Parenting Tips from the Professionals: Mariella Frostrup

Parenting Tips from the Professionals: Mariella Frostrup

Mariella Frostrup is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner.  We were delighted to speak with Mariella, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s “Bringing Up Britain” series about the challenges of modern parenting. 

Q: From the many topics you have covered to date with ‘Bringing Up Britain’ and the parenting experts you have talked to, what are the top messages you’ve taken away about raising children successfully?

A:   It’s less about raising children successfully and more about offering insights into what is happening in children’s lives in the 21st century.  When we first started out with the programme, we wanted it to be fully inclusive and not just for parents. There are so many things that affect all of us, that impact the next generation, the world we are living in and how we live our lives.  On some level, this is creating a sense of isolation and loneliness and adding to stress levels. In the short period of time since we started making the programme, we have noticed a marked increase in this. We are seeing a gradual erosion of the sense of community. The impact of stress is far more reaching than simply an individual’s experience of stress - it’s about eating disorders, self-harm, anti-social behaviour.  These all stem from feelings that all is not right in your world.

Q:  You’ve covered a wide range of parenting and family topics on ‘Bringing Up Britain’; what has been the most difficult or contentious topic you’ve discussed, and why?

A:  Whenever you talk about gender you get a very vocal response - that is the topic that gets the strongest reaction.  Everyone has an opinion and people tend to get quite animated about this.

Also, the topic of teenage runaways really took me by surprise.  We followed one of our real life case studies throughout a programme.  Every single one of us working on that programme drew in our breath when we heard how a seemingly normal scenario involving a middle-class family turned into hell for both the parents and the child involved. You learn a lot about expectations; for example, how we have expectations that certain issues are only faced by a particular socio-economic group.  In fact, most issues are facing kids right across the board, not just those experiencing poverty or deprivation, although these factors do play a significant part.

Q:  How do you and your husband manage your careers and work lives whilst making time for family and parenting?

A:   Very badly! My husband travels an awful lot and he’s great at looking after the kids when he is here and he is great at cooking. I spend whole days with calendar struggles - it’s a bit of a military operation! I think it’s really difficult for all parents.  Being part of “Bringing Up Britain” makes you realise all the ways you are failing and we definitely struggle like everybody else. You think when the children are a bit older it will get easier and you can leave them on their own for an hour or so -  they can get the train on their own and they are more independent. But going through the teenage period, I think children need you an awful lot more than certainly I expected, or at least, they verbalise that need more. They don’t need you in the way you expect, they say “I want you, I want you ….. oh I hate you”. They are pushing you away whilst at the same time needing you to stay close.  So dealing with teenagers whilst trying to hold down a steady (or erratic!) job is never easy.

Q:  What in your view is the biggest challenge nowadays for working parents?

A:  As a woman and as a feminist, I see the last great hurdle as creating a society where the same sense of responsibility for bringing up children is imbued in both sexes.  There are many fantastic men out there who work very hard to be the best parent they can.  But for some reason, that sense of final responsibility - particularly for the whole scheduling of children’s time and dealing with the mundane minutiae - still falls mostly on women’s shoulders and it’s really, really hard.

As a working parent, you never have a clear head. Your head is full of what you have to do at work and what you have to do at home - I have realised quite recently that it is so hard to make space just for yourself, to just sit and have a thought. And if your work requires creativity, then that space is essential for doing your work properly. 

When you go to work, you do a good job and you get recognised for this and feedback on how you are doing. On the domestic front, there is no reward really.  Of course, there is the reward of healthy happy children but that’s not the case every day of the week! So there are days when you feel like you are climbing Everest and not actually getting anywhere.  I think that’s the hardest thing, to be honest.

Q:  What progress would you like to see by the time your children enter the world of work?

A:  I hope that we will have managed to incorporate technology into our lives in a more holistic way. With today’s smartphones, it’s quite possible to have 4 or 5 family members all living in their own little worlds, interacting online with strangers, and this is not a healthy dynamic at all. I really hope we will have got used to the novelty of these new technologies and found a way for them to enhance our lives without detracting from our relationships.

I would say the pressure on the average adult these days is multiplied a hundredfold compared to when I first stepped into the workplace, due to these brilliant new technologies where we are all connected 24/7.  Forward-thinking firms are now realising that it is neither productive nor healthy to expect employees to be contactable at any time, or to return from holiday to find a huge number of emails waiting. In all those ways we are trying to think about the world we have created.

Q:  So, your first episode in the new series of “Bringing Up Britain” is about the smartphone?

A:   Yes, it’s been really interesting and there are great things about smartphones: the access to information, the access to other parts of the world. But ultimately the incontrovertible fact is that they are causing stress to children (social media in particular) and studies have shown that when children’s phones are taken away from them, a huge benefit immediately becomes evident in their state of mind.  I don’t even understand why we are debating this.

I am tempted to go back to those old mobile phones which only allow you to make calls.  Then you are not opening a door to the whole of the universe and all its risks and dark places.  I am against banning anything as banning something just makes it more enticing. The costlier way that will require a lot more thought would be to put the work in to actually talking to children properly about social media.

Q:  Should it be down to schools or parents to educate children about social media and the internet?

A:   I think it should be both.  The trouble is, as parents we are very hypocritical and bang on about not using the phone all the time …. and we sit using our phones and then when challenged, say we are working. I honestly don’t think that’s a good enough answer.  Parents are just as bad at looking at Instagram as teenagers! What on earth are we doing? If you think about the impact this kind of habit is having on us as adults, imagine what it’s doing to vulnerable young teenagers who don’t have confidence in themselves or their ability to contribute to the world. These children are looking at things online that undermine any sense of positivity and self-belief they might have.

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The new series of “Bringing Up Britain” transmits on BBC Radio 4 on 27 July 2018.   Past episodes are available on BBC iPlayer here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jj0s5

Mariella’s other Broadcast projects include Radio 4’s long­ running weekly programme Open Book and BBC1's The Big Painting Challenge.  Mariella has had her own weekly dilemma column, Dear Mariella, for the Observer newspaper for the last 15 years, and writes regularly for other newspapers and magazines. Mariella has been on the judging panels of various awards including The Booker Prize, The Turner Prize, The Amnesty International Media Awards, the London Film Festival and The RIBA Stirling Prize Awards. She is a Trustee of The Great Initiative, a charity which promotes gender equality. She lives in Somerset with her husband and two children.

Released On 3rd Jul 2018

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