Giles Fraser: If I have to push, I shall push

22 July 2009

AS I WRITE, my daughter is cough­ing in her bedroom. She is a pretty bad asthmatic, and often finds it difficult to get her breath.

I worry that she has swine flu — it has been about here in the local school — but it could be tonsillitis. On the phone I discover that the doctor’s surgeries are full, and there is no prospect of getting her an appointment any time soon.

I know myself well enough to know that soon I am going to have to exercise those middle-class “sharp elbows” that the media often go on about.

If she gets any worse, I won’t care much about going private or muscling my way to the front of any queue. All I will hear is my daughter’s hacking cough and laboured breathing and I will be off, shouldering aside anything that stands in the way of my little girl and the doctor I want her to see.

What are we to make morally of this instinct? Over breakfast, I heard Alan Milburn MP talking on Today about education, and saying that he wanted more pushy parents, not fewer. Over the past nine years in Putney, I have gained a Ph.D. in pushy parents, especially in relation to our two church schools.

I think I know all the tricks, all the ruses. I have had my fair share of tearful mothers and angry fathers. I have built up quite a group who will not look me in the eye if we walk past each other in the street because I have decided that their child did not meet the criteria for admission into one of the schools.

The first thing that I observe about pushy parents is that they often confuse a concern for their own child with some sort of Chris­tian other-centredness.

Now there is something to this, admit­tedly. One’s children can help one break out of the Fortress of Me — but not ter­ribly far out. Often our children are simply alibis for our own desires, inadequacies, and sel­fishnesses.

Those who think they are doing amazing work of social philan­thropy because they are a governor of their own child’s school might be pressed to think a little more about their motives and the wider needs of the world.

But also — and worse — pushy parents can be really bad for their kids, often producing little monsters who are wildly over-competitive, as a consequence of which they are often disliked by other kids in their class.

All this is true — yet my daughter is still upstairs coughing. I am sharpening my elbows. What would you do?

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser will be Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute from mid-September.

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