Out of the fog of rumour and accusation surrounding the melancholy break-up of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, one source of contention seems distinctly modern: the couple rowed most fiercely, apparently, over ‘parenting styles’.
Where once the public divided into ‘Team Aniston’ and ‘Team Jolie’ on loyalties in love, it’s now ‘Team Jolie’ and ‘Team Pitt’ on parenting. According to ‘friends’ and ‘ex–nannies’, it appears that Jolie dealt with their six children in an easy-going, continent-hopping manner which aspired to their graduation as ‘children of the world’. Pitt, it seems, yelled more and tried to enforce bedtimes, manners and chores. Things reportedly came to a head on a private jet where Pitt had a screaming row with Jolie and their eldest son, and the next day Jolie filed for divorce.
For years Jolie has told any reporter who would listen that Pitt was the most admirable of fathers. Rarely have two people hymned each other’s ‘parenting skills’ so loudly for so long. Yet Jolie has applied for ‘sole physical custody’, which her attorney says is for ‘the health of the family’, wreathing the break-up in hints that Pitt is unsafe around his children. The implicit charge is one of ‘bad parenting’, of the sort that must no doubt be closely evaluated by teams of lawyers.
What happened? Divorces are traditionally about all sorts of things: boredom, infidelity, control-freakery, addictions, the lavish smorgasbord of unhappiness. Yet divorcing parents at least used to reassure the children that it wasn’t about them. The citation of ‘parenting styles’ in a celebrity divorce battle tells the children the opposite: it is all about them, and it’s gone kaput. The painful message is: ‘We can’t agree on how to bring you up, and so the family is breaking up.’
Jolie and Pitt aren’t the only ones rowing about the correct ideology of child-rearing, however. If you type ‘parenting’ into the Amazon search field, there are thousands of competitive blueprints for bringing up baby, from Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (advocating enforced study and relentlessly high expectations) to Dr Laura Markham’s Calm Parents, Happy Kids: the Secrets of Stress-Free Parenting. A vast sub-genre plays to the nagging belief — once confined to food and sex — that other countries do it better. The Danes come out tops (The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know about Raising Confident, Capable Kids) but they have a looming rival in the Dutch (coming this winter: The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up Children the Dutch Way). The French get a good rap on manners (French Parents Don’t Give In: 100 Parenting Tips from Paris). The most oft-cited formula is for ‘happy, successful children’, as though a child is some kind of plant that you must position carefully in specialised soil for guaranteed results, rather than a growing person with an independent, unpredictable human will. It goes without saying that hardly anyone wants to parent like a Brit.
I’m not saying that bringing up children is easy, or that we should shun all advice from experts, in person or in print. I remember taking solace from the ‘toddler-taming’ book of Dr Christopher Green, a sensible paediatrician whose advice tended towards the warmly practical (his suggestion of calming a jumpy toddler at lights-out time with a few squirts of ‘monster repellent’ from a can of hairspray worked a treat). And there are some adults whose own upbringings were chaotic or neglectful, who would be helped as parents by the formal iteration of the importance of regular mealtimes, bedtimes, stories and basic kindness, because no one did it for them.
But the thing is — when we get into the more far-reaching theories — I don’t really want to parent like a Dane, now the internationally acknowledged custodians of happiness and hygge (their much-vaunted word meaning cosy pleasures). I’ve got nothing against the Danes, but I want to parent like a Northern Irish woman who is slightly grumpy in the morning until the first cup of tea, which is what I am. Anyway, as the parenting industry swells, so does unhappiness among children and teenagers — manifested in rising mental health issues and self-harm — rather as the diet industry expands in line with obesity. Worrying constantly about something doesn’t seem to stop it from getting worse.
I was lucky enough to grow up in Belfast in the 1970s, when ‘parent’ was a noun rather than a verb and the turmoil in the state left little time for extended self-examination. My attitude would have given a tiger mother a heart attack. I spurned all extracurricular activities, regarding my attendance at school as job done, and liked to be left alone to read or to hit a tennis ball mindlessly off the back wall. In return my parents clearly loved me, broadly expected me to do well, and left things at that. We were all satisfied. Even now, the thought of someone bearing down upon me with an agenda for success makes me feel panicky and sick. With a tiger mother, I might certainly have done better at the piano, but I would have been all snarled up inside.
I think back to my father and grandfather, who came from tough working-class backgrounds and had even more freedom of movement than I did. They regarded their mothers as benign representatives of a domestic order with whom they touched base to get fed, washed and occasionally chastised. In hindsight, they interpreted their childhoods as thickly action-packed and happy.
It is surely imperative that we love our children, encourage them and try to teach them to be decent individuals. Yet the parenting cult too often sells the dangerous illusion that adults can strategically perfect a relationship with a child, thereby leading them to perfect themselves according to our lights. We’re being encouraged to see children as difficult puzzles rather than sources of enjoyment. It’s a perfect recipe for anxiety.
As we pore over our latest tactics, and teenagers contemplate the abstract terror of failure on multiple fronts from their bodies to their grades, perhaps the healthiest parenting advice of all is this: put the book down and back off.