Are you being run by your children?

`Children must come first' is an ideology that has led to pampered kids and a crisis of confidence among parents. By Genevieve Fox
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Childhood is endangered, under threat from child abuse and violence on television, drugs and under-age sex, family break-up and separation. The golden age of innocence, when children could happily trust and respect adults, is long gone. It has become a conventional wisdom that children have become so vulnerable that they can only be nurtured with the protection of special rights and codes.

The Commission on Children and Violence yesterday added its voice to the conventional modern view by calling for a national strategy to tackle violence against children, including a ban on smacking. Its findings make disquieting reading: babies under a year old are four times as likely as any other group to be murder victims; one in six children still suffers severe violent punishment.

It is not just children's physical safety that is under threat, but also their self-esteem. Today school reports clothe criticism in jargon, avoiding any language that might appear overtly critical. The days when one PE teacher at a Liverpool comprehensive entered nothing but an exclamation mark on the report card of one chubby under-achiever are no longer tolerated.

We have become so concerned about the risk of damaging children physically, emotionally and spiritually that we are unsure how to discipline them, uncertain how far we can push them, doubtful of what we can demand from them. We are so worried about their fragile confidence that their self- esteem must become the object of government policy.

Yet not everyone agrees with this trend. One mother recently took her son away from his state school in north London and uprooted him to the countryside and a private primary school after discovering that the state school had a sports day with no prizes. Competition, the school felt, demeaned the children who did not win. Since you were not allowed to have winners, you were not allowed to award prizes.

"The Child is father of the Man," wrote Wordsworth. Today we are equally sensitive to the needs of our children, painfully aware that a cherished and well-behaved child has a better chance of growing into a balanced, loving and law-abiding adult. The Children Act of 1989, created to give children much-needed protection against abuse, in the process legalised the ideology: the child comes first.

But while the nurturing of self-esteem in children is now accepted as a requisite of their development, the social and economic demands on overworked, harassed parents often prevent them from putting this theory into practice where it matters most - in the home. Indeed, much of the time it seems that parents themselves are suffering a crisis of self-esteem.

Parents now spend far less time with their children than they did 10 years ago. Forced to work long hours, they pack them off to childminders or nannies, grandmothers or next-door neighbours. Guilt-ridden, they then indulge them with gifts and indiscipline. Many of today's children, the majority that are not being subject to violence and intimidation, are spoilt rotten.

Reports show that teenagers are increasingly obese and slothful. They watch, on average, between four and six hours of television a day. No longer subjected to the discipline of the evening family meal, the cradle of manners and civil behaviour, one in three people eats his or her dinner on his lap in front of the TV. The fashion industry is increasingly targeting guilty parents and demanding children: it is not uncommon to see children wearing designer jeans and the latest trainers that they will soon grow out of.

Pre-Christmas toy advertising is designed to strike terror into the hearts of parents and make their children more demanding and greedy. Every office in the land harbours parents who are exasperated, especially by boys, who are arrogant, rude, boastful and undisciplined, leaving their parents too tired, too guilt-ridden or too bewildered by conflicting child-rearing advice to do anything other than wring their hands with worry. The language of civil rights has entered childhood. Children as young as six are now so keenly aware of their "rights" that they freely complain of "unfair" treatment by their elders.

"The more you read and hear about child rearing, the more confusing it is," says Sally Garner, who gave up work to look after her three-year- old son Henry. "Before, there was never a time when you were unfair to a child. They just did what they were told.

"When my mother was young, children were seen as completely other. There was a general idea that at some point they become adult. It wasn't even condsidered that childhood experiences would have a long-lasting effect. Today you think that you have the potential to completely traumatise your child."

So are parents pampering their children, emotionally, materially and intellectually, to compensate for a sense of guilt? On Wednesday there was evidence of how far some parents will go as two parents began prison sentences after lying to the police to cover up their student son's involvement in a car accident in which a woman was killed.

There is mounting evidence that the pendulum may finally have swung too far, leaving parents feeling impotent and ineffectual. Many parents, as well as teachers, operate in a climate of fear: parents fear spanking their children in case they are shopped to Childline, or photographing them, lest they be accused of child pornography; teachers are advised not to keep a child behind for detention for fear of laying themselves open to accusations of sexual abuse.

The pressures of work are partly to blame for the difficulties parents have in retaining a sense of perspective about what is right and wrong for their children. Tomorrow the charity Parents at Work is holding a conference entitled "Time, Work and the Family: tackling the long hours culture" to address the double-edged guilt of working parents: guilt towards their children, from whom they are largely absent, and towards their employers to whom they fear they appear under-committed. The consequent sense of failure is creating a crisis of self-esteem - that they do not do anything properly or well - which in turn rubs off on their children.

Joanna Foster, chair of the conference and president of Relate, the relationship counselling organisation, believes parents must develop new social skills to help them flit between home and work.

"Nineties parents feel responsible for all the nation's ills," says Foster. "American children are taught how to express themselves emotionally and intellectually. It doesn't mean you are pampering them. It just means you are giving them life skills which enable them to cope with problems, including separation and divorce."

Some educationalists also believe it is time to get parents back into the classroom to teach modern parenting skills. Curriculum initiatives such as Skills for the Primary School Child and Skills for Adolescents, touch on parenting and some schools address "parent craft" as part of the syllabus.

There is, of course, danger in over-analysis, as Gael Lindenfield, a psychotherapist and author of Confident Children: Developing Your Child's Self-Esteem, points out. "The psychological revolution has made people look at themselves and ask, Am I happy? Am I a good person? Adults' self-esteem and happiness is over-dependent on their children's success. It is causing dreadful problems for children and parents.

"Children need to be able to communicate well, to know how to be assertive, how to present themselves to the best advantage and how to control their emotions. These are social and life skills, the teaching of which was once shared between parents, the extended family and the community. But children are now boxed up in houses and nuclear families and therefore not getting the opportunity to develop these skills."

Many middle-class parents believe the emphasis on building self-esteem in children by treating them as nascent members of a democratic society, little individuals in pursuit of self-fulfilment, has gone too far. No one denies that children must be protected from abuse. But parents who were themselves reared on respect for parental authority find it grates to have to negotiate points of discipline rather than enforcing them with a smack or a short spell in the bedroom.

The more reactionary parent would welcome a recent article by Eileen Jones, a mother of four. In Smacks of Sense, published by Portsmouth Area Family Concern, she advocated a return to physical punishment. She said there is a "big misunderstanding that if we give love in abundance a child does not need guidance and discipline ... This politically correct campaign has had a negative effect on parents' confidence in setting boundaries."

More and more middle-class parents are attracted to private school education, not just because of the quality of the teaching but the sense of discipline as well. The motto of Hill House, "A child's mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled", together with its keen emphasis on old- fashioned manners and discipline, are what persuaded Ruth Frett to enrol her two sons, Joshua, 4, and Luke, 3. This is the private junior school that is famous for the crocodiles of boys clad in brown corduroy plus- fours who process every hour, on the hour, down Chelsea's streets. "There are 12 children in a class and they get lots of individual attention and praise," says Mrs Frett. "It is an ordered setting and the boys love it."

For most modern parents that is not an option, either because they cannot afford it or because they would disapprove of Hill House's values. Most parents are desperately attempting to chart a middle way. They want to encourage self-reliance and self-development, while avoiding over-indulgence and selfishness.

For Gael Lindenfield it is a question of survival. "The worst thing you can do is protect children from a realistic view of themselves and their capabilities," she says. "They will find out the hard way when they are unprotected. They are being set up for failure."