Learning child psychology on the job

Parenting requires some kind of child psychology expertise which you only learn as you go along.


“A university has accepted me. I am going to be a student!” shouted daughter one in triumph just two days after filling in her UCAS form. She’d finally allowed me to read her personal statement at the 11th hour and I had no doubt she would be accepted. It was very daughter one. It was very honest, interesting, informal yet showing she had really done the work. There was even a reference to the Sugababes [linked to the subject she wants to do, philosophy].

Yet, like many young people, particularly women, and despite having really good exam results, awards plus a range of outside interests, she thought she would get rejected by everyone. Daughter one has, ever since I can remember, gone to family events with a philosophy book in her pocket. At Christmas, she was sitting in the corner of one such gathering reading something along the lines of the history of western philosophy. If she didn’t do philosophy at university, she would study it anyway. She decided that we should celebrate her soon-to-be undergraduate status.

But then the mood came crashing down. She is due to start jury service this week and she has lined up a long-anticipated trip to Paris with friends for the end of the month. The internet said 10 days was the average. That bit into the first day of her trip. Disaster. She’d put off the trip in December due to the unrest in Paris. What if she got a complicated case that went on for weeks, nay, months? Such is teenage life – a series of emotional highs and lows.

This all coincided with daughter two’s mock results. “How did it go?” I asked. Silence. “How was science?” “Not so good,” said daughter two who is very much on the arts side despite all my attempts to go on about the importance of women doing STEM subjects. “Did you get over 10%?” I asked. It appeared she had. “Over 20%?” It appeared she had not. Oh dear. Daughter two has always felt in the academic shadow of her elder sister. “I am the dumb one,” she told me. No matter how often I say that she is not, that there are different types of intelligence, that she is amazing at all things arty, she has got it stuck in her brain that she is some kind of failure. It doesn’t help that teachers sometimes compare her and her sister which you would think was a basic child psychology no no.

Daughter one tries her best to downplay her achievements and I’ve offered to help her with science and maths, but she just takes that as another sign of her failure.¬†¬†This psychological stuff is the very meat [apologies to the vegans] of parenting and I feel like I’m not very good at it. It requires breaking down the negative teen barriers [“I just don’t care”, “I don’t want to talk”, “go away”, ‘you’re soooo annoying”…], engaging in long and winding conversations which can potentially go wrong at any moment, spending time together, even if they don’t seem to want you to…Most of all it requires time, which is something which is often not in great supply, especially when you have four children and spend half your weekend repairing all the stuff that went wrong during the week/planning for the week ahead and falling asleep at the drop of a hat because the menopause is exhausting.

I had a conversation about the whole academic shadow thing the other day with daughter one. “You do know that we are all living in your shadow”, she said, referring to the fact that I went to Cambridge. Just the fact of going has been enough, apparently, even though I think I got in on a fluke due to an unlikely essay in Spanish about the Falklands which I wrote as a poem because I didn’t know enough about the subject for a sustained essay.

I write about the importance of role models all the time, but perhaps they can be both positive and negative at the same time. Life is a messy business, after all, but that’s what makes it interesting.

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