the minute by minute of daily life - when here and now cease to matter - that love is most nearly itself and does the business that makes children thrive. The positive parenting rules can easily force us into wanting certainty about what to do, about what is wrong and what is right, about how to live and be. This is a huge pity; it closes off the living with contradictions.

Love, though, is a complete exercise in contradicition. We do it even when we know it means loss and pain. And my goodness do children mean loss - as they grow up and you lose that amazing, blazing love they have as young children and face the questioning, disapproving, critical love they have to feel for you as teenagers; and pain - as you watch them struggle with friendships and disappointments and know you can't just make it better for them. When their friends say they don't have a real father.or why do you have two mothers?

When the meanings that others have about relationships come and haunt, what do you need then? Of course love also means joy, pleasure, fund and pride. Now I want to turn to meaning. Now more than ever before, we are at the mercy in our own homes of the impact of the world out there with all its excitements yes, but also its complexities. That world conveys meanings. We learn from it who we are and what we are. We do not conduct our relationships in a vacuum, free from the world and its meanings. Meaning and agency are connected - how we see something has an impact on how we behave: a comforting, liberating thought. It means that meaning can be transformed, but probably only through comfort and openness. It is not only secrets that have an emotional weight that creates tension, fear and sadness; so does the need to protect.

At ChildLine, we heard all the time from children protecting their parents from truths about their feelings. Many children will have feelings about their conception and birth; some will appear not to and others will not connect to it as important; but at any time it can begin to be important. That is something that unites you all in the network and you will have more shared experience of the differing ways of supporting children than anyone else. You are learning how to tell a different loving story.

Changing the story is summed up by this poem from Grace Nichols:
I have crossed an ocean
I have lost my tongue
From the root of the old one
A new one has sprung

Again there are really good principles about children's feelings. About what makes feelings safe to explore and manage.

Feelings
. Anticipate likely bad feelings: sibling-envy, school or nursery unhappiness, rows
. Acknowledge
. Explain
. Encourage
. Comfort
. Disempower the negaqtive feelings - humour, reframing, changing meaning
. Distract/move on/
. Feelings are not right or wrong, they are feelings - what matters is what you do with them
. It is normal to have negative as well as positive feelings about those we love
. The scariest and most troublesome things are those that cannot be named
. Children worry and get deeply upset about things that adults do not notice .

  Acknowledging feelings
. Putting feelings into words or into the 'outside' - and showing children how to do that - has a miraculous effect
. Letting children know what is happening without burdening them .

Explaining ourselves to ourselves helps distinguish feelings and reality. 'Holding' was the word the great child therapist, Donald Winnicott used to describe the quality of loving and emotional containing that babies and children require to fulfil their emotional development. It is a very good word to describe the kind of relationship that allows growth. It is an attractive concept because it is oblique, open and conveys literal and complex meanings. The uterus 'holds' the foetus, then the baby. With a newborn, the head has to be held, supported. As children learn to sit, and stand, and walk, we hold them - not too much and not too little. As they grow and develop, we hold them less and less until they can stand alone. Every parent may not relish all aspects of their children's independence, but the best part of us hopes our children can grow to be able to go it alone. We talk of being held by a glance, holding the babies gaze, holding hands, conveyed non-verbally by look and touch. With babies there is also the sense that you hold their futures in the palms of your hand. And of people in grief or misery, we hold them. And, for children, we wish to hold anxiety.
Holding gives a sense you can do it, can survive can get through hard things. Holding is something that parents need too as they in turn hold their children and this network and your relationships with each other can provide some of that holding. It may be an exaggeration to argue that more is to be discovered about relationships from fiction or poetry or plays or films than from all the books of parenting, social policy or psychology put together; but when you find yourself hearing relentlessly about social capital, social entrepreuneurship, time sovereignty, welfare to work, relationship skills, sex and relationship education in families - all these phrases so familiar to those discussing the family - then you can be excused for feeling you have arrived in some Malthusian desert, where meaning has been lost, and seek other ways to get to the nub of things. Take these few lines from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. He is writing in despair about his inability to find the language to say what he needs to say.

So here I am. Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt Is a wholly new start and a different kind of failure Because one has only learnt to get the better of words For the one thing one no longer has to say. And so each venture is a new beginning, A raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating. For us, there is only trying. The rest is not our business.

This sounds like despair but is, in fact, encouraging. Eliot has managed to do the contradictory: to convey the impossibility of making language say what you want of it, while getting it to do just that. For us, too, struggling to be a good loving family, there is only trying; the rest is not our business. Failure is inevitable. But if we hold our children and ourselves we can do that amazing conundrum: be failures and successes at the same time.

All the evidence from research shows that it is the quality of relationships that raises children well whether in the home or in child care - the care, the respect, the example, kindness, the nurture, the talking, listening and communicating and most of all the love.

I said earlier that love is an exercise in contradiction, that we love even though it means loss and grief, 'the price we pay for love.' as Queen put it. We need to celebrate that mystery, celebrate the personal, celebrate relationships, the relationships we have with each other, relationships that are not only 'social contracts' but about that most contradictory thing: the completely prosaic everyday business of living together and about our deepest feelings of love and commitment.

Personal story category: