I have to confess, I’ve been at the parenting books again. This time it’s Siblings Without Rivalry, which is (in my best cheesy DJ voice) an oldie but goldie.
As is usual with these books, I reach the end feeling equal parts dismayed (I do everything wrong) and encouraged (everyone else’s kids are a nightmare too, yay!).
If I had a chime for every alarm bell that went off in my head while reading, I’d have a flippin’ Grandfather clock by now: don’t give attention to the aggressor, don’t take sides, don’t just shout at them to stop, don’t intervene all the time, don’t pigeon-hole the kids into roles, and never, never compare your children.
That’s a lot to remember when they’ve got each other in a headlock, but I’d dismiss it if I didn’t feel it to be entirely true. Especially the last point: comparison.
The perceptive among you might point out - but you’re an only child, how can you possibly know about being compared? Ah, but I do, because the smallest slights can last a lifetime.
It must have been 1985, give or take. I was at the North School for Girls, the local ‘Comp’ - what we call a ‘comprehensive’ or high school. In the system of the time, all girls went to the Comp and after a year a small number was selected to go to the academically-focused Grammar school.
I have no doubt that this was the kind of decision that changed lives (in my town, anyway): the Grammar school prepared you for university and the World, while the Comp prepared you for teenage pregnancy and a job in the Rimmel make-up factory in town.
My best friend, Nicola, was a straight-A student: no great doubt that she would be going to the Grammar. One day at the end of term, I was walking across the playground when I bumped into one of my teachers. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name now. Big hair, but then it was 1985 so that doesn’t narrow it down much.
She stopped me and asked if I had got in to the Grammar. Yes, I confirmed that I had. Oh good, she said.
“And Nicola got in too,” I added.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “I knew Nicola would get in”.
No question mark over Nicola’s head then but, apparently, a big one over mine. The smallest slights - comparisons - can last a lifetime.
I’ve worn that question mark like a big dunce’s hat ever since, although its meaning has changed somewhat since I had kids. These days, it doesn’t so much imply “do I really deserve to be here?”: now, it is more like “have I unwittingly said anything in the last five minutes that will dog my child for the rest of its life?”. It’s quite some responsibility and not one that the Latin and Classics exams at the fancy school prepared me for...
*** Siblings Without Rivalry is written by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish and published by Avon Books.