Spectator: The lessons of benign neglect

It’s a curious feeling when, for the eldest child, school exams are becoming a dim memory and, for the last, they’ve only just begun. Alf has just sat his first and declared they were more fun than lessons ‘because you have something to do’. Given that nearly a decade has elapsed since Olive took an exam, one is tempted to suggest an affinity with Groundhog Day, but that would be untruthful, as nothing is the same. Lessons have been learnt.

The most important one is never to show more than polite interest in anything they do, putting into practice the two words of wisdom given me by their primary-school teacher: ‘Benign neglect.’ If one comes home showing the spark of an interest in an Old Master painting, don’t rush out to buy museum membership or suggest a career at Sotheby’s. They’re not that interested.

If one of them takes a bookish turn, don’t pile the volumes you loved as a child onto their bedside table. We now have four copies of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the book that once sustained me through every rainy afternoon. None of my children has finished it, but it’s best not to take this personally or wonder what on earth we have in common.

They may happen upon some films, at someone else’s house, thatthey enjoy, such as The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sun-dance Kid or most of James Bond, but don’t ever introduce one at home with a hearty recommendation. Especially ‘I loved this/you’ll love this’. Perhaps they were side-splitting in the 1970s, but the ‘Pink Panther’ films now seem more tragic than comic. Chariots of Fire is slow and dull, with little dramatic tension.

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And never, ever sell something in the belief that if you can get them to watch it, the appreciation will inevitably follow. Our audience fidgeted, yawning, through the dark and depressing Italian classic Bicycle Thieves, which Zam had billed as ‘a light-hearted comedy with a sparkly cast’. Any fragment of trust was thus broken.

When it comes to future careers, never suggest one. I am surrounded by parents whose children have no idea what they want to do, who envy the medics with their years of structured study ahead. All suggestions are rejected, which results in the woolly fallback position to do something you love. (PS And can make a living from.) This advice has turned out to be sound for many of our friends who lived on air before the PS came good.

The photographer who lived like a hobo, shooting beautiful studies of our coastline, is now winning awards and flying round the world doing arty corporate stuff. The obsessive car-booter has become a leading expert on silver, called on by museums and collectors. The man who only wanted to fish is in charge of salmon populations and river health in Scotland.

I hold these up as examples because they didn’t have a game plan. But I was still a little wary when Will recently enthused about Barn the Spoon, a man who’s spent much of his life living in the woods whittling, well, spoons. He’s developed such a following that he now does it in a shop window in Spitalfields. ‘So, you want to make spoons for a living?’ I said, chopping onions, my back turned, treading lightly. ‘Nah, I think he’s got the spoon market cornered. Might try forks.’ I continued chopping. Benign neglect.

Alf came home and I asked how his day had gone. ‘Bad,’ he replied. ‘Oh dear. Exams not go well?’ ‘Someone kicked my football onto the roof. And it’s not named.’ ‘And the rest of the day?’ I enquired, avoiding a second mention of the E word.

‘Yeah, great. I decided to answer everything really quickly to give me 15 minutes at the end.’ ‘Wow, you allowed your-self time to read through your answers?’ I said, deeply impressed by this unexpectedly mature exam technique. ‘No-I needed quarter of an hour to make the best machine gun I could from my fountain pen.’ I‘m not going to buy a book on engineering.

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