Short, puce and righteous

Kids on the moral high ground? It's a living nightmare.
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The Independent Culture
A VIEWING of our home video of last Easter's holiday by the Suffolk coast. The children fly a kite on the beach. My husband sits on the steps of the beach-house, cupping a fag in his fist. He stands up, and something flaps around his back. I walk behind him and film the sign the children have stuck to his back - "STUPID MEN SMOKE!"

He pulls it off with a sheepish shrug. What else can he do? When he gave up for two years, he endorsed what they were told by their teachers, agreeing that smoking is a dangerous habit enjoyed by the weak and selfish. When he started again, the children took what he had said and turned it against him.

Children's early years are filled with their parents' principles. You are constantly reminding them that "taking the toy from Johnny isn't nice", or "swearing is horrible". Then, at the age of seven or so, your child starts to notice that you are not always consistent. You may even be guilty of trying it on with the cry of "Don't do as I do, do as I say!" which no modern child will put up with.

Rosey Williams, whose son Joe is seven, gives another example of this. "We had seen a drunk swaying around and swearing and I'd explained that he'd had too much beer and that some people are alcoholics. Later that day a friend came round and we cracked open a couple of cans of beer. I don't usually drink, but that afternoon I felt like doing something un-mumsy. Joe came in, took the can, threw it out the window and shouted, `Mum, you're an alcoholic, aren't you!' I was mortified that Joe felt that I was a hypocrite. I had been so pompous when I talked about the drunk on the street. I felt I lost a bit of his respect that day."

Christine Cottle, a psychotherapist who co-ordinates the parenting advice organisation Pippin, says, "Before the ages of seven or so, your parents are the centre of your world and their moral guidelines must be respected. Around that age the child starts to observe the adult world. If you've said that Aunt Doreen's hat is a monstrosity, then you compliment it in front of her, the seven-year-old will witness your discrepancy."

Discovering that your parents are not paragons of virtue can be deeply upsetting, even frightening. The children of one family were mortified to be told by the oldest child that those pretty plants in the bathroom were not just decorative and that Mum and Dad were raving dopeheads. They were terrified their parents would die from their habit, and decided to save them from themselves. As well as destroying the plants, they got rid of every cigarette they found. The children felt a sense of insecurity, as well as righteousness, which could not be assuaged by a rambling lesson in "degrees" of drug-taking.

There was a similar reaction in my house to the discovery that one of Blue Peter's "bubbly" presenters had taken cocaine. The children felt disgust and unease that someone they had watched three times a week on their TV screens should be a "druggy". My son and his friend sat on the sofa shouting: "I never ever want to see that disgusting man again."

The children's reaction is not merely caused by fear. There is also a sneaking sense of enjoyment in turning the tables. Kids love to tick off their parents when they have used a string of expletives strictly prohibited to children. My kids listen to me talking on the phone, and chastise me if they hear anything that even hints at a swear word. Try as you may to give an explanation as to why there are double standards when it comes to adults and children, you will just be blustering into the wind. Children can sniff out not only cigarette smoke at 20 paces, but bullshit too. My husband no longer smokes. He says he can't take any more holier-than-thou sermons from people 2ft smaller than him.