In this ongoing series of posts, I, without expertise, prejudice, or agenda, will share my insights and/or observations on writing about family. The previous posts were on a more general level so in this one, let’s dive into the heart of the matter that is children writing about their parents and what parents can do to avoid the worst-case scenarios.
Writing about terrible childhoods has been done to death, but as long as people are foolish enough to reproduce, there will be those offspring who will grow to be writers with scores to settle. And there will be readers who will devour the resulting stuff.
Now, having been someone’s child, and then someone’s parent, I have an evolving view on both roles. Growing up in Ireland, I often heard the grown-ups use the term, “Who is she when she’s at home?” It always struck me as a very peculiar saying until I realized that many of us are not who we think we are and nowhere is that more evident than in the home.
It rings true for all members of a family and primarily for parents who are little more than former children now rearing children with no manual or guidebook and only their own parents as role models. It’s little wonder the whole world is going mad.
You see, once upon a time, family was a much more straightforward thing. We had biblical references that glorified the role of the patriarch. We had television shows that laid it out for us. Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, etc... Parents were wise and sober, understanding and forgiving, and everyone was happy in their appointed roles.
Or so we wished to believe. But then along came exposés and gave us a new culture where all fathers were portrayed as drunken tyrants who took out the frustration of their empty, meaningless lives on their families. Consumer-driven mothers were unsatisfied and unfulfilled and managed only by popping pills while children grew up to drop out and tune in. For a number of years, it almost seemed like the most preferred pedigree.
Now here’s a question for you to ponder: Were parents so bad back then or were children just whiney?
Of course, outside of the cultural stereotypes most parents get on with their lives as best they can, keeping roofs over heads, food on the tables, and trying to propel the next generation forward. These types of families are better to grow up in, but are not the stuff of riveting sensationalism. Especially in an age where dysfunctionality has become the new normal.
Now there are certain expectations that come with starting a family, and being kind to children rates fairly high in most cultures—with a few obvious exceptions. I think this is wise as a general rule if for no other reason than the chance that your child could turn out to be a writer. Sadly, there is no way a parent can know such things when handed their little bundles of responsibility, so it might be better to err on the side of caution.
Giving children paper and crayons and locking them in a room with a deadline would probably be frowned on in this age. And it would very likely be misrepresented in the resulting tell-all, resplendent with bug-like drawings of people with frowny faces and all the inherited traumas of life.
Sending your children off to boarding school could be an option for some, but even that does not come with guarantees; more likely a recipe for a tale of abandonment and disinterest.
Indulging your writerly child is also fraught with pitfalls. And, if you have more than one child, there is the matter of balance and equality. You run the risk of being accused of favoritism, and while the conflicting views of the resulting tell-alls might drive book sales, you will come out looking badly in all accounts.
Having been a child, and then a parent, I have thought long and hard about this and many of the aspects of family life in general. The old adage that it takes a village to raise a child sounds wonderful but now that we all live in our psychologically gated communities, that becomes less relevant. No, I think the matter requires a new way of thinking for a new age.
Simply put, no one should be allowed to write about their parents until they have had children of their own.
Peter Murphy is the author of five novels, including Lagan Love, The Life & Times Trilogy, and The Last Weekend of the Summer, all published by The Story Plant.