The common sense that parents must rely on

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The Independent Online
The parents of Matthew Eappen made an assumption which so many parents routinely make: that an 18-year-old young woman would naturally possess the skills to cope with looking after their nine-month-old baby.

Had the au pair from England been male they might have asked more questions. But political correctness has not yet seriously affected the messages Western culture predisposes parents to give to their daughters to prepare them for a role as carers. So the supposition goes unchallenged that a young woman of child-bearing age is unquestionably a fit person.

Perhaps Louise Woodward is. Only a court can now decide on that. But the supposition made by Mr and Mrs Eappen is worth examining.

When it comes to a nanny it is possible to ask for professional qualifications. With an after-school childminder the law sets rigorous standards. But for the au pair or the babysitter only the common sense of the parents stands between them and disaster.

Once, that seemed enough. When a typical family contained three or four children, its members picked up much about childcare by osmosis. Today, the family has downsized - 1.8 children is now the average. The days when elder daughters looked after their younger siblings have largely gone. So have the support systems provided by extended families. Today there is far more available in the way of expert advice - in handbooks and magazines - but it is a poor substitute to close-up examples of parenting.

The state has made some attempt to compensate. Parenting skills are today part of the "personal, social and health education" component of the national curriculum. But most educational and child psychologists think the attention given to them is perfunctory.

The case against unnecessary intervention and regulation by the state no longer needs to be made. But the changing nature of the modern family suggests that concern by the state is not unnecessary.

Much research shows that, contrary to the prejudices of many adults, today's adolescents are more rather than less responsible than were previous generations. But it also shows that they feel they need more assistance at school on relationships and parenting, ethics and morals, health and drug risks.

It has always seemed ironic that the rigorous process of scrutiny applied to couples wanting to adopt a child has no natural correlative. Being a parent is perhaps the most profound activity which most school-leavers will ever undertake. It is also the one for which school leaves them least prepared.

Were that not so, young women like Louise Woodward would know that psychologists say most parents feel, if not murderous intent, at least powerfully negative feelings towards a ceaselessly screaming infant. They would also have learned something of the strategies and support systems to help them cope with it.

What to check when hiring a nanny

Five tips from Dr Charlie Lewis, an expert in parenting at Lancaster University's

Psychology Department

Get as many character references as you can.

Get the candidates to play with the child and watch the interaction. Do they

really like children?

Find out what they want from the job. Is it incompatible with your needs?

Insist on a trial period.

Don't expect that you sign off when you are not present. Discuss support systems they have in your absence.