The Art of Growing Up, by John Marsden. Sydney, Macmillan, 2019

The well-known author of the Tomorrow series of young adult fiction, John Marsden, has released a non-fiction book for parents: The Art of Growing Up. It has polarised readers. The central message is that we must stop bubble-wrapping children against the full range of good and bad emotional experiences that growing up can and should bring, and that, when we fail to do this, we betray them and set them up to fail in life.

He draws on two sources – his numerous encounters with parents and children in 40 years of school teaching and administration, and a rich range of books and writing. Countless allusions and extended references to these give the book an undeniable authenticity.

But reactions have varied. After initial adulation at one book festival, the tweets changed tone, ironically in response to his views about bullying. Nasty stuff: shouting at him to shut up, telling people to bin his books. One reviewer sees his work ‘like the work of a principal who is fed up’. Another feels the book insults parents by contending, ‘Whatever we’re doing, we’re doing it wrong.’

Initially I found book loosely structured, repetitive, anecdotal and pontifical, a drop-box for personal gripes and theories. The author seemed to ramble onto pet topics, and at times seemed unaware of contradictions between his own words and actions. Perhaps I was reading to pick a fight, because I do not agree with the violence and explicit sex in his novels. Or perhaps I was expecting a conventional parenting book, rather than a book of controversial ruminations.

But John Marsden speaks non-fiction better than he writes it. It was only after listening to him live in recent online interviews that I appreciated his strengths. He insists on truthfulness: he is direct about the dangers of overprotective and narcissistic parenting. He is certainly forthright in calling out society’s and politicians’ hypocrisy and self-interest, too forthright when his own prejudices show through. And he insists we should not patronise children, speaking openly but not expecting them to be perfect. His nobility shines through: he often returns to the importance of overcoming individualism, of not making oneself the centre of the universe, of living for others, of discovering a sense of mission in life.

And his example speaks for itself. He is dedicated to his wife and six boys and pours much of his life, and profits, back into the education of children. He has set up two undeniably idealistic independent schools.

Others comment on the two sides of John Marsden. One writes of her misgivings about his fiction but admits: ‘I heard Marsden speak to a big school group in Bendigo, and it was wonderful. He didn’t talk down to them, he had a way of addressing every kid in the room, he made reading and writing sound good and smart.’

I was also taken by his profound respect for children as fellow human beings which seems to drive his work and writing. He writes in The Art of Growing Up, ‘As a society we need to relearn how to care about actual children in our actual lives, with their complex egos and ids, their stories and thoughts, their emotions and dreams and nightmares.’ This, however, does not mean that I agree with everything he has to say, nor how he says it.

So what is The Art of Growing Up? What are its features? And where does it fail to convince?

Loud and clear the book insists on the priority of parents. Marsden insists that it is their job to form personality and teach values. This must be repeated wherever libertarian academics, politicians, and teachers think they have more right to influence a child than the parents.

Marsden urges parents to steer between the disciplinary and aloof ‘emotionally sterile, abusive and destructive’ home life he experienced as a child, and what he sees as the contemporary overcorrection: ‘toxic parenting’, the tendency to enclose children in a bubble of emotional protection inducing the ‘learned helplessness’ identified by Seligman in the 1990s.

He offers a granular review of mistakes parents make. With psychological insight he reminds us that it is dangerous if a child ‘thinks there are advantages to her in having her parents believe she is perfect.’ He writes of the need to say no daily, and not to ‘tolerate awful behaviour … with gracious smiles and patient shrugs.’ He targets narcissistic parents who cannot bear criticism of their child because it casts ‘doubt on the need for a child to be exceptional’, ridicules parents who ‘amputate’ crusts from their children’s bread, and scorns parents who are permissive but ‘controlling to the point of fascism’: ‘It’s not in the child’s best interests to be indulged with slavish attention on a 24/7 basis.’

Amidst the anathemas there are big lessons – he relates the tragic story of Whitney Houston and her 22-year-old daughter, who both died accidentally after taking drugs several years apart. Whitney admitted to doing cocaine in front of the daughter as a five-year-old!

He urges parents to lay early foundations for behaviour, to correct children, to make the ‘tough decisions inherent in good parenting’. He summarises his suggestions for effective parenting in seven steps: step back, don’t take over; teach children to communicate feelings; give responsibilities at home; teach children to solve their own problems; don’t solve a child’s boredom; and encourage kids to embrace all kinds of weather.

All good common sense. And there are memorable aphorisms: ‘Parenting means teaching children to get their own Weet-Bix’. (I think of the parent who told me, ‘If he is old enough to walk, he is old enough to vacuum’).

John Marsden’s starting point is that ‘toxic parenting’ is the root cause of most things that are wrong in the world: mental illness, domestic violence, ‘greed, selfishness, cruelty and other perversions of behaviour’, as well as ‘sexism, racism, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, road rage, mistreatment of animals, reckless driving, paedophilia and other distortions of sexual attraction’. Hmm.

If bad parenting is the cause of everything evil, why could anyone possibly worry about internet radicalisation, fixing schools, or for that matter, explicit sex in a book that a 12-year-old reads. No doubt Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Saddam didn’t have idyllic home lives, but surely it is absurd to say that the Nazis or Soviets came about because of criminally negligent parents.

And where is the space for a child’s own choices? And for raising children who are able to make good choices?

But how important that is!

At the very the moment when all is in the balance, at the cusp of choice, when a 15-year-old is offered a pill at the party, or a friend says ‘Let’s do it’, it’s not only what mum always told you, but it’s the example of others with you, it’s whether or not you had a good night’s sleep, it’s even the background song on the radio, or the whiff of freshly baked bread, that all can play into the direction that a decisive life-choice takes.

Are we free? Yes, we are, but it is a limited freedom, where we can more easily select the context for our actions, rather than opt out when we have already let our emotions drive the bus. I wish this were more clearly spelled out in Marsden’s book.

Noticeably, certain oft-cited parenting priorities receive little airplay. There is little mention of unity between parents, the importance of peer groups, nor of scaffolding gradually increased freedom and responsibility. Nor is there any recognition of the role of virtues in moral development.

But without virtues, which are good habits of emotional management, of living in reality and of giving priority to others, feelings and emotions will remain a black box. Marsden returns often to the importance of feelings and emotions, but he gets no further than the need to manage them, and to teach children to communicate them.

Marsden’s homespun psychology is ultimately threadbare. There is no coherent underpinning anthropology. He states, ‘What we can teach children is that although humans can’t control their feelings – and it’s extremely dangerous to try – we can gradually learn to control our speech, facial expressions and actions; in other words, the way those feelings are expressed.’

Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas would not agree in the least. The very task of virtue development is the construction of a marvellous grand coherence between our feelings, our convictions and our behaviour. This passage highlights the tragedy of this book. There is no clear understanding of what a human being needs to flourish and be happy.

Marsden’s discussion on books and writing sits uneasily with the authoritative parenting style that he is promoting. He states that ‘Literary fiction cannot deal in moral absolutes’. I’m not sure that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Sigrid Undset, George Orwell, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn would agree with that.

Marsden himself presents moral absolutes in his own books… there is no doubting the educational agendas that just below the surface of his texts — themes of not selling children short, of the importance of truth telling, and much more.

He writes elsewhere in The Art of Growing Up: ‘If there is a theme to all these books … it is that truth will set you free, but you may not find the truth where you thought you would, and it may not be the truth you expected, or even wanted. Truth is like that. It doesn’t follow our rules. It follows its own rules.’ That sounds rather absolute.

The place of parental judgement and censorship is another highly problematic area. In keeping with the content of his own writing, John Marsden argues in favour of gender dysphoric and sexually explicit texts for teens. In recalling a rejection his books received, he reflects, ‘One bookseller felt he had the right to decide what all the young people in his district were allowed to access’.

Yet every diligent parent and every school will manage and censor what children are exposed to. This is simply sound educational practice that recognises the duties of parents, the indelible nature of first experience, and that awakened emotion is a key to motivation.

Ironically he relates an occasion when he turned down an invitation to deliver sex education to a class, ‘I felt it was wrong for the boys to be assembled en masse and subjected to such intimate, personal and powerful information.’ Just how he reconciles this with his own writing is puzzling. Perhaps it comes down to the (rightful) importance he gives to being truthful. The Platonic view is that children given the truth will do the right thing. If only life were so simple and actions so easily managed.

Despite his experience and insights, Marsden’s child psychology is an eclectic cocktail of Freud, Jung, and Kohlberg, who overemphasised moral reasoning at the expense of sound emotional formation. Despite religious references, his actual sympathies are not clear. He theorises that the story of Adam and Eve can be read as the awakening of sexual awareness and that ‘their discovery of sex enrages God’!

He does write of the importance of ‘relationships, giving to others, paying attention to your spiritual life’ but there is little development of these important, ideas. Yes, we must raise children ‘to be interesting conversationalists’ but there is much more to do if we are to raise children who genuinely live for others.

There are further inconsistencies. Completely out of context is a diatribe about the damage wrought by angry conservative commentators, along with gratuitous attacks on Tony Abbott who is bracketed with Donald Trump, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Pauline Hanson, and homophobia. He ridicules the free-range, saffron and incense approach to parenting, but criticises parents who ‘denied their children’s true selves’ — whatever that means.

He writes, ‘We don’t help children by preaching the message that it’s awful to be selfish, dishonest, cruel, vulgar, covetous – because that’s giving them the message that it’s awful to be who we are.’ But on the other hand he insists that we should raise children to be attentive to the needs of others, to be polite and not interrupt, and to give them timely sex education.

Perhaps he is exaggerating to make a point, yet a conviction of the primitive innocence of children seems to underpin some of this thinking with little apparent understanding of the role of virtue in reforming the self-indulgent and self-oriented emotional expression of children.

Ultimately The Art of Growing Up has a reductionist vision of what fulfils human beings. Aristotle offered virtues as the key to moral maturity, emotional management, dedication to others, and clear thinking. Aquinas and others grasped that we are ultimately only fulfilled by loving wisely. They remind us that the greatest task of parents is to teach children to love, where behaviour, emotions and convictions and faith beliefs are in harmony.

But to tie his argument together, John Marsden turns to Polish psychologist Alice Miller, whose thinking on the subconscious sources of personality holds a key to Marsden’s own views. He writes, ‘Alice Miller emphasises that children are able to feel fully the range of emotions. Grief, joy, sensual and erotic sensations…. The ability to feel them is …educated out of us…. Every parent should wish for their children nothing more than “I want him or her to experience life to the fullest”.’

These two positions are ultimately unreconcilable.

After 15 years as a high school English teacher, and  similar time as principal of two schools, Andy Mullins wrote a doctorate in moral philosophy investigating the relationship between virtue and neural development. He is an occasional contributor to MercatorNet.

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...