All children should be taught good parenting in school, the Church of England's Children's Society said in the most far-reaching inquiry into childhood in the UK.
Today's youngsters are under more stress than any previous generation, because of family breakdown, increasing commercial pressures and exam stress, leaving them "anxious and troubled", says the report, by the former Downing Street adviser Richard Layard and Judith Dunn, a developmental psychologist.
One in three children live apart from their fathers by the time they reach the age of 16. Even by the age of three, children in single-parent homes are more likely to show signs of poor behaviour, they found.
The report, A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age, suggests ways to improve the quality of parenthood. These include lessons in personal and social education at school to cover the skills of parenting, relationships and child development.
And good parenting should be taught even before a baby is conceived. "Before the child is born, the parents should be fully informed of what is involved in bringing up a child, not only the physical demands and sacrifices but the emotional demands and the stresses as well as the joys it will bring to their own relationships," the researchers say.
They also call for both parents to have the right to take three years' maternity leave, with their jobs being held open for that period even if the leave is unpaid. The report says the days of deference to parents, teachers and elders are gone. "For some parents, this is a problem but the answer is not permissive parenting where anything goes," the authors say. "Children need unconditional love but they also need clear boundaries, based on reasoned explanation."
More than 35,000 people contributed to the inquiry, with the lives of thousands of children being studied.