Be­yond nap­pies and tantrums to big is­sues

Par­ent­ing can be hard labour but even tougher is the philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion it makes us con­sider, writes Alain de Bot­ton: What is a good life? A new book of­fers some an­swers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

One of the most pe­cu­liar things about our child­cen­tred so­ci­eties is that we do not, on the whole, write ei­ther very well or very deeply about par­ent­ing. Par­ent­ing man­u­als fill the shelves; ac­counts of what it is to be a par­ent, re­flec­tions on the sen­sa­tions of nur­tur­ing a child to adult­hood are re­mark­ably ab­sent. It is as if we were some­how ashamed of the ex­pe­ri­ence, and un­will­ing to ac­cord it the in­ter­est or cul­tural pres­tige it de­serves. Or we are sim­ply, af­ter a day with the kids, too tired.

He­len Hay­ward’s achieve­ment is to have writ­ten a book about the most or­di­nary things and to have lo­cated therein the most ex­traor­di­nary in­sights and ideas. Her topic is beau­ti­fully, unashamedly “bor­ing”. Al­most noth­ing “hap­pens” in A Slow Child­hood. Thank good­ness. There are no ex­plo­sions, dra­mas or tense turn­ing points. Yet from the stuff of or­di­nary life, Hay­ward has wo­ven a nar­ra­tive filled with ten­der­ness, com­plex­ity, hon­est self-re­flec­tion and pur­pose.

In the best works of cul­ture, we have an im­pres­sion of com­ing across or­phaned bits of our­selves, evoked with rare crisp­ness and tenac­ity. We might won­der how on earth the au­thor could have known deeply per­sonal things about us, ideas that nor­mally frac­ture in our clumsy fin­gers when we try to take hold of them, but that are here per­fectly pre­served and il­lu­mi­nated. They have — like Hay­ward — just been very aware of, and hon­est about, their own feel­ings.

Most of our lives are spent in sit­u­a­tions of numb­ing steril­ity. There is usu­ally no op­tion but to con­form and obey im­per­sonal rules. We don’t in our work gen­er­ally cre­ate any­thing of par­tic­u­lar won­der or in­ter­est. We don’t know how to paint or play Chopin’s Scherzo No 2 in B flat mi­nor. We can’t per­son­ally man­u­fac­ture an iPhone; we don’t know how to ex­tract oil from the ground.

And yet, with­out be­ing con­scious of the specifics, we are at points ca­pa­ble of do­ing some­thing prop­erly mirac­u­lous: we can make an­other per­son. We can con­jure up the limbs and or­gans of a fel­low crea­ture. We can cre­ate a liver, we can de­sign some­one else’s brain, we can — by in­gest­ing a mixed diet per­haps in­clud­ing ba­nanas, cheese sand­wiches and gin­ger biscuits — make fin­gers, we can con­nect neu­rons that will trans­mit thoughts about the his­tory of the an­cient Per­sians or the work­ings of the dish­washer. We can chore­o­graph the birth of an or­ganic ma­chine that will prob­a­bly still be go­ing close to a hun­dred years from now. We can be the mas­ter co-or­di­na­tor and chief de­signer of a prod­uct more ad­vanced than any tech­nol­ogy and more com­plex and in­ter­est­ing than the great­est work of art.

Hav­ing a child defini­tively re­futes any worry about our lack of cre­ativ­ity and dis­man­tles (at least for a while) the envy we might oth­er­wise feel about the in­ven­tive­ness of oth­ers. They may have writ­ten a stir­ring song, started and sold a bio-en­gi­neer­ing com­pany or plot­ted an en­gag­ing novel. But we will have cre­ated the odd­est yet most in­spir­ing work of art and sci­ence around: one that is alive; one that will de­velop its own cen­tres of hap­pi­ness and se­crecy; that will one day do its home­work, get a job, hate us, for­give us, end up be­ing, de­spite it­self, a bit like us and, even­tu­ally, make hu­mans of its own that can spawn them­selves into per­pe­tu­ity.

How­ever much they may re­sent one an­other, grow apart or be worn down by the hum­drum na­ture of fam­ily life, par­ents and chil­dren are never en­tirely able to get past the su­per­nat­u­ral se­quence of events that con­nects cre­ators and cre­ated. Be­cause two peo­ple met 15 years ago in a friend’s kitchen, liked the look of one an­other, swapped phone num­bers and went out for din­ner, there is now — across the ta­ble — a be­ing with a par­tic­u­lar sort of nose, a dis­tinc­tive emo­tional tem­per­a­ment and a way of smil­ing that (as ev­ery­one re­marks) un­nerv­ingly echoes that of a dead ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther.

Par­ent­ing in­eluctably de­mands that one ad­dress the great­est, found­ing philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: what is a good life? This ques­tion lies at the cen­tre of A Slow Child­hood. As each of us goes about an­swer­ing it in our words and ac­tions over long par­ent­ing years, we will at least know — as Hay­ward ac­knowl­edges — that we have been spared the one great fear that oth­er­wise haunts us and usu­ally man­i­fests it­self around

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