Dear Lucy Mangan,
I love your column in the Guardian Weekend. You write with wit and insight, and use your position as a parent to make some strong points.
Like the time you walked out of a church playgroup because the organisers urged you to sign a homophobic petition. I was heartened to read about it, especially because I’d had a similar experience myself the week before. Or when you wrote about the shocking plans to close Lewisham A&E (which also happens to be our local). A scary experience with my son Austin made me realise just how vital it is to have an emergency department close by.
But I disagree with some things you said in this Saturday’s column, Never trust a parent.
In it you suggest that parents, instead of fighting to make the world a better place for their descendents, bunker down to protect their little ones from bogeymen. And become more selfish.
It’s true, we didn’t see slings bobbing up and down at any of the Arab Spring uprisings. And there weren’t many buggies weaving among the crowds at the recent Occupy demonstrations.
Becoming a parent makes it difficult to tackle the logistics of protest. Breastfeeding, and managing an unruly toddler with a penchant for bolting headlong towards danger, is often incompatible with the long days and uncomfortable conditions of mass mobilisation. Like you, I would do anything to keep my children far away from people and situations that could put them in danger, physically or emotionally. No angry, shouting mobs or lobbed bottles for MY pigeon pair, then.
Having children does soften people around the edges. But it also brings a greater sense of commitment to the wider community and the ties that bind us together.
From a biological perspective, as Matt Ridley outlined in his book The Origins of Virtue, people get on better in life if they are kind. According to ‘Tit for tat’ theory, people are more likely to cooperate when they know they are dealing with altruistic individuals. Those who refuse to help others, are left out in the cold. If we want our children to grow up in a nurturing, caring society, we need to surround them with people who are generous and giving. And the best way to do that is by being altruistic ourselves.
But perhaps an even more important motive for caring about humankind, is knowing that you are a child’s first, and most important, moral compass. We all want our children to think of us as knowing right from wrong. This is what inspired Judith O’Reilly to begin her Year of Doing Good, where each day saw a different beneficent deed. She “wanted them to realise the requirement there is on each of us to help our fellow man, the need for compassion.” The only way to do this, she figured, is to live out one’s values and act with integrity.
Looking after little people is tough. With the decline of the extended family as a means of support, we increasingly turn to friends and neighbours, giving the sort of help we would like to receive. Even if that individual wouldn’t be the one to help US in turn. Since becoming a mum, I’ve noticed altruism everywhere. Virtual strangers give each other baby and maternity clothes, and share kiddie snacks in the playground. Bloggers, like Clara Unravelled, send presents to people they’ve never even met, to help spread random acts of kindness.
All this is generally unnoticed, and unfeted. But it is worth a great deal.
As George Eliot writes, at the end of Middlemarch: “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
So, Lucy Mangan, I think you CAN trust parents. We may not often be at the forefront of headline-hitting, earth-juddering political or social change. But we breeders are there, beavering away slowly and softly, to make this world a better place for ourselves and our children.