Childhood, says a report out this week, is in crisis – and it is, of course, the adults' fault. We're too selfish, we pursue our own success at the expense of everything else, and we don't care enough about the messages we pass on to young people.
The report – published by the Children's Society, a charity – doesn't specifically point the finger of blame at the country's parents... but since we're clearly adults, and clearly the adults who most influence our children, it's also pretty clear we're in the dock. And heaven help us if we're trying to bring up kids on our own, or if we're women who are trying to do it alongside doing paid work. It's all bad, bad, bad, says the report (as are too many ads on the telly when little people are watching, too much sugar in their food, and too much teenage sex).
But why aren't Britain's parents marching on the Children's Society's HQ? (Incidentally, the organisation has close links to the Church of England, which may explain its conservative and, frankly, fairly joyless tone.) And what was the society thinking? We all know about sugar and sex and too much telly. The report bashes us over the head with a quaint message about the good old days of family life that never really were.
But I know why there's no mass protest at the Children's Society. It's because – like the selfish schemers we are – we're all too busy. Busy feathering our nests, planning our next career move, organising our next solo jolly? Not exactly – we're busy doing the weekly shop, sorting out emergency childcare when the school phones to say snow has stopped lessons, and getting through the mountains of washing. The truth is that organisations like the Children's Society can say what they want about parents – we're all too up to our eyes in the reality of bringing up our kids to defend ourselves. So the pillorying goes on, the misguided portrayal of single parents (who are far too busy to tell it like it is) continues; the stereotyping of working mothers goes unchecked.
Meanwhile, a great opportunity is lost. Because, while parents are working selflessly out here to raise our children, we are open – very open – to ideas about how to do it better. I have four children, all daughters, aged seven, 10, 14 and 16. Raising them, as a full-time (home-based) working mother, with a husband who's a full-time (office-based) working father, isn't a 24/7 bowl of cherries. What I'd like to hear isn't more about what's going wrong; it's an acknowledgement that an awful lot is going right, and ideas on how to do our parenting even better. So, in the absence of much direction at all from the Children's Society about the nitty-gritty of raising kids, and in the spirit of a mother who's been around the block a few times with her brood but whose own parenting technique is still very much a work in progress, here are 10 suggestions for what we can, and should, do better.
Get help when you need it
There is help out there – but we're not always very quick off the mark to ask for it. Parenting classes, for example – some of which are run by professional therapists, though some are DIY groups with tips from a guidebook or DVD – can be a godsend. And plenty of other services (child psychologists, other therapists, counsellors...) can be accessed through voluntary organisations or through your GP's surgery.
Too many parents believe we ought to be able to work out on our own how to do it – that because raising children is work that's home-based, it's not something the majority of parents feel they should need professional help with, or should have to go on a course to learn. But that's nonsense: we don't need to be taught how to love our kids, but we could all benefit from a few tips on how to manage difficult situations, or a few ideas for tactics that work. Other parents are a great source of ideas and moral support, so go online and take a look at the local support available to you on sites like www.mumsnet.com.
Communicate more with your kids
When my eldest daughter turned 13 and became a teenager, someone said to me that what she'd need most in the years ahead was time to talk. Not, by the way, time to listen: time to talk. This person (who was a psychotherapist) suggested that I should think about how much time I could comfortably give her for talking in a day or a week, and then double it: because she would need more communication time than I bargained for.
It's not always easy to make yourself available to communicate with your children: it's not easy for me, with four of them, and I'm often alone with them all evening as my husband works long hours. But I can honestly say that – in the same way that you know you'll never regret getting out for a walk, however much you're up against it with deadlines – you'll never, as a parent, regret time spent talking (or listening) to your children. Engaging with them, being aware of their realities, reflecting back to them what you hear, to help them make sense of the world they're in – these are the most important things we give our children. And listening to your child can be truly joyful: kids are funny, they're wise, they're smart, and they're interesting.
Tone down the consumerism
At last there's something good to be said for the credit crunch! It's not easy raising children through tough economic times, and it may be going to get a lot more gruelling before it gets any easier. But for families, there is a silver lining: because the truth is that the gold in families isn't having the latest iPhone or the newest games for the Wii. The gold in families – whether they're single-parent families, or families where grandparents are raising their grandchildren, or families with two working parents – lies in the relationships and the love they contain, and maybe a credit crunch is as good a moment as any to remind ourselves of that.
What's more, for many of us, there's no option: the other day we sat down with our girls and explained that, exciting though it would be to go to a Mediterranean beach in August, the truth is that we can't afford it this year. Scotland, to be honest, didn't exactly get the thumbs-up as a substitute, especially from my two older daughters who were looking forward to adorning the sand in Abercrombie & Fitch bikinis, something that wouldn't quite fit in near Loch Long. But, hey, here's a great opportunity to find out that spending a fortune on flights and a villa with a pool isn't the only passport to a happy week's holiday. Fingers crossed, anyway.
Say what you mean and mean what you say
If being a parent has taught me one thing, it's this: consistency is crucial. In fact, in so many ways, consistency underpins being not only an effective parent, but an effective person. No one wants to have a friend or a colleague who says one thing and does another; no one wants to be surrounded by people who say they'll do one thing, and then do another.
So it is with raising kids, because children need boundaries, they respect boundaries, and they feel safe within boundaries. It's not always easy to stick to our boundaries as parents, but it does pay off in the end. Boundaries are a reminder, too, of another important thing about parenting (something I often forget) which is that they're the kids, and we're the adults. Toddler tantrums aren't, I can confidently report, confined to two-year-olds: there are still plenty of them in our house, and that's just among the fortysomethings.
Don't forget to laugh!
Which brings me to yet another golden rule about parenting, and it's this: even when times are tough, try not to lose sight of your sense of humour. Raising children is deeply rewarding, hugely fulfilling... and if there's another occupation in life that gives you as many unscripted hilarious moments, I can't think of it. We don't wallow enough in the sheer joy of it, and the fun, and definitely the laughter.
Don't preach - be a role model
What we do as parents is so much more important than what we say. From their earliest moments, our children are observing how we, their parents, behave in the world: and as they grow older, you become all too painfully aware of how much they're modelling themselves on the behaviour you've pioneered for them.
That's not to say, of course, that kids are mere clones of their parents: they add plenty of elements of their own into the mix. But remember that the way you behave now could very easily be the way they go on to behave tomorrow. "Stop shouting from one room to another," I said to one of my teenagers the other day, fed up with the bellowing from upstairs. "But mum," she said, "you do it all the time!" Touché .
Don't feel bad about being a working parent
There are plenty of mentions of working mothers in the Children's Society report, and the general tenor is that families are the worse off because of them. The truth is, though, that working mothers aren't even an issue in the real world (or at least, they shouldn't be). What we do need to address is working parents; and the reality we need to be a lot more upbeat about is how much kids can benefit from growing up in a family in which their parents work hard, and are better people because of it.
Being a working parent isn't new: mothers as well as fathers have worked since the dawn of time. What matters is balance in all our lives: and in many families, the balance is jeopardised far more by a father who is too work-obsessed than by a mother who is spending too much time in her office. Being a working parent means saying to your children: I'm a person as well as a parent, and it's important to me to be fulfilled and happy in myself as well as in parenting you.
Don't neglect others (especially your partner)
There's no question about it: being a parent puts a huge strain on your relationship. Everything, after all, changes when a baby comes on the scene: it's all too easy for a partnership that was easy-going, fun and sexually exciting to become hard work, weighed down with domestic detritis, and sexually stale. As your children get older and their needs become more complicated, many couples fall into the trap of concentrating all their efforts on these needs, and spend less and less time on their needs as a couple.
But you owe it not only to your children, but also to yourself, not to neglect the relationship that led to your family happening in the first place. No child wants to see his or her parents split up, it's true: but more than that, no relationship can flourish without a bit of attention. So book granny to look after the kids, and book yourselves into a hotel for the weekend. Now.
Keep a memory box
If this was a job – and let's face it, we all know it's a lot harder than anything anyone gets paid to do – then you'd have regular sessions with your line manager about your progress. You'd have the opportunity for accolades – an award here, a mention in the company report there perhaps. You'd have certificates for how well you'd done on the course; you'd have your annual bonus (in the good times, anyway).
With parenting, there's no one but you to give yourself a pat on the back, to reassure you it's all going in the right direction, and to remind you that you've come a long way. So do it for yourself: and the easiest way is to keep a memory box to dip into every so often so you get a sense of the totality of the job in hand, and a sense too of how well it's going.
My memory box is actually a collection of box files on my office shelf. I have one for each daughter (they're going to get them to keep when they're 18), and I have one for my husband and me to keep, because it's struck me that once they're all 18 we'll still want some momentos just for us. Into the files I put everything from ultrasound scan photographs to labour reports, certificates, pieces of schoolwork that are particularly well done or funny or poignant, photographs of significant and happy times.
Going through my memory boxes is one of the biggest treats life has to offer, for me: it's like delving into a celebration of all that parenthood has been about. When I need a lift, or a reminder that this is a long journey, or when I simply need to see the wood for the trees, I reach for my memory box...
Remember you don't have to be a perfect parent, just a good one
My father died last week, and his funeral is tomorrow. But, maybe strangely, this week hasn't been soaked in tears or steeped in mourning for me: in fact, it's been pretty much business as usual.
It wasn't that I didn't love my father – I loved him very much indeed – and it certainly wasn't that I'm not going to miss him, because I know I'll miss him for the rest of my life. But what I've realised, these last few days, is that he has managed to leave me with the greatest final gift a parent can leave to his or her child: he's left me with no emotional baggage.
It isn't that he and I had a perfect relationship – we didn't. It isn't that he was a perfect father, and it certainly isn't that I was a perfect daughter. (And now I come to think of it, I wouldn't have wanted a perfect father anyway. Like all loveable and interesting people, it was his faults as much as his strengths that made him the person he was.)
What my father absolutely was, and this is what we'll celebrate tomorrow when we raise a glass of champagne to his life after his funeral, was the hardest thing anyone can ever hope to be. He was a good enough parent: good enough for me and good enough for my siblings. And if I have any ambition in my life, it's to follow in his footsteps. What I most hope is that I can be a good enough parent, too.