Dear Lucy….

 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.

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26 thoughts on “Dear Lucy….

  1. Great post. I really loved readig it and agree with everyword! I definitely got some extended reading from it, must get a copy of The Origins of Virtue.

    1. Thanks. The Origins of Virtue’s an interesting read – the rest of Matt Ridley’s stuff’s a bit pro-market for my liking, though!

    2. All the comments below were deleted by my system – technology has let me down! I’ve copied them in again (unedited), as I want everyone to see the thoughtful things other people had to say about this post….

  2. From Anne Booth:

    I think that you make very good points here. Can I add a few? I’m a Mum of four teenage children, and I wrestled with these issues when they were little, and still do now.

    I’d like to add that parents of young children, whilst avoiding marches & demonstrations, can still, if they want, be politically active on the internet. Parents aren’t just confined to life enhancing but apolitical random acts of kindness (that is not to denigrate those acts, just to say that parents CAN be specifically political) Just as, if they have the time and energy, parents can blog about general aspects of parenting, they can also, if they wish and have the time and energy, blog, tweet, facebook and email about political issues, sign petitions or even get out pen and paper & write to their local M.P. Amnesty International’s letter writing campaign is a gift to a parents stuck at home with v small children, & has been v effective in releasing victims of political oppression.

    Secondly, and v profoundly change-making – just like the rest of our society, parents are consumers. They can choose, just as non-parents do- to buy ethically, to invest their money ethically, to give to charity, to cut down on disposable nappies or use unbleached more eco friendly paper ones. They can make their homes energy friendly and avoid over use of cars and aeroplane journeys. They can choose toys and books which are life enhancing, which are not sexist or made out of unsustainable materials. These are profoundly political acts and make the world a better place. In a capitalist society, consumer choice does affect things. Parents and non parents alike all have a duty to make sure their cheap clothes do not come at the cost of textile workers, for example, and choosing where to source our goods is an option open to all.

    Lastly, I found that when I was out and about with v little children, it was easy to share a smile with strangers! One of the saddest things about our modern culture is the isolation elderly people feel, and sitting on a bench, catching a bus or shopping with a toddler gave many opportunities t catch people’s eyes and make friends. It was quite odd when I no longer had a double buggy to push – smiling at strangers became less socially acceptable!

    I think that although a few things are more difficult for parents to do – like take their family on marches – in this world of the internet and still frequent post – parents have equal opportunity and duty to act effectively for good, and have to take responsibility for their decisions to act or not act, to be involved or not. Just choosing the food we give our children is political – we can’t avoid it – even if we wanted to!

    The big thing which stops parents of young children being v active politically is time. They do need, above all, to be present for their children and to keep well and rested and kind to themselves. But I think, looking at single friends exhausted by political activism, that is a fundamental problem for all – parents and non parents alike. We just have to find a balance!

    I must look at the books you cite – they sound really interesting. Your blog is great.

    1. Some very interesting points. Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my blog.

      I agree that parents can be effective activists, as well as carrying out more understated altruistic acts. Recently, a local mum organised a buggy march on Whitehall in protest at the closure of our A&E. It made a powerful statement, especially because – as you pointed out – most of the people on the march have very little time, and it was a challenge to get themselves and their children into central London.

      For me, that’s the crucial point. Any activity that’s not child-focused, however small, takes time and mental energy away from what I and many other parents of very young children see as the main focus: nurturing and promoting the development of our youngsters. Even a few tweets are difficult when you have a bored 3 year old and a 1 year old clamouring for a cuddle! At the moment, I choose to focus on my children rather than getting actively involved in political action.

      But I still think it’s possible to use our position as parents to change the world, little by little.

      And yes, that even includes such small things as smiles and cheeriness…..

      Thanks again for your great comments.

    2. ps. If you’re looking at the books I’ve mentioned, do bear in mind that I don’t agree with a lot of the anti-state arguments Matt Ridley has been spouting since The Origins of Virtue was published. But, as a stand-alone read, it’s very interesting.

  3. From Sonya Cisco:

    Excellent post. I am a HUGE advocate of kindness, it is the fundamental that underlies all my actions, and if that were applied to society we would see a great improvement. As for activism with kids, I am less active than I used to be, but have marched with buggies, and take my kids to things like Tolpuddle most years, but I do do less. As you mentioned Occupy I thought you might enjoy this post… , Lulastic is a fab example of an activist parent, and I hope that if was based in London I would have got more involved too. I want my children to learn to stand up for what is right!

    1. Thanks for your comment Sonya, and for directing me to Lulastic’s post. I’m just going over to have a look. I’ve only just discovered her fantastic blog, after I read about it in your most recent post for Britmums.

      I think we all slow down when we have children….but I’m looking forward to a retirement of strenuous activism!

  4. From Caroline:

    I’m honestly a little surprised by Lucy’s post. I can only put it down to her having young children? I don’t know – and I’m not trying to generalise. I have four children – although two of them are now men. 21,19,11 and 8.
    I found myself to be the complete opposite – I only realised there was more going on in the world outside of my cocoon once I HAD my children.
    I find myself more incensed everyday at the injustices in the world and have to sometimes restrain myself from calling people an outright c**t on twitter etc. Not very eloquent I know.
    I’m in an industry that is very corporate heavy and am also a blogger – I was warned in the early days that I ‘needed to be careful’ about what I said and about whom and that I was never to have an opinion about politics, religion or basically anything relevant to being a fully functioning human being.
    I have no interest in not having a voice. As a parent I see that as my JOB. If there is injustice surely your children need to see you standing up for what is right.
    Maybe Lucy just needs to be a parent for a little longer – or get some sleep? Because honestly, every parent I know has a voice, is passionate – and I think the notion of not relying on ‘breeders’ is utter bollocks.

    1. I was surprised by Lucy’s column too, as she’s previously been quite outspoken on political issues that are close to home for her. And with her position as a Guardian journalist, she has the power to reach and influence a lot of people. I think she’s very good at this (as well as being amusing, of course).

      I suppose everyone has off days?

      I’m glad you haven’t let the corporates drag you down!

  5. From The Brick Castle:

    I think as parents, when we educate our children, we need to include an understanding of meliorism and social responsibility. Recycling, reduction of waste and compassion are concepts my children learn very early on, and I have to say one of my proudest moments was when I discovered my son at 16 had travelled into Manchester secretly to attend a demonstration promoting racial equality and tolerance. He didn’t tell me because he was worried I’d stop him, and although I really hate dishonesty I admire his reasons 😀

    1. That’s wonderful! I’m not surprised you were proud. Sounds as though you’ve done a great job of getting the right messages through.

  6. From Harrovian Mama:

    I read this too and although I disagree personally, I do think a lot of parents adopt this approach. I do think as a parent you end up compromising a little-you see the shades of grey a little more. Friends who preached about the environment are now driving big cars to fit their growing brood. Those who believed passionately in the state system are signing their child up to private schools. I’m not saying everyone is a sell-out but probably most parents are less ‘radical’ than some singletons as you realise life can be more complicated. I know that I have personally started to see some issues from a different perspective. However, having said that, I am more passionate about other things: I HATE The Sun’s Page 3 etc. Obviously there are some issues race equality etc (as mentioned in previous comment) that are never negotiable and everyone (parents included) should never dismiss as someone elses problem!

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment. It’s really helpful for moving the debate along, as you’re right – plenty of parents DO abandon principles, just to ensure their children get the best from life. And I see where they’re coming from. If it’s a toss-up between the good of the masses and the wellbeing of my children, I’d choose the latter. For instance, I didn’t go on the buggy march against the closure of Lewisham A&E, because it was Austin’s settling-in week at pre-school. To march, I would have needed to keep him off for the day (or not go in with him), and I felt it was more important for me to be with him at that really important time, than adding my presence to a group of protestors. I knoiw I made the right choice, but at the time I also felt bad about not going.

      Where I think Lucy Mangan’s wrong, though, is in her statement that good parenting and caring about others are mutually exclusive. There are so many examples of where helping those around you, makes things better for your children.

  7. From Michelloui (The American Resident):

    Wow, a powerful, thought provoking post here. I didn’t see the one in the Guardian until now and you have replied beautifully. She made some interesting but strange points. Good for discussion, but… where did they come from?? Not a general consensus, clearly.

    1. It does seem very out of character for Lucy Mangan. But she’s certainly stimulated a fair bit of debate with the piece. Maybe that was the point! Thanks for commenting.

  8. From Actually Mummy:

    Brilliant post. So well written. I don’t know of Lucy, but I’m guessing she has no children of her own? Sadly – and I know I’ll get lambasted for this – people without children can’t ever really understand the world and what makes society tick. I know this, because I was one of those people before I had children.

    1. The surprising thing is, Lucy Mangan DOES have children.

      But have to I disagree with your point about childless people not understanding the world. It’s true that having kids makes you see things in a very different light. Since becoming a mum, I feel I understand better the sorts of things that motivate other parents (and my own). But, before I was parent, I was out and about a lot more, meeting new people, and learning how society worked. Now I live quite a sheltered life, and there’s a lot that passes me by.

      I’d be interested to hear exactly what’s changed for you since having children – it’s a really intriguing point that you’ve made. Thanks for commenting.

  9. Interesting post Nell, personally I think that people raise children different ways, far more down to the individual therefore I’m not a fan of Lucy’s sweeping generalisation x

    1. Thanks Mammasaurus. I agree – you do see all types of parenting at work, from the conservatives who batten down the hatches, to the people like Lulatastic who take their children along to Occupy. I even read about a roving photographer the other day, who travelled the world with her son from when he was a babe in arms till the age of 7.

  10. I agree with Mammasaurus. How can you generalise about parents? But (and here’s a generalisation of the kind I’ve just disparaged) I do think that being a parent makes you less self-centred, by its very nature. You can’t think about yourself all the time. I’m not saying non-parents are selfish. Just that they have to try harder to think about someone else. As a parent, that is your default mode.

    1. Thanks Iota. You’re right, having children helps people see the world through someone else’s eyes. I guess the difficulty some have (and this is perhaps what Harrovian Mamma was getting at) is with squaring the burning desire to put your children first, with previously help beliefs. If I was faced with a choice between saving a city full of people from a fire, and saving my pigeon pair, I would always choose the latter. Does that make me selfish, or a bad person? I wonder….

  11. A lovely, inspiring post that I agree with wholeheartedly x

  12. Such a thoughtful post – I’m a massive Lucy Mangan fan and remember reading the column you’re responding to, and having similar thoughts. I could never have expressed as eloquently as this though.
    By the way I love the idea of having a ‘featured by Mumsnet’ tab on your blog – if only I’d had more than two front-pagers ever – and have yet to scale the heady heights of Blog of the Day. One day! #blogclub
    LearnerMother recently posted…Small Things #3My Profile

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