As I started to write this, I asked my eldest child, who is nine, what makes a good parent. “Someone who cuddles you, someone who plays with you, someone who is kind and is calm when you do something wrong.” None of this is, surely, a surprise. But its sheer basicness is such that it is actually easy to forget just how little good quality attention children need.
This week we saw two items that gave cause for judgement on what makes a suitable parent. The Ukip couple who, last week, had the children they’d been fostering for the last two months taken away from them because of their political beliefs. And we learned that the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby had a father who, although “brilliant” and interesting, was an alcoholic.
What does make a good parent and who decides it? It is perhaps easier to reverse this question and look at what doesn’t make a good parent. For it is often the least obvious things that are the most pernicious. Things there are no boxes to tick for, which have no political bias and are so easily discounted as to have become excusable. The stress-filled, sarcastic response; the not listening; the discounting of a child’s opinion; the putting off, God the endless putting off, of watching or listening to their latest dance or song. No biggie once or twice, but repeated often they will erode a child’s self-esteem to the point of no repair.
Conversely the trying too hard to be a good parent by overloading a child’s itinerary with things you think they should be doing without ever having asked them. The not letting them be occasionally: unwatched and unjudged to discover who they are, not who you want them to be. The basis of every parental fear is about what might happen; it is this that is planned for, often to the detriment of what is actually happening right now.
Almost all popular parenting literature is about taming children, not listening to them. In all the rainfall of comments about Jimmy Savile, so little of it was about how to listen – really listen – to what children are actually trying to say.
Yet the absolute central core of being a good parent is the hardest to achieve and one that would sell no books. It’s not discipline, or striving for respect (often another word for fear). It’s trust. Trusting your child because you trust yourself to have done a good job is harder than Olympic gold to achieve.
And who the hell am I to tell you what makes a good parent? No-one. But I was once a child. And I have a good memory.