Working for Care for the Family I have had the privilege of speaking with thousands of parents - they have shared with me their joys, fears, hopes and aspirations for their children. But time and time again they confide this: they feel guilty.
These parents are not serial offenders, most haven't got dreadful skeletons lying in the cupboard. No, they are ordinary mums and dads who are tired - not so much of parenting but of being told they are rubbish at it. One mum put it like this: 'Every time I hear an expert give a "foolproof" way to deal with the kids, I find that mine are an exception to the rule!'
And the school gate can be a scary place for mums or dads. Another mum explained: 'At times I worry I should push him a bit more with his reading and then another mum told me that was the worst thing I could do, saying - "You'll kill their love of books!"' But this poor mum went on to say that it wasn't just reading - it was potty training, vitamins, whether to stay at home or go back to work, whether to enforce strict bedtimes or be laid back about rules... all these things caused guilt. 'At times my head whirls with it all,' she concluded.
I recently finished a tour called 'Parentalk'. I love these events - they give me the chance to speak to thousands of parents about the issues closest to my heart. One of my favourite parts is when we say, 'We want to share a secret with you, when it comes to their own kids, there are no experts - the people who write the books, the ones who appear on television and those who give advice in the magazines - all of them are just people trying to get their own kids through as best they can. So above all, have confidence in your own parenting.
Nobody knows your child like you - and nobody loves them like you. So listen to what we say, try it, but if it doesn't work, try something else. There is no one way to be a perfect parent - but there are a hundred ways to be a great parent.'
The time when I most needed to hear that 'not guilty' verdict was on a trip to London when our children were three, five, seven and nine. We had seen the sights, successfully negotiated the Underground, and at five o'clock, just as it was beginning to go dark, arrived back at Wandsworth station where we had left the car. Our two eldest began to argue. We had had a busy day and I was irritated with their bickering. I got into the passenger seat and uttered the immortal words 'If you can't behave you'll have to walk home.' The argument subsided; we got in the car and set off. We had been driving for about ten minutes when George (nine) said 'Where's Charlotte?'
I still remember the feeling of utter panic as I looked round and realised that she wasn't in the car. At just seven-and-a-half years old we had left her behind in the middle of London. The next thirty minutes felt the longest of my life. We did a sudden u-turn across London rush hour traffic and headed back to the station to find she wasn't where we had left her! I remember jumping out of the car and blindly running up and down the roads searching for a sight of her blonde curls and red hoodie. After what seemed an eternity we found her - walking up and down the next street with no idea where she was. I have made many mistakes as a mum but that was probably the one that even now overwhelms me with guilt whenever I think about it.
When we feel we have really messed up, the guilt can be hard to bear. Almost worse can be the guilt that we feel in comparing ourselves to 'perfect' parents. Occasionally you come across them. On the Parentalk tour we give some tips to any guilt-inducing parents who might be in the audience. These mums and dads encourage other parents to follow their example because they really do have three perfect children. They save their pocket money for study-guides, always do their homework before playing on the computer, and offer to help with the washing-up because 'You've had a hard day at work, Mum.' If that's you:
Advice for the parents of three perfect children
1. Don't knock it - you're blessed
2. Keep it to yourselves - stop sending us those 'Farleigh Family Christmas News' missives
3. Don't even think of having a fourth. You're not a perfect parent - you just got lucky!
Katharine Hill is author of If You Forget Everything Else Remember This - Parenting in the Primary Years