So how good a parent are you?

Can ministers campaign against drink-driving, but not against the worse crime of incompetence in charge of the future?

AUNT SALLY has just written another pamphlet, and Uncle Jack would probably much rather she hadn't. Her effort - which will certainly have every liberal commentator in Britain happily foaming at the mouth - is published by the Demos think-tank today and is entitled "The Family in Question".

Supposedly penned by a Professor "Stein Ringen" of Green College, Oxford (a rather obvious leg-pull in my opinion), this work calls for - among other things - the discouragement of cohabitation, and for children to have rights of veto over parental divorce and abortion. Can't you just imagine little Knut or Inge Ringen bargaining for that new pair of in- line skates, in return for allowing Daddy to elope with the au pair?

No, neither can I. So that's why I say that it has Aunt Sally's fingerprints all over it.

Uncle Jack Straw's unhappiness stems from the fact that his own efforts will now be confounded with Stein Ringen's by those perpetual critics of Family Values, the liberal columnists. When, in July, he stands up to announce the establishment of a National Family and Parenting Institute, he will be met with predictable ridicule.

Images of Dickensian moralists and other proselytising grotesques will be conjured out of word-processors and used to affright readers of this and other newspapers. The Witch-finder General will be portrayed as being loose in the countryside, bringing with him the full panoply of puritanical accoutrements: scold's bridles, ducking stools, compulsory mediation, moral education and - of course - stigmatisation (single parents, for the use of).

According to reports yesterday (see under "deliberate leak") the new Institute will be given half a million pounds of government money, and its charitable status will allow it to raise untaxed funds from other sources. Its patriarch or matriarch will be a "telegenic personality" on 80 grand a year, and its board will (says the Daily Mail) "have leading figures of all political persuasions" on it.

The remit of the NFPI will be to oversee health visitors (who give advice to parents in the first year of a child's life), to set standards for classes in parenting, to operate a telephone "parentline" - all of this aimed at helping mummies and daddies to bring the kids up a bit better. Just call them up, and they'll tell you how to do it.

So, over time, NFPI will be the place from which our sense of what constitutes good parenting will spring... Stand up the person who just said "Bleughh!"I know what you're thinking - God knows I've seen it written down often enough. You believe that, at worst, this is the thin end of the totalitarian wedge, don't you?

This is an invasion of private space by public authorities, all of a piece with Uncle Jack's notorious curfew for 10-year-olds. Besides, how can the Government or some central agency lay down for individuals what is best for their children? And even if they could, it's futile. Those who want to be "good" parents already bring their kids up that way - and those who don't, aren't going to take any bleedin' notice, anyway.

Oh, and while we're about it, lets throw in the poverty objection for good measure, which is that wealth (or the lack of it) is the best indicator of a child's well-being, and that other considerations are secondary - so get your chequebooks out.

It is true that there is something about the notion of parenting that is relentlessly middle class. People who use "parent" as a verb are probably those who buy magazines featuring articles about where to take vegetarian children during the summer holidays, and whose major concern is whether to let Bryony learn the saxophone. Their spiritual home is in Center Parcs, and their true motive is to inculcate in the rebellious and untidy working classes values that will guarantee against their semis being burgled by badly parented progeny.

It is little wonder, then, that some columnists, reminded of their own strained relationship with their parents, and of the joys of liberation, now see the government with its Family Values as a kind of ultimate Paterfamilias. Nothing gives them greater pleasure than turning round to Uncle Jack, sticking their tongues out and shouting "Shan't! Won't!" at the top of their printed voices.

They're completely wrong, of course. Those who are infertile and wish to adopt children often compare the qualifications you need to pass muster as a prospective parent with the complete absence of any skill or quality that is required before one can become a biological parent.

To drive a car you need a licence. To have a child all you need is a uterus, a basin of hot water and some towels. The consequences are visible in any public place.

While most people manage OK (though we could all do with some help), some are appalling parents. There are the shouters, the hitters, the inconsistent indulgers, the parents who -- while splitting up - make their children bear the brunt of their own emotional pain, those who do little or nothing to encourage their children at school, those who belligerently take the child's side against the teacher who is trying to teach.

And the rest of us, how good are we? How many divorced fathers lose touch altogether with children who are desperate to see them? How many divorced mothers deny proper access to those fathers?

What help do we give with homework and reading? How hard do we listen to what our children are saying, and how much effort do we put into answering their questions? How much time do we spend with them, and do we enjoy it, or begrudge it?

The truth is that there are indeed better and worse ways of being a parent. And it is also true that being a parent is one of the most socially important roles that one can take on.

How can it possibly be, then, that there is no role for government in helping to define and encourage good parenting? Can it really campaign against smoking and drink-driving, but not against the far worse crime of incompetence in charge of the future?

Of course, there is a danger of a deadening Swiss-style social conformism being the consequence of an over-advised society. But it is interesting that the government's initiative has been criticised by those on its political right for not sufficiently emphasising the desirability of parents being married and staying that way.

As shadow minister and Tory thinker David Willetts put it to me, "The government uses the F word [family], but is afraid to use the M word [marriage]". He would like to see cohabitation (or consensual union) discouraged, as the evidence suggests that such relationships are more prone to break down.

As a consensual unionist myself, I think that Willetts is wrong. Uncle Jack (himself a divorcee and a son of divorced parents) understands that a stance which implies a judgement on who exactly people choose to love and live with is likely to alienate many of the parents whom he wishes to help.

It might be better if Gideon and Betty could find a way of staying together through a rough patch - and mediation may help - but that's Aunt Sally's province. The real issue is how - whatever the decision is - the kids are going to be brought up. And Uncle Jack may be able to help us there.

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