How to mess up your children

Updated: Oct 1, 2018


Philip Larkin's poem, This Be The Verse, begins:


They [mess]* you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.


It goes on to recommend not having children yourself. If it's too late for you (I have three), or if the thought of changing nappies and watching school plays is irresistible to you, what's the best way to mess your own up properly?


Should you smother them in affection so they can hardly move? Or neglect them, and let them mess themselves up? Beat the little imps for the mildest infraction or let them run riot?


It turns out that either method does the trick.


Scientists measure children's relationships with their parents using a variety of methods - questionnaires, interviews and close observation. And scoring at either extreme is a bad sign for both their relationships with other people and their mental health.


If you protect them too much: never let them make mistakes, scrape their knees or get into fights, they don't learn how to control their emotions. When older, they fail to manage the rough and tumble of adulthood and are more likely to suffer from depression.


But if they don't feel cared for, they don't learn how to build attachments. When scientists interviewed over four hundred children and adolescents, they found that the less warm their early relationship with their parents, the more they avoided forming other close connections. When older, those habits stick: they're less likely to form long-term bonds and stable partnerships. Ultimately, they end up lonely and depressed too.


You can't teach your child to read by bunging some books at them and waiting for them to figure out what letters are, what sound each makes, and how to blend them into words. Neither will they learn much if you do all the reading and never let them struggle. You need to steer a middle course.


So it is with social skills. Far more important than their ability to read, write and do algebra is your child's competence in building relationships. If you don't teach your sprogs to do that, you truly [mess] them up.


But as Larkin indicates, getting it right is hard. 'Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.'


Chris Paley holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages. *'Mess' isn't the word that Larkin used, but Facebook objects to his choice.


Further reading

Karavasilis et al. (2003)

Wilhelm et al. (2004)