The outgoing headmaster of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon, has lambasted many parents for being "clueless narcissists". Angela Epstein is one
8:00PM BST 26 Jun 2015
Tidying the kitchen the other day, I glance up to see my 16-year-old son, Aaron, framing the doorway. His furrowed eyebrows and pleated lip suggest to me his intentions are not benign.
“Why did you tell me to do English A level ?” he challenges. Clearly it’s a rhetorical question, since he proffers an answer before I can even draw breath. “Ah yes,” Aaron continues. “You said, and I quote. it was 'stimulating, imaginative and that it would play to my interests in reading and creative writing.’”
Er yes, all true. But where’s the problem? Then Aaron deals the killer blow. “Those were the reasons why you did it. And I am not you.” And with that damning assessment he is gone.
It seems he and Thomas Hardy are having something of a turbulent relationship right now, and my son has only one place to point the finger. To which I must hold up my hands and admit he's right. I loved English A level and, noting Aaron was more of an artist than a scientist, unapologetically encouraged him to take the subject himself. Clearly it was a bad call.
Not that I'm alone. Like many parents, I have a primal urge to micro-manage my children. And yes, the encouragement I offer is often predicated on my experience. Or indeed lack of it, since I don't want them to miss out. But my intentions are entirely honourable: I want my children to have their best shot at happiness, success and fulfilment.
For the same reason, a friend of mine screams herself hoarse on a draughty playing field every Sunday afternoon, convinced her touchline encouragement will ensure her son's Beckham-like success. (This is despite a survey earlier this year finding four in 10 children are put off sport by over-competitive parents telling them they are too fat or lazy to run and making them cry in front of team-mates.) It is why universities say parents are increasingly accompanying children on open days. writing their application forms and even fighting appeals on their behalf if they are rejected. According to one study, 50 per cent of students at university open days in 2011/12 were accompanied by at least one parent, up from 47 per cent two years earlier.
Yet this week Sir Anthony Seldon, the outgoing headmaster at Wellington College, lashed out at such behaviour, claiming it happens because too many parents are “clueless narcissists”. Or, as he blazed defiantly, we want our children “to become a mini-me.” It was an unvarnished assessment that made me wince – not only for its brutality but for the fact he was touching on a potential truism. Sir Anthony notes how parents spend their time screaming from the touchlines (see above) or at the school play videoing rather than watching the performance (tick). In the process, he claims, we “atrophy our child’s sense of development and autonomy.”
Anthony Seldon has said too many parents are "clueless narcissists"
There's no doubt this kind of micromanagement can be bad for a child’s development, says Louise Tyler, an accredited counsellor who runs the Personal Resilience clinic in Cheshire. “It stops them learning how to be independent and to work things out for themselves. Parents have to ask themselves if what they are doing is narcissistic – whether it's about themselves or their child. Not allowing children to make their own decisions or becoming over-involved can lead to low self-esteem and a lack of resilience.”
Former England striker Gary Lineker put it more concisely when he said of parents screaming at the touchline: “We need a parental cultural revolution. If we could just get them to shut the f*** up and let their children enjoy themselves, you would be staggered at the difference it would make.”
Gary Lineker has called emphasised the need for a parental revolution
So am I a parental narcissist?
Seems a bit steep, yet how else can I explain cornering one of my children's teachers at a local nail salon and manipulating the conversation towards the end of year school play? Had the parts been cast yet, I queried before making casual conversation about how my daughter, Sophie, loves acting. The teacher fielded my innocent inquiries with admirable aplomb, saying nothing had been decided. (Sophie ended up getting three lines.)
But if I have been guilty of trying to create a series of mini-mes with my four children – Sam, 22, Max, 19, Aaron, and Sophie, 11 – it's only with the best intentions. Certainly, with my own career as a writer and broadcaster I refute Sir Anthony's accusation of living vicariously through ambitions for my children. (A Harvard University study published this week showed the daughters of working mothers have more successful careers and earn more money than those of stay-at-home mums, which is of course not why I work, but if it does bestow some additional benefit on my daughter then all the better.)
Angela Epstein and her four children, whom she is guilty of micro-managing
We’ve all met parents who are guilty as charged though. I recently spent an excruciating hour wedged in at a party while another mother spoke exclusively about her 14-year-old son's extraordinary academic ability. The issue would be what to choose for A level since he was so good at so many subjects. The woman herself had left school at 16 with few qualifications before getting married at a young age and embracing the role of housewife and mother. And herein lies a trend, perhaps: for I've noticed it's the parents who aren't necessarily high achievers themselves who take the longest at parents’ evenings. They spend hours rigorously interrogating each teacher about their child. A sense that their offspring are accessing what they never had is, frankly, palpable. And who can blame them, really?
My own parents were not professional people – indeed my maternal grandparents were impecunious Russian immigrants. However, they embraced culture and believed education was the path towards self-improvement. That's why my husband, a chartered accountant, constantly tells our own children to “get a label” - that is, a profession, be it plumber or brain surgeon - which will define their role, and hopefully their solvency, in the working world.
Meanwhile I remind our children that the reason I want them to do well at school is not so I can boast about it on Facebook but so they will be in with a fighting chance of finding a job that is stimulating, profitable and, in times of austerity, available.
And no, I'm not entirely passive. When my older two expressed an interest in going into the medical profession, I immediately organised work experience with dentists, surgeons and doctors to help bolster their applications. Aaron meanwhile had no idea what he wanted to do, so I naturally tried to focus his mind by asking a barrister friend to provide work experience at his chambers. Did it help? Well, Aaron enjoyed his time there but still isn't sure the law is for him – even though he loves deconstructing arguments, has a strong sense of justice and enjoys public speaking. So will the parental narcissist in me keep pushing the cause? With the words of Sir Antony Seldon reverberating around my head, and the bad call about Thomas Hardy already noted, I suppose I should give it up. And I will. Probably. Just not quite yet.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU'RE A NARCISSIST PARENT
1. You interfere in social arrangements without even consulting your children
2. You regard every white collar professional you meet as an opportunity for work experience – even if your child isn`t interested in becoming a lawyer/doctor/accountant
3. You hijack teachers – even when they are out of school
4. You phone school. Often
5. You sign up your children for extracurricular activities they haven`t even heard of (steel band workshop/beginners astrophysics) Well, they didn`t have that stuff around in your day…