BOOK REVIEW / The progeny problem: 'The Children We Deserve' - Rosalind Miles: HarperCollins, 16.99

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The Independent Culture
YOU will notice that the title of this book is a statement, implying that the author has made her mind up before she begins. Yet, mercifully, her chosen methodology is to proceed by asking a series of hard questions. The first is one I asked myself throughout adolescence: why do people have children? What is the point? It wasn't until my mid-twenties that suddenly I was given a kind of explanation: that quaint old maternal urge swept over me. It explained everything.

But does it, should it? Rosalind Miles, who experienced exactly the same impulse, succumbed and never had any regrets, believes it is time we were all made to think a lot more carefully before we breed (and she doesn't want any foolish smiles and simpering about urges of any kind in response). It strikes her (and me) as extraordinary that the vast majority of women have so little idea of what becoming a mother will involve. Some accept motherhood as Princess Anne once famously said she did, as 'a hazard of marriage', which these days is absurd. Even more regard maternity as what Rosalind Miles calls 'an automatic entitlement of progress in life'. You've got the house, the washing machine, maybe even the career nicely established (or you're sick of the job and want out) and, well, it's the next stage, isn't it?

No. Having children should not be a stage in life. The first third of this book tries to tell us why such an attitude is stupid, and leads, possibly, to those children we 'deserve' (by which Miles means those who turn out badly). All the disadvantages of having babies are gone into - the cost, the impact on relationships, the loss of working time for mothers. But the real trouble is that people are basically narcissistic. They like the romantic idea of reproducing themselves or their loved ones. They want to play the Happy Families game, even though most people have enough experience in their own histories to disillusion them, if they are truthful. The author thinks we all deserve to be disillusioned if we have entered parenthood carelessly. She passionately - this is a splendidly passionate book - wants prospective parents to stop, look and listen - and only proceed if they can swear they have fully taken in what being a good parent involves.

All right: what is it going to involve? In the middle section of the book, we are given some disappointingly obvious tips - not just the importance of a steady routine, regular meals and early bedtimes, but also psychologist Robin Skynner's list of the seven key characteristics of good parenting: 'an essentially positive approach to life', 'efficient communication between family members' . . . oh dear me. Greatly preferable is the author's own advice to forget this cop-out called Quality Time and just spend every minute you can spare, and some you can't, with your children. The most important thing to realise is that your children must come first. Otherwise, you'll never be a good parent.

Tough, eh? But even tougher is that it still might not work: you could still get 'the children you deserve'. At least Rosalind Miles admits it, pointing out that the threat to good parenting which is hardest to control is the school. Schools can undo all the hard work of parents. They can be sadistic places, and parents must be vigilant and not hesitate to interfere. Then there are the videos and television and computer games: good parents will control everything a child watches - but outside their own home, how can they?

The book's conclusion is that parenting is all about control and power. We do get the children we deserve when both are abused, when parents imagine that children are theirs to do what they like with, something the law is currently trying to change. Over and over again the author hammers home that 'children cannot be evil unless adults make them so'. Her argument is powerful and seductive. It would be so neat, such a relief, to agree with her entirely. I almost could, but for the nervousness I feel when I track the fortunes of certain children whom I know not to have become what their parents deserved.

But at least this vital question - do we get the children we deserve? - is forcefully tackled. There is a little too much clutter in this text - too many irritating and rather meaningless anecdotes about anonymous people, too many references to novels, too many lines (though apt) from poems - but the main thrust is bold and brave.

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