WHEN my first child was a year old, I burnt the baby books. I lit a bonfire in the back garden and threw them on one by one, oblivious to the smoke stinging my eyes, conscious only of rage and self-vindication. I was fed up with what they had to tell me: that babies only cry for a reason, and that the reason was me. I was furious with them for their ringing, insistent message that Baby Knows Best.

I had spent months dancing attendance on my baby. To have got her to fit in with me would, the books implied, have been grossly irresponsible. Consequently she had no idea that there was an appropriate bedtime, and that it wasn't 11pm; no sense that human beings in civilised societies have set mealtimes. And then one glorious day I woke up and realised I was bonkers.

'A baby wants only what he needs,' asserts Penelope Leach, the guru of modern childcare. 'If he gets it, he is content. If he is content he demands no more until he needs more.'

And so, for the inexperienced, frightened mother, with a baby who reflects her own uneasiness, the guilt and the 'child-centred' child-rearing begin. And a generation of children is growing up like little emperors, themselves determining what time they go to bed or eat, with very little sense that they will have to negotiate their desires like everyone else, developing bad habits that can last a lifetime. I spent months oppressed by a conviction that if I gave my baby no rules, she would start to look like the sweetie-pie photographs in Penelope Leach. In fact, she was as confused, exhausted and irritable as I was, and just looked grumpy.

A generation ago, things were different. My own mother, in the days 'when people managed without books', would never have dreamt of not having her babies in bed by 6pm: the evenings were the time she devoted to my father. That was no doubt very nice for them; but it was also, probably, quite healthy for children, who were given a sense of order and discipline, and did not have to fashion it for themselves. Awareness that sometimes it was their parents' turn was one of the first things they learned.

Contemporary theorists - Penelope Leach in Britain, the paediatrician Berry Brazelton in the United States - who imply that children will, as it were, 'find their level', behaviourally and morally, write partly in reaction to the perceived neglect of previous generations. Frederic Truby King, 'a New Zealander who knew a lot about rearing calves', according to the childbirth expert Sheila Kitzinger, believed that children should be fed only once every four hours: in the early part of the century, apparently, mothers gritted their teeth through hours of pathetic crying, waiting for the approved time to elapse before they could again pick up their babies and offer breast, or preferably bottle. If this did indeed happen, it was stupid. (Though personally, I doubt that mothers, except in extremis, have ever left their babies screaming for hours). But the converse - the idea that, starting from the cradle, children should rule the roost with no guidelines as to behaviour - is every bit as pernicious, and threatens to breed an obnoxious, heedless generation who have little appreciation of obligations to their family, let alone to the wider community.

This is not very good for society at large. Neither is the second result of Baby-Knows-Best parenting - fractured marriages. Getting babies into bed so that adults could be alone together for a few hours was very good for relationships. Modern middle-class parents, by contrast, devote almost all their energy to their babies. 'Young parents want permission to take time for themselves and each other. The common wisdom is 'Put Baby First' ', says Penny Mansfield, of the marriage and partnership research organisation One Plus One - an attitude which is having a profoundly deleterious effect on relationships: at a conference in London next month, One Plus One hopes to highlight the terrific strain placed on marriages by a new baby.

Zelda West-Meads of Relate notes that the first couple of years of a child's life are one of the key times for affairs. Men can feel neglected, pushed aside. However tough a new baby is for women, a warm and accepting tradition validates being a mother; and a more modern, feminist one, allows that it is difficult. The dreadfulness is something women are allowed to talk about. Men don't have that luxury: if they confess to feeling excluded and miserable, women jump to the conclusion that this is proof of everything they've always thought about recidivist, hopeless men. And they can't confess to other men because it isn't the sort of thing men talk about. Anyway, men want to believe they are getting better at all that baby stuff . . .

Nowadays, it seems, we can only justify lavishing attention on partners on the grounds that it is actually good for our babies. Marianne Whitfield spent two years at home after the birth of her first child. 'In losing my work I lost the thing I had based my self-respect on. I lost all sense of identity, self-worth. That in turn ruined my sex life: not only did I see sex as a waste of good sleeping time, but I just didn't feel like an adult, a sexual being. It took me two years to decide to go back to work - and then I could only justify it on the grounds that I was becoming a lousy parent, because I was miserable.'

Melanie Prentice, a 32-year-old design consultant 'mourns the people we used to be before we had our son, a year ago - those Sundays when we would get up for a plate of bacon and eggs and go back to bed for the rest of the day. I sometimes feel I'd give anything to go and see a movie on a Sunday afternoon. As for sex, we've spent most of the last year getting it over and done with in 10 minutes, because that was all the time we had. We've got it down to a fine art.'

All this strain is, in one sense, a consequence of our high expectation of relationships. 'It used to be quite easy for husband-and-wife to dovetail into mother-and-father,' says Penny Mansfield. 'The duties involved in these roles were quite clear, and everyone knew what was expected. But the modern companionate marriage is expected to be a much more intimate, passionate relationship, an intense emotional encounter. And then a baby comes along and gets in the way.

'What's more, if you feel you've chosen the right partner, and then things don't feel very good, it can be very unsettling. People feel this shouldn't be happening; their relationship should be able to withstand it.'

Few young parents seem to think their partnerships have improved. 'We just don't have time or patience for each other any more,' says Cecily Kaye, a solicitor, 'though we were very much in love before we had the baby, and had been together 12 years. But now I want nothing to do with men. All my physical affection goes on the baby. She's three months, and if I am still feeling the same in another three months, I think I will seek professional help.'

Penelope Leach's response suggests that fewer people should have children in the first place. 'There is a very real sense in which having a child is against our adult interests. Our relationships are now in the workplace, not the home and community. There is an enormous weight on sexual partnerships. Why should almost all adults want to give up a huge chunk of their lives to bringing up children? Choosing to have a child should be as positive a choice as deciding to emigrate, or changing careers. Children are having a lousy time.'

Unfortunately, most people actually want children, and the business of creating a family seems much more haphazard than Penelope Leach implies it should be - 'a chapter of accidents,' in the words of one mother: 'too many, too few, the wrong sex, the wrong age gap . . .'

One Plus One hopes to air the dissatisfaction of many young parents, and offer them the permission Penny Mansfield talks about to make time for themselves and each other: 'There's no moral agenda. Our concern is to help people sustain good relationships, if that's what they want, on the basis of our research. At the conference we will cover sex life - if you've constantly got the baby in bed with you, or you're too tired, then sex inevitably becomes a problem. And we'll talk about simply being available to your partner. Communication is vital. But if a child runs in when you've finally sat down to talk, what do you do? - tell it to go away?'

One Plus One's own input comes from following couples who married in 1979. 'We've seen them without children, and we've seen them with children,' says Penny Mansfield. 'There are many different styles of marriage, and children are more of a threat to some than others.'

One mother who thinks that adults have needs too, and that children have to learn to respect them, notes: 'Friends of ours are amazed that my husband and I go on holiday without the children. They say 'what, you go on a plane together?' ' Like this mother, I think children would probably prefer to fit in with happy adults than be given too many choices by unhappy ones who have denied themselves and starved their relationships in the name of parenthood.

Politicians, religious leaders, teachers - all point to the home as the ultimate source of order or disorder, sense of obligation or disregard for others' interests. The sort of parents who are harassed by poverty, deprivation and abuse are often unable to give their children anything like enough attention. But middle-class liberal parenting can do children a disservice too. We are in danger of raising a generation so self-centred and self-absorbed that they have little sense of responsibility to their immediate family, let alone society.

For details of the One Plus One conference, telephone 081-965 2367

(Photograph omitted)