Joanna Lumley: ‘Don’t Dream Too Much For Your Children, Simply Be There’

In an exclusive extract, actress Joanna Lumley gives her best parenting advice.

Joanna Lumley

by Rhiannon Evans |
Updated on

My advice to parents would be to give your children love, love, love. That’s about all you’ve got and all you can ever do, and you must never withdraw it ever, ever, ever. Unconditional love – seems hard, but just do it. That is the first thing.

Giving children advice when they are young is very difficult. It’s hard for them to make sense of it. It’s also funny how so often you remember perhaps what the English mistress told you at school or what your mother said to you or what your father advised . . . and then it comes back later in life, maybe in your thirties or forties, and it sits with you and you’re guided by it and it all makes sense. It makes sense now, but not when you first received it. When you are young, you say, ‘Yeah right! Do you really think I’m going to do that?’

While it’s difficult to give children advice, it’s often quite hard for a young child to ask for help too. Sometimes it might be worth a more indirect approach – ask your child for help with something you can do together. So, if Mum or Aunt Lucy asks them for help to prepare the carrots at suppertime, she can use the time to say perhaps, ‘Do you hate maths or do you love it, like I did?’ Because you are doing something else together, things can be said in a relaxed way that kids don’t mind hearing, and they are more likely to ask questions or ask for help too. Stuff can come out and be discussed that they might not want to talk about normally. If my parents were to say, ‘Jo, I want to talk to you about something,’ I would probably resist and not want to listen, but if during a car journey when nobody’s looking at each other, stuff was talked about, I was more likely to listen and things could sink in.

Joanna Lumley (C), her husband Stephen Barlow (L) and son Jamie Lumley in 2009
Joanna Lumley (C), her husband Stephen Barlow (L) and son Jamie Lumley in 2009 ©Getty

My parents believed in literature and the importance of reading. If you can read books, know how to read a map, how to use a reference book, dictionaries and quotation books, have Shakespeare in the house, you can then learn so much. They helped us to appreciate reading and to build an appetite for it (you can’t bang it into children). When I was a child, we read all the time – we read at meals, read at night and I am still passionate about reading today. If children don’t like reading at first, encourage them to listen to audiobooks.

Encourage your children to learn. Education is so important for young people. Through education, you can teach people how to look after themselves so they won’t fall ill, and you can teach them how to avoid falling into crime.

I believe that we should spread everything in front of children. I cannot bear the way that we have stratified society by music. We have largely taken classical music out of schools, so some children cannot grow up knowing if they love it, because they will never have heard it if it’s not played at home. I would bring back singing and music to schools, in plenty. When you sing something together, it unleashes all sorts of things. I have never met anybody who sings in a choir who doesn’t come back feeling happy and invigorated.

As children grow older, parents should not become ambitious for their children. Sometimes parents have a vision of how their son or daughter will turn out, what they want them to be. Don’t dream too much for your children, simply be there. See what they want to do. Take them off and do things with them away from home (but not the normal holiday stuff), where you can do things together. Go on a walking trail with them. Have some great songs that you can sing as you go. Do something where you’re there with them and see how they manage. It’s extraordinary what children can learn from these adventures and it helps parents connect and ‘be in touch’ with them too.

This extract, from Joanna Lumley, is from the new book A Few Wise Words****, out now. This book conveys extraordinary stories of success from twenty-two exceptional individuals and their most inspirational advice. Available from Amazon, Waterstones and other leading booksellers

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us