She Who Must Be Obeyed: Penelope Leach, scourge of the guilty middle-class parent, has produced another book. Baby and Child became the child-rearers' bible. Children First is a manifesto for children's rights

PENELOPE LEACH has asked that our interview be put back by an hour. Driving north across London to her house, I realise why. Call Nick Ross is on the radio, the subject for discussion is smacking children, and Penelope Leach - for two decades Britain's leading authority on child care - is the studio guest.

By the standards of most radio phone-ins, this one is mildness itself. Not a single caller rings to say that all kids need is a good leathering twice a day; no one demands that the whole lot of them be strung up. On the other hand, there's the man who says that until children understand words, around the age of five, physical chastisement is the only way. There's the chap who recommends dividing things up with one's spouse so that hubby concentrates on the rough stuff. There's the woman who was smacked hard as a kiddie and, see, it never done her no harm . . .

Penelope Leach is keeping her cool, but it must be a little disheartening. Since the publication of Babyhood 20 years ago, in Baby and Child (1977), The Parents' A-Z (1983) and a succession of books, broadcasts and broadsides which have made her the Truby King or Dr Spock of her generation, she has argued against old disciplinarian models of child-rearing. She is deeply involved with Epoch, the campaign to End Physical Punishment of Children. She knows the research. She knows that hitting breeds further hitting, that those who were hit as kids by their parents in turn hit their kids who in turn . . . And now it's 1994, and still people won't believe her.

While Penelope Leach is fending calls at Broadcasting House, I park near her home in Hampstead. I have Baby and Child beside me, a book that has sold millions of copies round the world and been translated into 28 languages, a book which became gospel for a generation of parents, including myself - the bible we kept by the cot to monitor our babies' physical, emotional and intellectual development. I have the proofs of her new book beside me, Children First, less a bedside manual than a political manifesto. And of course I have the Leach folklore - the anecdotes of friends and contemporaries who have spent more time poring over Baby and Child than they have over any Booker prizewinner.

Baby and Child may be a bible, but the folklore is decidedly blasphemous. In some middle-class homes during the Eighties, 'that bloody woman' meant not Margaret Thatcher but Penelope Leach. People complain of being enslaved by her advice. They describe the euphoria of chucking Baby and Child out of the window or on to the bonfire. They recall swapping Leach horror stories with fellow-sufferers: 'There's the bit where she says toddlers should be allowed to paint their shit all over the walls'; 'She says you shouldn't take kids on holiday because it's dangerous'; 'She says I can't even read while I'm breast-feeding'; 'She says having the radio on retards your child's language development.'

Except that when you turn to the offending passages you find, well, she doesn't say that, not exactly. Those faeces: yes, it does say 'if you . . . are angry when he examines or smears the contents of his pot, you will hurt his feelings', but this is a section not on artistic expression but on potty-training, and it adds that 'you don't have to pretend to share his pleasurable interest'. That ban on holidays: yes, the book does warn 'that innocent country

cottage may have a bull in the next field, deadly nightshade in the hedge, a well in the garden or a delightful haystack with a pitchfork for him to jump off', which seems a little unlikely given the condition of the English countryside, but this is a section on choosing appropriate holidays, not avoiding them altogether.

All the same, for the busy parent who believes most children are hardy, adaptive souls, there's a fair bit to resent here. And not all the anti-Baby and Child stories are apocryphal. While I'm in the car, I look up that passage about the radio, and find it to be pretty much as I'd remembered: 'Don't have talk as background noise. If you like to have the radio on all day, try to keep it to music.' When parents, or minders, have to question their right to listen to, say, Call Nick Ross in their own kitchen, haven't they become slaves to children? And doesn't it make a mockery of Leach's equation of parents' and children's interests, her claim that 'what's fun for him is fun for you'?

Here, perhaps, is the central paradox of the Leach position. She began writing 20 years ago because she wanted to liberate parents from the joyless received wisdom about child-rearing: the four-hour feed routines, the crying's-good-for-their-lungs credo, the philosophy of not-spoiling and not-cuddling. Now the complaint is that her philosophy is as joyless and oppressive as the one it replaced. Today's 'quality time' and 'good enough' parents want to be reassured that it's all right to leave the baby crying, not that it's all right to pick it up.

This is why Penelope Leach has come under increasing attack. Women journalists have trooped to her door, drunk her coffee, and gone away and written rather bristling and self-defensive pieces. Most hostile of all was the piece written by a man in the Independent Magazine, whose 'merry, energetic, intelligent and worldly wife, . . . a self-confident woman with a distinguished career' had, he said, become demoralised, faltering and guilt-ridden because of Baby and Child.

Guilt: this is the word you hear more than any other in relation to Penelope Leach. She makes parenthood seem hard work; she makes us worry that there's more we could be doing for our children; she makes us anxious and neurotic. But above all, she makes us feel guilty.

WHAT KIND of woman is it who possesses this unenviable power? The woman leading me down to her basement kitchen, just back from Broadcasting House but with the coffee already made, is lean, brisk, in her mid-fifties. She wears a floral silk blouse, purple slacks, a sort of string-vest cardigan thing, low heels. 'Mumsy' is the last word you'd use to describe her: there's too much fierce attentiveness under the specs, too much cleverness. The woman caricatured as a sloppy liberal is bonily bright and severe.

She is a fluent talker, a bossy advocate of leniency, her sentences full of italic emphasis and exclamations that I've not heard in some time, such as 'Goody gumdrops'. Her home, too, for all its Sixties furnishings, is austere: lots of pine, cork tiles, no mess or knick-knacks. Her two children, Melissa and Matthew, are grown up now, but this not a house that can ever have been overrun by child emperors.

Or was it? How permissive a mother was she? Did she never lose her cool and - even just once - smack her kids?

'No, never. It isn't that I'm so bloody virtuous, it's just that smacking wasn't in my tool- kit: it would no more occur to me to hit a child than it would to some parents to, I don't know what, bite them. Of course some do . . . but you know what I mean.

'Being anti-smacking doesn't mean I'm anti-discipline. On the contrary, I was quite good at setting limits. But I suppose my children were allowed to do things that were pretty peculiar by other people's standards. For example, we used to have a paved terrace out there in the garden, and they once spent a whole summer cementing the paving stones with sand from the sandpit and water. It did leave me with a lot of sand to sweep up. On the other hand, that's a small amount of work compared to all the time and energy I'd have had to spend thinking up other entertainments for them.'

But there must have been moments when she gave way to anger with her children, when she got fed up with meeting their needs?

'There was once . . . I'd been in hospital for an operation. Matthew was about five or six. It was my first day up, and for some reason there was something we wanted to watch on television during the day, which was very unusual. And Matthew, who had missed me very badly, didn't wish me to watch television: he wished me to pay attention to him, and said so very frankly and put himself in front of the set. I got up and moved him four times. Finally, I said: 'If you do not come away from that television, I will put you out.' 'Do it,' said Matthew. So I put him out of the room, and he came back in. Then I put him out of the house. Whereupon he ran round to the back door and I raced to get there first to lock him out. Then I realised it was snowing and that he'd got no shoes on . . .

'That's it really. But Matthew loves to tell this story and remembers being bitterly hurt: when he was a boy, it was known as That Time You Were Horrible to Me. I hate it, and see it as shameful. It was so predictable, that getting yourself into a head-to-head.'

It's a pretty innocuous memory to have burning a hole in your conscience. Of course she behaved like that. This is the kind of story critics use against Leach - they blame her 'indulgent' parenting methods for the creation of a generation of child hoodlums.

'That's utter nonsense. For every aggressive teenager, there are millions of unnoticed, normal, nice kids out there. Kids don't change in basic ways. This is what was so distressing about the way the Bulger trial was used. Here were those two 10-year-olds who had tortured a child. Ergo, we should be careful about primary school truants and spoiling tantruming toddlers. Ergo, we should stop picking up our crying children. Ergo, almost, spoil your child and you create a murderer.'

But does it upset her when people make these charges against her? 'In a way I'm quite flattered, just as Ben Spock was (she uses the familiar 'Ben' because they met about eight years ago, and have since become friends) when he was held responsible for the flower power generation. But really I find the idea that I have influenced a whole generation quite ludicrous. That's a monstrous responsibility, one I'm very reluctant to get assigned to me.'

The compilers of Who's Who evidently agree with her: she is not deemed sufficiently important to be granted an entry in its pages. But surely she has influenced a whole generation?

'Then it was waiting to be done. Parents really get very little institutional support when you think what's involved in bringing up children. I see what I do as giving people permission or confidence to do what's right for them. I'd be surprised if you could find a parent who had planned to do it all quite differently until they read me. That's why I fight you when you say I influenced a generation.'

Since we're fighting, squabbling anyway, I complain that when I read Baby and Child on crying babies it made me feel like a very bad parent. It says that 'babies never cry for nothing' and that their crying may even be set off by some tension or unhappiness in the parents which the baby senses through their handling.

'Gosh no, that's fearfully unfair. There is a section on causeless crying. You must have skipped those very careful three pages that say it isn't all your fault and that some babies just do.'

But surely I can't be the first person who's complained to her that Baby and Child induces feelings of inadequacy?

'No, I have met that reaction, and it's the one I dislike most, of course, because guilt is such a sterile, useless feeling. But people don't have to buy the damn books and read them. It's not that I sit here knowing all the answers and that every person should do x, y and z. What I have is a much more general mapping - rules such as: the more you push a child away, the more it will cling.'

Do these rules change, though? Her 1988 edition of Baby and Child made a number of revisions to the 1977 edition, with post-natal depression, originally relegated to a short note in the index, brought forward into the main text, and more about the dark side of parenting - stress, separation, sexual abuse. But when I put it to her that she has moved with the times, she recoils again.

'I don't think it's worth doing this stuff unless you tell the truth. The thing I most dislike with experts is to see them blowing in the wind. I don't. I never have. If I have a boast at all, it's that. I defy you to find me an example.'

Breast-feeding? Has she backpedalled on that, given the increase in mothers going back to work and using bottles?

'No, I've never changed on that. Because breast-feeding is directly related to infant health, it's one of the few cases where you couldn't really find a counter-voice.'

Care arrangements, then? And the greater part some fathers play in child-rearing?

'I don't think I've changed my mind about any of it. But 15 years ago most mothers in Britain were at home, and it was unheard of for a father to be. The reality now is that a baby's needs may be met by several different people.' Sensitive to her feminist critics, those who have complained that Baby and Child should really have been called Madonna and Child because of its sanctifying of motherhood, Leach tells me that she has always been 'at some pains' to stress that the mother-child unit 'need not remain exclusive after the first few months. Baby care is shared all over the world and always has been.'

But even in her new book she continues to venerate the mother, and struggles to grant fathers a role of equal importance. Whatever the social realities of this emphasis, and however much John Bowlby and her own work for the Medical Research Council in the Sixties taught her about the importance of the mother-baby bond, it's hard not to suspect that the roots for it lie much deeper, in her own past.

SHE WAS born in 1937, the middle of three daughters. Her father was the novelist Nigel Balchin. Her mother, Elisabeth, had been at Newnham College, Cambridge, before marrying Balchin in 1933 and beginning a family the following year. The Balchins lived in Holland Park - until bombs began to fall on London, and Penelope and her older sister Freja were evacuated with the family nanny.

She has always stressed the importance of a child's early years: how much does she remember of her own?

'I'd say I had a happy childhood, as these things go, but there were lots of unexpected bits to it. The war in London was lovely from my point of view. Can you imagine, you're two years old, and the siren goes off, and you're picked out of bed and taken down to the cellar and put in a bunk bed and the adults sit all round you and chat and play cards for the rest of the night. Absolutely perfect. I loved it.

'The first time we were evacuated was with the whole of my nursery school, and eventually we came back from that situation because the nanny didn't like it - we were covered in lice.

I expect I'd been told we were only going back to London for one night, before being evacuated to my grandparents. But I had failed to understand this, and thought we were going back to Mummy, and there she was and - this I shall never forget - I simply could not believe we had to go away again. Nanny was entirely part of our horizons, but my mother was much missed.'

After the war, the family moved to a farmhouse in Kent and became friendly with the sculptor Michael Ayrton and his wife Joan. Nigel was keen on his being an open marriage; Elisabeth had done her best to oblige him (there had been a disastrous affair in 1941), but felt little enthusiasm. Now, though, after some dutiful partner-swapping, she fell in love and decided she wanted to leave Nigel. By 1949 Elisabeth was spending as much of her time as she could with Michael in London, the farmhouse in Kent was sold up, and family life as Penelope, now 12, had known it, had come to an end.

But she does not regret what happened. And the parent she vehemently sided with was not her abandoned father but her mother.

'The high court didn't feel it was appropriate for someone of my age to remain with their mother while she was living in what was then called sin. My little sister, who's seven years younger than me, got away with it, and my older sister escaped to be a drama student at Lamda. But Muggins here was right in the middle, and the courts decided I had to live with my father. I didn't like my father. I honestly don't know why, but I think I sensed distance and disapproval. He wasn't a brute. I just felt he didn't particularly like me. I could put an adult spin on that and say he really didn't want a second child unless it could be a son. I know that's true. But it's not unusual either. I'm sure it's a vicious circle. I expect I drove him nearly mad because I was nervous of him.

'Bad though those couple of years were, I'm perfectly clear it was good that my parents broke up. It sounds like a destructive thing to say, but my mother was renewed. And despite all the aggro you hear about stepfathers, mine meant a great deal to me. Once I heard my mother laughing, my stepfather would have had to work very hard to do wrong by me. I wanted him because she wanted him.

'I hated the day school I was sent to in London: it was full of very sophisticated, rich children, and I was a country girl who'd had a pony, who'd never even worn stockings in her life and had no idea how children in London occupied themselves. I made such a fuss that I got myself sent to boarding-school. I'd no idea what stakes I was playing for.'

So Penelope was parted from her mother during the war, reunited overnight, re-evacuated, reunited, moved out of London and back again, made to live with the father she hated while her mother moved in with another man, and sent away to boarding-school. Finally she was allowed to live with her mother and her new husband, near Cambridge, where she attended a day school and eventually, in 1956, went to her mother's old college, Newnham.

It says something about her closeness to her mother that their relationship survived these upheavals: 'I suppose we were unusually close. I can never remember being just children to her - we were always people.' Here also one can see why the mother-child relationship acquires an almost mystical importance in her work.

FROM CAMBRIDGE, where she read history and acted ('it was the Peter Cook and John Birt era'), Penelope Leach went on to do a year's social administration course at the London School of Economics, and then worked at the Home Office juvenile crime unit as an assistant on 'the only piece of work I've ever done that was suppressed. It was a statistical survey of recidivism rates in young offenders: the results showed that it didn't make any difference whatsoever whether you spent pounds 60,000 putting these kids through Borstal or pounds 100 on a caution. So we've known for over 30 years that secure units do not help reduce rates of offending, and we're still building them.' After this she began research into parental attitudes to child-rearing, married the science writer and energy specialist Gerald Leach when she was 26, and completed a Ph D just as she was having her first child, Melissa, at 28. Matthew was born three years later.

I'd idly supposed that she must have been a stay-at-home mother when her children were small, but for five years she worked part-time, teaching and researching:

'What I did was to keep a kind of academic presence and my self-respect. I had the usual troubles parents have: I was working part-time for a child development unit, but honestly, it sometimes seemed that people chose to arrange meetings at three on purpose, when they knew I had to be out of the building by 3.15. It wasn't easy even then, but it worked fine till I lost my child-minder: I always said that my life would fall apart when she left, and it did. Which is again like everybody else, except that I was lucky enough to have someone wonderful.

'Whether I'd have given up the unequal struggle if Matthew hadn't had meningitis at two, I don't know. He was extremely ill, and could have died: I was in hospital with him for three weeks. For the first week people at work couldn't have been nicer, during the second they were querulous, and by the third . . . To my undying shame - and it still does fill me with shame - I went right through that experience absolutely taking it for granted that I was going back to work.

'We came out of hospital, and Matt was quite undamaged physically, but he was terrified of everybody in the world. And then one morning I woke up about four and suddenly realised that I didn't actually have to do this, that there was a way out: it was called chucking it in, and I wasn't going to chuck the baby in, so it would have to be the job. It was like a revelation - that I could take this extraordinary step.'

This story, like the story of her own childhood, seems significant in terms of Penelope Leach's formation of her philosophy of mothering. She, however, for political reasons, plays it down. 'What use is this story to anyone? Because although we were strapped we didn't dive into poverty, I did have the luxury to choose whether to work or not. I took on the medical editorship at Penguin Books shortly after this, a nice job because I could do it in my own time. It was a gorgeous piece of time, and there were lots of people around - it's not like now, where you get both parents out working and the residential areas of whole cities are like deserts during the day.'

HERE WE are moving into the terrain of Penelope Leach's new book, Children First, an angry and persuasive argument about the ways in which our society is neglecting its children. Here, too, one can glimpse personal experience between the lines. When she tells me that she'd like to see children being 'given back the safe space they had a generation ago', she points to the wall at the bottom of her garden, which has a door that opens on to Hampstead Heath. 'In this road we all used to keep those doors open, and our kids went in and out of the park. And when you wanted your kid, you stood at the wall and screamed. Now, of course, nobody lets their child out, and indeed many houses have had these doors bricked in. But imagine if eight or twelve families got together: how difficult would it be to organise for one adult to be out there sitting on those benches, keeping an eye on things? Not very. And there are a lot of suburban neighbourhoods where if the residents wanted to insist on barriers and traffic humps, at least that much local space could be made available.'

There are many other things that could be done. Better maternity and paternity leave arrangements. More flexible working hours for parents. 'Child-places' - where children can safely be left - in every community. Safer, traffic-free streets. ('Cars and small people do not, and should not, mix,' she writes: her nine-year-old nephew, Marjon, was knocked down and killed by a car 20 years ago.) Legal recognition of children's rights. A less consumerist ethos.

Sometimes her ideas, rather than being bracingly at odds with current thinking (as in her arguments against nurseries), just seem naively optimistic. When she tells me solemnly that, given a choice between traffic-free streets and a new computer game, 'I don't have any doubt which children would choose,' I imagine consulting the children I know, and their answer is not the same as hers. She'd rather be mocked as an idealist, though, than be sensibly resigned and inactive.

And she is full of practical suggestions to improve life for small children. Low-posting slots on letter boxes. Three-foot-high viewing slits on building sites. InterCity trains with play coaches. A ban on notices that prohibit children, or restrict their numbers in shops: 'I'd have been furious if these notices had existed when my children were in their teens, so that they couldn't have gone with six classmates to buy a friend a birthday present. Of course, if you lay out a lot of very tempting goods at shelf height, you will get shoplifting. But it isn't only children who do it. And what I'd say to any hard-pressed shopkeeper is: Make it a great deal more difficult, then.

'My anger about this sort of thing is as much pragmatic as moral. I really don't know how we can expect children who are treated in this way to turn into involved, participatory citizens. People jabber on about children watching too much television. But many of the kids who are indicted for watching four hours a day aren't being offered any alternative: they would otherwise be bored to death with nothing to do.'

Does she feel a bit of a lone voice, campaigning for children's rights?

''In the UK, maybe; not in the US. And we are miles behind on human rights issues compared to most of continental Europe. There, when something is against the law, like smacking, it isn't done. And it's not only Scandinavia that's ahead of us: in Rome you'd probably get lynched if you hit a child in front of shoppers.'

As she lectures on, I wonder why it is that someone whose ideas I largely accept is none the less difficult to warm to. I remember her on Desert Island Discs trying to take her husband as her luxury, being disallowed him, and plumping for a supply of coffee instead. Very narrow, very centred. Not much sense of humour or fun. I try the word 'driven' on her.

'I feel driven by the present political and economic situation. But can I stop thinking about it and go to the movies? Yes. I love to read, I love to cook, I go to art galleries, I read easy fiction to balance difficult academe. It's hard to convey this: we're really rather silly.'

'We' here means Penelope, Gerald, Matthew, Melissa and her husband: a very tight unit. As if on cue, the doorbell rings and it's Melissa, 'just dropping in'. An ungracious part of me is hoping for a junkie, an alcoholic, an airhead, a matricidal basket-case. But Melissa is bright, genial, an anthropologist working on gender issues and the environment - 'daughter, friend, colleague and creative critic' as the dedication of Penelope Leach's new book describes her. Matthew is working on pollution problems in Eastern Europe. They get on very well indeed. 'I don't think parents realise how glorious the relationship with grown-up children is,' Penelope Leach says. 'They're adult, but still the people you know best in the world.'

BACK HOME, replaying the tapes, I notice how indignant she had sounded on that business of my causelessly crying baby: had I skipped the relevant pages? I check it out. It's true that there are, well, two pages on 'Colic' - or rather 'Colic?' as the revised 1988 edition of Baby and Child more sceptically puts it. There has been another important change between editions; whereas in 1977, Leach recommended various anti-crying techniques which parents can 'try if all else fails', in 1988 she adds these two guilt-lifting sentences: 'But 'try' is the operative word. There may be nothing you can do but your best; you may all have to live through a difficult few weeks.' There you are, mystery solved: I'd not have felt so neurotic a parent if I'd had the later edition.

But maybe guilt and neurosis are a necessary condition of parenthood, or the kind of parenthoods which we offer in the current organisation of society. Those of us who have felt angry with Penelope Leach for making us feel bad are missing the point. What we resent is not that she's occasionally wrong, but that she's mostly right: our priorities are wrong, but we don't know how to change them while also remaining active, wage-earning, employed. For Leach, bringing up children is at least as important as any profession, and requiring that those who pursue it do so with their concentration fully engaged. Whereas most of us pursue the profession in an amateurish, part-time and egocentric basis - with the radio playing if we so choose.

Her stern message is that we could be doing better by our children. And she knows that this is what makes us angriest of all. 'I do meet people who say, 'Your book sets standards of parenting which are too high for me.' I don't like that, but I can't help it and I can't apologise. I do feel that way.

'To me not giving it one's best shot would be a bit like getting married to someone and not even planning to be faithful.

But I don't expect everyone to succeed. And one of the best things about the design of the human infant is that we don't see the marks of all the fearful things we do, that there is this kind of merciful blanket. We don't have to see our mistakes.'

'Children First' by Penelope Leach is published by Michael Joseph this week at pounds 14.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015