Indulge the bosses and spoil the child: In the Seventies she was Britain's answer to Dr Spock: put children first, she said, and did we listen? Now she feels she must tell us again. Penelope Leach talks to Angela Lambert

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She was the childcare guru for the Seventies; the companion of every young mother's sleepless nights, of every helpless parent in despair as a toddler screamed himself blue, of every out-of- practice granny giving young parents a rare weekend off. Her book Baby and Child has sold more than 2 million copies world-wide, in 27 languages.

Absurdly, I had been expecting a solid, reassuring mother figure, twinsetted and twinkly, to go with the smiley, urging voice that issues from the pages of her books. In fact, she is neat and fine-boned, with regular features and a modest, slightly anxious manner.

The anxiety she ascribed to the fact that we were talking just a week before publication of her latest book, Children First, and she was apprehensive about its reception. 'I'm fragile because it's controversial.'

She is still fielding criticism from people who accuse her of having created a generation of child-monsters; little emperors whose disruptive behaviour dominated their parents and enraged visitors. 'I actually find it quite flattering, because the only other person who has been accused of harming a whole generation is Spock, who was blamed for the flower- power phenomenon. I would be very happy to be ranked alongside Spock. In any case, anyone who dares to say that they're concerned for children's happiness or rights is fair game.

'I actually don't think I'm that influential. People find in books what they want and can use. I would love to believe that something I wrote could persuade a beating Dad to change his mind, but I don't'

Children First is not a childcare manual. Instead, Leach addresses the necessity to reorder our priorities and devote more time, more money and much more concern to children, especially during their crucial early years.

Is Mrs Leach appealing to young mothers to postpone, if possible, going out to full-time work until they are at school? She was taken aback and horrified that I had interpreted her message thus, since that isn't what she meant to say at all.

'I don't want to reclaim women from the workforce. I accept that the idea of women as the economic dependants of men has gone. But the genuine dependency of the very young is just not being met.'

Would she agree that a mother's first and inalienable responsibility was to her children?

'That's not how I would phrase it.'

How, then?

'We have allowed society to develop so that it actively makes meeting children's needs almost impossible. En masse, we have a responsibility to parents, chiefly mothers, which we don't meet. We do not provide the social services or the back-up that empowers them to meet those responsibilities. Rearing new people is at least as creative and professional as any high-status job. We know that what happens to children is terribly important, both to them and for society's future. We know what we ought to do, but we ain't doing it, because it doesn't suit us.'

It doesn't do so, I suggested, because tax-cutting has come to be every government's first priority if it wishes to be elected; and providing back-up for young parents is expensive. In Sweden, where parents are allowed to take a year off after the birth of a child, and either parent may take three months of the year on 90 per cent of full pay for its first three years, the level of income tax is around 50 per cent. This country has shrugged off high taxation and the welfare state that goes with it and would not condone such taxes, whatever they provided. Mrs Leach sighs.

'We have a moral obligation to children and their parents. Society blames parents or teachers for children's problems. It doesn't blame itself for having neglected their needs. In this book I am trying to address policy-makers, bureaucrats, organisations - not the individual parent - because with the best will in the world, most parents simply are not able to do what's best for their children. I am calling for a basic change in attitudes and the priority that we give to young families, their happiness, health and needs.'

If this sounds idealistic, she says, you have to aim high if you hope to make radical changes.

'The Commission for Social Justice (a centre-left research and policy body of which she is an unpaid member) is trying to rethink the welfare state in terms of today's socio-economic conditions. Very wealthy societies like our own do have options. We could choose to order things differently.

'My whole case is that we aren't seeing possible solutions because we believe we needn't look squarely at the problem. We think: after all, women have always managed and children survive. How dare we make young men feel that their material earnings are more important than they themselves, their presence in the family, for their children? This book is meant to be an attack on the corporate culture.'

Penelope Leach lives with her husband of 29 years in a large house full of books and pale colours, embellished with Michael Ayrton lithographs and statuettes. 'He was my beloved stepfather,' she says, when I comment. The house is serene because nowadays it is primarily a working base for Mrs Leach and her husband, Gerry, an environmental policy analyst. Their two children, Melissa and Matthew, are grown up, but rumbustious family life still goes on at weekends in their house in the country.

Her own childhood was unconventional, though not unhappy. Even here she demurs. 'I don't remember it as a lump, a static thing; I remember its glorious bits and its rough bits.

'I was born in London shortly before the war, the middle one of three girls. My elder sister and I were very close and I was pulled forward by trying to be as grown-up as she was. I was always anxious to please adults - not that this was always clear to them, and particularly not to my father, of whom I was rather afraid.

'I was not a model child. I was a great arguer, which my mother didn't mind at all - she always believed my sisters and I were people, and she defended us to my father. It drove him mad, because we made too much noise.

'I may not have liked him much. He was a difficult man, and it was eventually admitted to me when I was grown-up that he didn't like me.

'I'm one of the fairly few people who is thankful for a painful family upheaval in the middle of my childhood, because I got from my stepfather what I could never have got from my father. My mother, too, became a different person.

'Divorce is always desperately tough for kids and, of course, the ideal is a happy marriage that goes on and on; but if it is not that good, divorce can, in the end, turn out to be a positive option. It certainly was for me.

'I was 11. Things had been dicey for a couple of years. I do think we ludicrously underestimate children's awareness of the happiness of those around them.

'The change came about because my mother fell in love with Michael Ayrton. I was delighted with him because he made my mother laugh, but also nervous of him, as I was of all grown-up men, whom I found extremely unpredictable. It took me a long time to believe that he wouldn't be irritated by me or snap at me; that I could go in and out of his studio and be welcomed.

'But they were 'living in sin', and as a young, impressionable girl I wasn't allowed to live with them. I was sent to boarding school and spent the holidays with my father, and that all seemed to go on rather a long time.

'At that stage I had no idea what I wanted to be, so I went to university and read history as a way of buying time. While there I developed a genuine interest in psychology, and eventually did a diploma in it. That was at Cambridge. I did a lot more acting than working; more talking than writing, and had an absolutely gorgeous time.

'Coming away from all that and starting in London (a social science diploma at LSE) was a great shock. I found the place tough and anonymous, I couldn't seem to make friends and was really lonely. That was the cold-water shock of real life.

'I met Gerry when I was 22. He was living with a group of friends in an enormous house in Regent's Park with a ballroom and 17 rooms. I remember I saw this enormous tall fellow and thought, wow]

'Eventually he decided that I was worth taking notice of, so I moved in and lived in this lovely house for the next two years, and I've never lived more than a mile or two away ever since.

'In 1961 we got our own flat and Gerry said very early on, no babies till you've finished your PhD (on the effects of authoritarianism on children's moral judgement) and, boy, do I owe him a lot for that] We married when we started trying for a baby, in 1963, and when I did my viva I was eight months pregnant.

'After Melissa was born my cleaner, Vi, came and worked as her childminder/nanny until she was old enough to go to school. She left when our son, Matthew, was two and my life fell apart.

'Giving up work was traumatic, but I did enjoy my children's early years hugely, despite the stress and hard work. We all had an awful lot of fun.

''Out of that, and the experience of living amid a network of friends with small children and all my observational work on mothers and babies, came my first book. I realised that my psychological findings tied in with personal discoveries and both were ahead of the received wisdom, and so I started writing Babyhood.

'Then I was approached to write 'the British Dr Spock', and I agreed.' Baby and Child was the result and Mrs Leach has never looked back.

Bringing her up to the present day, I prod her about the message that seems to seep between the lines of Children First - that parents are somehow not meeting the needs of their young. Why exactly does she think this is?

'Two parents who agree to stagger their working hours, or two parents who both work part-time, can, between them, meet the care needs of their children without falling back on outside daycare. But this presupposes, of course, that there is a father around, and that he is willing to share the work. This dilemma arises for almost every young family.

'I should add that I would like to see not having children becoming much more acceptable. Too many people are 'waiting to be given a grandchild' and all that nonsense. History never runs backwards and nostalgia for the old days of the stay-at- home mother is one of the things preventing it moving forwards. Nobody pays a family wage to one breadwinner that will support a family. People need a wage each, as well as - for self-esteem and social status - a job each. Women are not going to change back to where they were 30 or 40 years ago, and don't want to, so what are we going to do about it?

'I find it disgusting that women have to pretend to have a migraine in order to persuade an employer that they need to stay at home to nurse a child. We can't honestly believe that going into an office or factory or supermarket is more important than the well-being of a child.

'People must realise that phrases such as 'children are our future' do have meaning - if you once get men to see it. We can afford the resources for people who wish to give two or three years to each child out of a 40-year working life. The fundamental trouble is that people just don't think children are important. This book is my puny little attempt to change that.'

'Children First' by Penelope Leach is published by Michael Joseph at pounds 14.99 on 19 April.

Hunter Davies is in South Africa.

(Photograph omitted)