And with age, the process of demonisation gets worse. At 10 children can be criminal 'little devils', at 12 they are tabloid rapists, at 14 neo-folk-heroes like 'Rat Boy', who eluded police by hiding in air vents on his problem estate. And the dear dead days when only boys were naughty seem positively prelapsarian in their innocence now. If you believe all you read, today's girls smoke crack and talk dirty, wear Doc Martens to kick hell out of old ladies, embark on group shop-lifting and casual under- age sex. All this leads inexorably to the aforementioned early motherhood of dim-witted pregnancy, and the whole dismal cycle repeats again.
Some people have always hated children, there's no argument about that. Evelyn Waugh famously forbade the presence of the 10-year-old Auberon until his son was old enough to interest him. But it is a new phenomenon to find the whole nation appearing to agree that children are at their best 'a problem', a miserable responsibility to be shouldered with a groan, and at worst a fearsome group of Untermenschen fated to be a permanent source of angst and a pain where the ulcers grow.
Part of the current crisis seems to stem from earlier, better motives gone wrong. Pre-liberation girls were shunted into maternity without thought or choice. It was right to challenge the powerful prevailing conviction that biology was destiny, but in offering options ("Maternity is an election, not an obligation" was a slogan of the French Mouvement Pour La Liberation des Femmes), we have gone too far in stressing the pains and penalties of motherhood at the expense of its joys. Similarly, young men often lived in a fool's paradise in the days when babies were women's work, and their only idea of fatherhood was a rosy sweet-smelling bundle drowsing happily in the arms of a contented wife. But inflicting schoolboys with dolls computer-programmed to cry for 20 minutes non-stop, as in current 'fatherhood classes' in schools, is a purely damaging exercise unless the dolls will also smile and joyfully recognise their dad, as real babies do.
Why do we take this negative, punitive attitude? It is not so elsewhere. Attempts to explain the computer-crying doll to an Italian friend evoked peals of mirth. "Only in England would a baby be allowed to cry for 20 minutes," she exclaimed. It has long been known that British culture is uniquely hostile to family life. The middle classes, resentfully managing without most of the help of the past, feel it most in restaurants, when those with children are made to feel as if they have a communicable disease.
Far more seriously, we are belatedly accepting that we have in Britain a work culture which has remained resolutely hostile to family life. British employees work the longest hours in Europe, and are denied even brief parental leave when a baby is born. Earlier this year, the European Court of Justice pronounced that the number of hours worked in Britain has become not merely an issue of human rights, but a health and safety concern.
For women in particular, the dual load is often too much to bear. Two out of three women now work. Four in 10 women are the main family breadwinner. CBI figures show that more than half these women have children under five, with a corresponding rise for those with older children (the CBI firmly opposes any reduction of British working hours, on the grounds that this will "undermine Britain's competitiveness").
For working women, the mantra of the 1970s, "Having It All" has evolved into the dreary 90s drag of "Doing It All". Younger women are deciding that something's got to give. Figures from the Fertility Unit of the Office of National Statistics show that the numbers of women choosing to be childless are set to double in the next 15 years. Over a quarter of today's young women will decide not to be mothers. By doing so, they may save their own lives. But this too will create an increasingly child-unfriendly world.
Why do we insist on accentuating the negative, and deny the positive side of parenting, which for some is life's greatest adventure and the single most learning experience of life? To have a child is to be favoured with a re-run of your own childhood with the added benefit of greater knowledge, wisdom, confidence and control. Children are our connection from our most distant past through to the future. They invest us as active participants in the great ongoing debates of the day, not simply as onlookers whose concern is bounded by their end of their own lives.
From the first shock of recognition of the new born, having children is an emotional adventure like no other. It is life's greatest romance, insists the writer and agony aunt Irma Kurtz, a love above all else. Yet our dysfunctional British attitudes prevent us from admitting this.
Programmed not to show love, we are also inhibited from expressing the joy of our children by our almost superstitious fear of seeming to boast. "I am so proud of Jane for doing well" is felt to be sure to bring down the wrath of the gods on our heads. Or at least the seething hatred of the Joneses, already crippling themselves on private education in the attempt to "keep up". The recent huge upsurge of parental investment in private education is in itself a sad reflection on our skewed values, when children's attainment is the principal measure of their worth.
And the "hate-to-boast culture" is only a step away from the unendearing national characteristic that has led the Australians to dub us "whingeing Poms". For we love to complain about our children, oh how we whine and wail! In any group of middle-class parents, watch the bile flow as they moan about the sleepless nights, the nappies, and the baby's 'refusal' to be 'good'. Later we modulate into the cost, the awfulness of nannies, the dreadful au pairs, the shortcomings of teachers and the low standards of local schools. Every newborn provides a lifelong supply of gripes. Where is the voice upraised in their defence?
Yet to think of a baby is to remember smooth-as-satin skin, and a foolish fuzz of not-yet-human hair. It is to see eyes so bright they seem to be looking at the morning of the world. To listen to any child routinely produces moments of absurd poetry like "Why didn't the moon turn the stars all the way on tonight?" or "Daniel's cat has died and gone to Kevin."
Children make us fully human because they help us to grow. To love truly is to put another's interests before our own. In the competitiveness of an adult relationship, this is rarely possible. Only with our children do most of us find such grace.
"I never asked to be born!" is the standard reproach of every unhappy child. Yet it remains an incontrovertible truth. We brought these young people into the world. If they are unfit to live with, whose fault is it but our own?
Dr Rosalind Miles is the author of 'The Children We Deserve: Love and Hate in the Making of the Family' (Harper Collins, 6.99)Reuse content