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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul D'Alton

The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read review: It made me angry

Philippa Perry’s view on parenting is admirable, but regrettably simplistic.

Father holding his toddler in his arms on a beach, while looking out at the turquoise sea.

In the introduction to The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, Philippa Perry says her book “may upset you, make you angry or even make you a better parent”. This book did anger me at times but for all the wrong reasons.

Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and an agony aunt for Red magazine; she is also a freelance writer and TV and radio presenter. Her husband is the artist Grayson Perry.

Perry sets out her stall in a punchy foreword and introduction saying this is a book about our relationships with our children, what gets in the way of good connection and how we can enhance these relationships. She declares her intention to give the reader “the big picture, to help you pull back, to see what matters and what doesn’t, and what you can do to help your child be the person they can be.”

She “takes the long-term view on parenting rather than the tips-and-tricks approach. I am interested in how we can relate to our children rather than how we can manipulate them.”

And what’s not to like about that approach? The last thing the world needs is another mechanistic parenting manual.

Perry’s explicitly stated intention concerning the nature of the relationships we have with our children and how we manage our emotional lives in this context is welcome. This is an essential and frequently overlooked component of parenting and a laudable undertaking on the part of the author. However, herein lies the fundamental flaw with The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read.

Too narrow a focus

Perry’s exclusive focus on the relational and emotional aspects of parenting to the neglect of an established range of evidence-based factors that influence parenting is regrettable. There is no acknowledgement of the role public policy plays in parenting for example. Likewise there is scant acknowledgement of the impact social and economic inequality plays in parenting. Equally there is little or no consideration given to an entire range of developmental and medical difficulties that fundamentally influence parenting.

I fear that one of the unintended consequences of such a narrow focus is the potential for parent blaming. The nature of the relationship we have with our children and our own emotional lives is but one dimension when it comes to parenting. Such a narrow lens, such a one-dimensional approach to parenting or to any aspect of the human development trajectory is reductive and impoverishing.

Philippa Perry with her husband Grayson. File photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

Philippa Perry with her husband Grayson. File photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

No matter how important relationships are, they exist in a world shaped by policies resulting in increasing social and economic inequality. The failure to contextualise any human endeavour in its wider context is regrettable.

On several occasions Perry offers simplistic advice on what are often complex and deep-seated psychological problems. She offers simple strategies to turn “shame into pride”, and to avoid trigger emotions by looking back on our childhood with compassion, telling the reader on several occasions not to judge themselves, for example. These are extraordinary psychological asks; the territory of shame, self-judgement and developing compassion for oneself is such a tender, nuanced and delicate undertaking.

Shame and compassion are integral components to the very relationship we have with ourselves and tend not to respond to simple strategies or intellectual correction. Changing the relationship we have with ourselves, becoming kinder or less judgemental to ourselves, is – many professionals in the field and the accumulated research evidence suggest – the work of a lifetime.

Isolated wisdom

Having said all that, there are gems of wisdom scattered throughout this book. Perry speaks with an open, human and kind heart. She gives voice to a wide range of fundamental issues concerning human relationships contributing to a much more humane understanding of what it means to be a human being. However, these gems of wisdom seem to stand alone, they are isolated and have a tendency to read more like stand-alone inspirational quotes as opposed to components of an overarching narrative.

It is as if at times The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read suffers from the influence of the poorest form of what’s known as integrative psychotherapy. This form attempts to integrate multiple theoretical models to treat clients. In inexperienced hands it can be rudderless and unhelpful. Perry’s generous acknowledgement section, which illustrates the richness of material she has drawn on, perhaps also points to the absence of an overarching framework.

Perry has addressed one of the most important issues that can be overlooked in the traditional parenting literature – relationships, and from that how emotion, communication and good mental health emerge. In highlighting relationships Perry offers a welcome antidote to a prevailing approach concerning the care of human beings that all too often is concerned with productivity, efficiency and behaviour management.

I really wanted to like this book; I wanted to support an approach to parenting or the care of any human being that promotes the non-judgement and relationship focus that Perry weaves through her book. However, the potential unintended consequences of Perry’s narrow focus and the sometimes simplistic approach to complex psychological issues takes much away from the promises made in the introduction and, ultimately, makes this book hard to like.


The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad that You Did), by Philippa Perry is available from Dubray Books for €23.20.

Originally published in The Irish Times 10/04/19.


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