SECOND THOUGHTS
Chloe Emilia Myerson - four and a half years old and as intractable as her father - sits scowling at him from the bottom step of the stairs, feet half in, half out of her shoes.

"Come on, quickly. Do them up," he says, having only 45 minutes to get to the high street and accomplish chores.

"I am, I am," she says, but no progress is made. Small fingers edge her socks off her feet.

"OK," he says after three more nail-drumming minutes of this. "Stay here on your own then. But the wolves will get you."

She is into those Startrites and out that door, meek as pudding and speedy as light.

"How could you!" I explode when this whole tale is casually - even proudly - related to me later over supper. "How could you scare her like that? I'm really surprised at you."

Surprised - and disappointed. Jonathan and I agree on almost every aspect of child-rearing, or at least I thought we did. But wolves? To a four year old?

"I was in a hurry," he counters edgily, fully aware that his actions were politically incorrect. "And it worked. What's your problem?"

"My problem is that it was an unnecessarily frightening lie. She'll have nightmares. I'm amazed that you'd use such a stupid, low-down trick."

"Low-down?" he smirks. "That's rich, coming from the Ice-Lolly Queen of Clapham. Look, I couldn't get the child to move. What was I to do? You think I've emotionally damaged her just because I used a little imagination?"

In a word: perhaps. I know I get no gold medals for parenting. I shriek far too much, I threaten and I bribe. I have been known to smack, seldom justifiably. But I always act impeccably when it comes to children's minds. I cannot condone manipulative terror stories.

I'm the guardian of my kids' imaginations. I know precisely what's in their heads and why - or at least for the moment I do. Right now, while they're little, I do all I can to make them feel safe - regardless of the various unpalatable realities Out

There.

Later, our friend Trevor - writer and father of two - comes round. Still disputing, we put our cases to him. He - whom I had thought sensitive, intelligent, serious - agrees instantly with Jonathan that a few fictitious, gnashing canines are no big deal.

"Hey, what about fairy stories?" he asks. "Beasts and witches are crucial to a kids' development - it's how they discover and learn to respond to danger. Read Bettelheim. And anyway," he adds, teetering dangerously backwards on his chair, "children aren't reasonable beings. Sometimes they actually need to be scared."

He goes on to confess that last week his three year old and her friend were playing up in a gallery cafe, and he reasserted control by explaining that the lady behind the counter had a great big boiling pot into which she would tip them if they didn't behave.

"Oh," I exclaim before I can stop myself. "That's worse than the wolves. I just so disapprove of that."

"Why?"

"It's so manipulative - so unnecessarily frightening."

"It did the trick," Trevor shrugs. "They were good as gold for the rest of the day. So you're telling me you never manipulate your children for their own safety?"

Of course I do. Only yesterday, when Raphael tried to cram a handful of laburnum into his mouth, I grabbed his hand quite roughly and yelled at him far louder than necessary. I needed him to burst into tears. But I didn't tell him that a grisly witch would magic herself out of the yellow petals and get him. Isn't real life nightmarish enough, without upping the demon quota?

"So were you easily scared as a child?" Trevor probes, somewhat perceptively.

I suppose I was. My father - who never ceased to get an immature thrill of power out of frightening smaller beings - was a mine of uselessly horrific information.

He told murder stories on the way to school on wintry mornings, and sometimes detailed the various ways you could commit suicide. He said he had read that slitting your wrists in a warm bath was best - rapid and almost comfortable - a piece of knowledge that nagged me through my adolescence.

He encouraged us to stay up and watch ghost and horror films on the weekends we spent with him, and the relentless emotional bleakness of those Saturdays is now suffused with the sticky black fear of those films.

It's no secret that the abuses of the past come home to roost all too clearly in the present. My grandmother terrorised my father as a child by telling him that a fictitious "Mrs White" would take him away in a black van if he misbehaved.

Granny really laughed when she told us how she used to "dial Mrs White's number" on the phone and "have conversations" about what she would do to him and how he used to "fall for it". Of course he bloody did.

"So," Jonathan says, "you'd have preferred me to tell Chloe that if she stayed in the house alone, at best she'd electrocute or scald herself, and at worst a paedophile would get her?"

"Don't be ridiculous. You just tell her little kids don't stay at home on their own."

"And if she still won't come?"

"You carry her bodily out of the house."

"Using ruthless, unflinching force?" suggests Trevor.

"If necessary, yes."

The fathers laugh. They laugh and sip their cold Czech beer, informed, unruffled, unscared - able to make sense of everything they experience simply by applying a little intellect. I envy them.

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