Grayson Perry is a remarkable man. In 1964, aged four, his mum had an affair with the milkman. His dad left. The milkman became Grayson’s stepdad. He was violent. Grayson talks about hiding from him in the garden shed, where he’d play an imaginary world with his teddy bear, Alan Measles. He describes Alan as a surrogate father, rebel leader, fighter, pilot and undefeated racing driver.
Grayson went on to art college and is now one Britain’s most celebrated living artists and broadcasters. His wife is Philippa. She is an incredible woman. She wrote The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and your children will be glad you did). Possibly the best title for a book ever.
It’s a great book. Dead easy to read (unlike most parenting books). It’s a book about relationships. The ones we had with our parents, the ones we have with our kids and the ones we have with ourselves.
We often think about parenting in terms of a set of responsibilities, tasks to complete, needs to meet. Distinct things, separate from ourselves. When we think about parenting as a relationship, lots more opens up.
The quality of a relationship is down to the quality of the communication between two people. If you don’t communicate, there’s no relationship.
Take me and you before you read anything I wrote. We started off with no relationship — now you read my work, we’re forming a relationship, but it’s one way. If you message me, I reply, the communication becomes reciprocal and the relationship grows. It’s better. If you lived round the corner and we went out for a pint, or a walk in the park, the relationship would be even better, because the quality of the communication would have improved. The better the communication, the better the relationship.
To communicate well, you need to know what you want to say and have ways to say it that can be heard and understood.
Bearing this in mind makes parenting so much easier. Kids, especially little ones, but even big ones, have a hard time knowing what they want to say and the best way to say it. They don’t have as much experience of communicating and their expressions aren’t as sophisticated. The best way for us to respond is to see everything they do as a signal.
When they’re upset, scared, ignored, unsafe, nervous, or worried, they’ll fall back on the first thing they can to get your attention. Things like nagging you or doing something they know to be ‘naughty’. Chances are you’ll react to it as annoying, misbehaving, disrespectful, selfish or stubborn. Instead you could read their behaviour as a sign something’s up and they need more of your attention. Give them a hug rather than a consequence. Read the signals they’re sending, don’t react to feelings their behaviours are triggering. This is easier said than done and no-one manages it all the time. But it is a practice worth developing.
When they’re feeling full of energy and playful, and you aren’t, you might experience them as hyper and silly, tell them to quieten down and find something else to do. Maybe they just haven’t worked out how to communicate what they’re feeling in the right way to get you to engage, because they don’t know how to read how you’re feeling yet. Communication is a two way thing. To work out the best way to say what you want to say and how you need to say it, you need to be able to read where the other person is at.
The more you work on the quality of your communication, the faster the quality of theirs will improve. And with that, the stronger your relationship will become.
When you improve the quality of your communication, the quality of your other relationships will improve too. With your partner, your mates, your colleagues, your clients.
That’s the thing about fatherhood. If you do it well, you don’t just bring up great kids, you become a better version of you too. But doing it well means putting in the time and effort (again and again and again!).
Maybe fatherhood is about going slower for a bit to go faster later. Getting further in the end, having a more fulfilling journey along the way.
Grayson has described Alan Measles as his surrogate father. He also said “About 15 years ago, I was doing a show in Japan and I wanted to do a piece about religion. I needed a God I actually believed in, so I chose him.” You could say the communication between Alan and Grayson was one sided, but it wasn’t. Alan came to life in Grayson’s imagination. There, the quality of the communication could be perfect. And the strength of relationship that resulted speaks for itself.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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Photo credit: Grayson Perry