Newsreader, war reporter, author, psychotherapist… KATE SILVERTON is an expert juggler when it comes to work. But, she tells Francesca Babb, everything stops for her children
‘Look at this face!’ Kate Silverton exclaims in mock horror, leaning into her computer’s camera, inspecting her unmade face and ruffling her short hair with a grimace. She’s full of cold and feeling a little run-down today, and it is no wonder.
Not only has Kate just emerged from the embers of the home-schooling hellfire while simultaneously presenting BBC Weekend News, she’s also been counselling children as part of her training to become a child psychotherapist. And, because two jobs are never quite enough when you’re Kate Silverton, she’s just written a book.
Not a light, ghostwritten novel as is the wont of so many fellow celebrities, nor a whimsical ode to the things she has learnt during the past year, but a parenting manual, underpinned by her academic roots – a BSc in child psychotherapy from Durham University – and the decade of research she had quietly been doing on the side of her broadcasting career since becoming a parent herself. While the intense workload may have given her immune system a battering, it is fair to say that at 50, it isn’t slowing her down.
‘My husband Mike always says we’re too busy to have a midlife crisis,’ she laughs, her familiar news voice with an added huskiness thanks to the aforementioned cold passed on from their children, Clemency, nine, and Wilbur, six. ‘But when lockdown hit, Mike’s security business – which takes him all around the world doing hostile-environment training with journalists and NGOs – was brought to its knees. I thought, “One of us has to do something.” I decided to write this book, which had been bubbling away in my head for ever.’
The result is There’s No Such Thing As ‘Naughty’: The Groundbreaking Guide for Parents With Children Aged 0-5, aiming, among other things, to equip a nation of adults bearing the scars of pandemic parenting with the tools to lead their children towards a future of solid mental health. The book focuses on the early years with the promise that if we raise them right during that stage, we can set up our children for life. The work has moved her own focus away from the news, and with hopes for more books and more training in the future, it seems her former life will have to take a back seat. It might seem like a career swerve, this leap from primetime news anchor to child psychotherapist (she will start her master’s in September), but to Kate it makes total sense.
‘My dad changed his career a lot,’ she says. ‘He went from lorry driver to cab driver to locksmith to hypnotherapist, so I’ve never been afraid to do it. I’ve always wanted to tell people’s stories. When I was 19 I volunteered with Operation Raleigh in Zimbabwe, and carried a Dictaphone with me everywhere. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel and went into Palestinian territories to interview people. In my first job at a news channel, I begged my bosses to let me cover the Iraq war. I want to get under the skin and tell the story, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq or the work I do with children. It’s the same thing, I’m just doing it in a different way.’
Kate describes the work she is doing with children – the counselling, the writing – as her ‘life’s passion’, one she shares with the Duchess of Cambridge, whom she first met at a conference for the Royal Foundation, and has worked with since on numerous children’s charity projects. ‘We’re aligned,’ she says of their approach to children’s mental health. ‘Her passion, her understanding of the science and her dedication really struck me. Her voice carries an enormous amount of weight and it’s wonderful to see people talking about children’s mental health in the way that we are now.’
It was Kate’s desire to work in children’s mental health – and to be taken seriously for it – that was the drive for her participation in 2018’s Strictly Come Dancing. ‘I’d turned the show down a few times before,’ she says. ‘And although I did chuckle, thinking, as I’m standing there in a dress no bigger than a doily, “Why didn’t you do this when you were younger?”, it was perfect timing. I hadn’t been on television in any capacity other than news, and I wanted to change gear. Strictly helped me get the book deal.’
While the book’s title may prove incendiary to those who still bear the scars of the toddler years, the practical nature of Kate’s advice is universally beneficial. What makes it different to other parenting titles is her understanding of the science behind children’s behaviour, and her ability to explain it in terms that those without a psychotherapy degree might understand. It searches for reasons behind supermarket meltdowns, for example, rather than assuming ‘naughtiness’. It advocates play as a healing process and the techniques have been tried and tested on her children.
Kate’s own path to parenthood has not been easy. Four rounds of failed IVF and miscarriages came before the arrival of Clemency when she was 41 and Wilbur at 43. ‘My children were a long time coming,’ she says. ‘It got to a point where I thought I couldn’t have them myself, but I always said to Mike, “We will have children in our lives. Maybe we’ll adopt, maybe we’ll foster, maybe I’ll set up an orphanage”. I still had this yearning. I remember when the second lot of IVF failed, being with Mike and doing the pregnancy test and there it was again, the single line. I was on my knees and I sobbed and sobbed. As women we’re so stoic, and, yes, that does get us through, but we also have to properly grieve – I always say you’re not grieving until there’s snot on the floor. In the past I’ve been guilty of suffering a miscarriage then going, “OK, I’m on a conference call in ten minutes.” But if we suppress those emotions, they will come back to us in later life, in all sorts of ways.’
Parenting is something that personally and now professionally has brought Kate immense joy, but the initial switch from career woman to maternity leave was not easy for her. ‘I’d been used to being this full-on working woman,’ she says, ‘but I wanted to do right by my children. My mum didn’t work so I’d never seen that work-family balance. I look back at when Clemency was a baby and realise how caught up I was. I was asked to take part in Celebrity Antiques Road Trip, and because as a freelancer you never want to turn anything down, I had my mum and friend come with me. I was breastfeeding, jumping out of the car and doing a piece to camera. There’s no point looking back with regret, but when Wilbur arrived I thought, “I can’t do that again”, so I took two years off work. I knew I couldn’t do it all.’
The lesson of not being able to do it all – well, not everything at the same time – is a pertinent one to Kate, and one she has experienced multiple times, not least in the journey to parenthood. At one point, with a treatment schedule that coincided with on-the-ground reporting on the war in Afghanistan, Kate hit a wall. ‘It was a fulfilling time professionally, but IVF was horrendous,’ she admits. ‘When Mike and I look back, we’re like, “How did we think that would work?” We women have striven so hard to earn the right to become educated, to work. Then, when our careers are going well, trying to do something else on top, something’s got to give. If I’m trying to be in Afghanistan and do IVF, there’s a pretty high chance it’s not going to happen; so why don’t I throw myself into my career and afterwards say, now I’m going to concentrate on this other aspect of my life that is equally important? I think we can have it all ‒ just not at the same time.’
Kate met her husband, Mike Heron, an ex-marine, when she was taking part in one of his war-zone training courses. They married in 2010, and his voice features throughout the book, backing up his wife’s parenting wisdom. For someone with such an alpha profession, Mike seems very happy playing a supporting role to his wife on following the rules of childcare. ‘We make a good team,’ she says. ‘I’m an extrovert, he’s a very strong introvert. We are balanced, because he won’t hesitate to say, “Kate, let’s talk about that idea of yours…” At our wedding, he said, “Living with Kate is like riding a wild horse. Sometimes I’ve had to learn to gently pull the reins, and sometimes I have to give her her head.”’
Last year was a big one for the couple, as they celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary and Kate’s 50th birthday in varying degrees of lockdown. For her 50th, she borrowed a friend’s field in Somerset, ordered composting toilets and a hog roast and set up her bell tent under the stars. She invited just her family and a couple of friends she’d met on that Zimbabwe trip who drove there in camper vans. ‘It was a fitting 50th for me,’ she laughs. ‘My sisters Claire and Amy were like, “Seriously, Kate, we’re not going anywhere with composting loos – that is so typically you.”’ But I still feel like I have the same head as the girl who went to Zimbabwe with those friends, so turning 50 has no resonance for me. I’m the same person I always was, only with a whole bank of experience, because of these extra years.’
For the wedding anniversary in December, she slipped back into her original dress, Mike into his suit, and they took photos outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where they’d had their pictures taken a decade before. It’s a pretty impressive achievement to be able to wear your wedding dress ten years later… ‘I did get really fit last year,’ she laughs. ‘I was putting on Tracy Anderson DVDs and bouncing around on my trampoline, cycling and swimming and thinking, this is great, because I was really shaping up. Then I had a bunionectomy and now I can’t do any of that, so I’ve got my Spanx on for the photo shoot today and walking has become my new heaven. We’ve got a puppy and I walk him for an hour every day. It’s just me and the dog in the woods, and that’s my time.’
With her work schedule showing no signs of easing, it seems an hour a day of ‘me time’ is about as good as Kate’s going to get for the foreseeable future.
Kate’s 5 parenting golden rules
From her new book, There’s No Such Thing As ‘Naughty’
PLAY Science shows us that when we interact with our children (switching off devices), we help lay great foundations for their future mental health.
NEVER LABEL We cannot expect our children to behave well if we constantly undermine them and call them names. Labels stick – and sting. If need be, label the behaviour, not the child. ‘Unkind behaviour’, never an ‘unkind child’.
BE SILLY Children love nonsense and fun – it can provide a wonderful release if you are in an overwhelming situation. A silly distraction during a public tantrum can work wonders. Plus making them laugh releases ‘feel-good’ hormones as well as being incredibly bonding (and de-stressing for parents too).
LISTEN Little ones often act out how they feel because they don’t have the words to explain themselves. Ensure children feel listened to and heard and you will help grow a strong bond.
STAY CALM Aim to navigate any behaviour calmly and in context. Tantrums are often the result of a child’s stress response – it’s not personal. It’s our job as parents to share our calm and not add to the chaos.
Kate’s book There’s No Such Thing As ‘Naughty’: The Groundbreaking Guide for Parents With Children Aged 0-5 is published by Piatkus, price £14.99. To order a copy for £12.74 until 19 May, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free P&P on orders over £20.