Childcare bibles and my bonfire of the sanities

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I HAVE been worried for some time about Penelope Leach. The most important childcare guru of our time (it's no great accolade: childcare gurus have always been barmy) - who is revealingly interviewed by Blake Morrison in today's Sunday Review - once told a reporter from the Daily Telegraph that I was obviously a sad woman who didn't enjoy having children, which (the woman bit apart) could not be less true.

I suspect that Leach formed this eccentric idea because I once wrote about throwing her books on the bonfire, finally exasperated by her insistence that babies only cry for a reason, and the reason must be me. 'A baby wants only what he needs,' Leach had declared. 'If he gets it, he is content. If he is content he demands no more until he needs more.' Penelope Leach clearly gave birth to robots. It's the only possible explanation for her odd Baby Knows Best philosophy. When I tried to let my baby Know Best she just got confused. She didn't mysteriously divine that people had mealtimes, or bedtimes, or that adults sometimes just need to be adult.

So I was not encouraged to see that Leach's book, which comes out this week, is called Children First. Happily, though, Leach has lately turned her attention from mothers to the world at large, and is now trying to make everyone feel guilty. Imperfect parenting, she has finally acknowledged, isn't so much the fault of mothers who let their children cry, as of a system that doesn't take parenting seriously. She is still desperately bossy, but I think there's some hope.

I AM thinking of getting up a campaign to ban the Sun, a newspaper read widely by persistent young offenders. We are told that it's actually violent videos that are to blame for delinquency, but how do they know? Few young offenders, even persistent ones, are actually violent. And what are all these video nasties that children are supposed to be watching before they rush out to commit crimes? The only one that is ever mentioned is Child's Play 3, a film the anti-video brigade likes to link to murders, despite the comment of the judge in the Bulger trial that you might as well link the crime to The Railway Children. The Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry did report that 45 per cent of children aged seven and over had seen a video nasty. But then Aston University carried out a similar piece of research and found that 68 per cent of children claimed to have seen films that don't actually exist.

I suspect Video Panic is another consequence of the widespread and perplexing assumption that children would be better off doing almost anything than watching television. You might think we'd know better by now. Plato wanted poets banned from the Republic, on the grounds that they showed people, and even gods, behaving badly. There was a fuss about romance and adventure novels at the end of the 19th century, and another about motion pictures at the start of the 20th. The truth, as the Policy Studies Institute pointed out last week, is that there's little difference between the viewing habits of persistent offenders and schoolchildren who've never been in trouble: they all like Home and Away.

The offenders do, however, tend to read the tabloids, especially the Sun, which may well undermine the panickers' implicit assumption that the values of a civilised society can only really be embodied in the written word. Panickers also seem to think that sitting a child down to watch a video is rather like dipping a sponge in ink. But even if all the action and adventure material watched by children were violent (it isn't), it would still only represent 11 per cent of their viewing. They would still see it in the context of a great deal of highly moral programming. The Policy Studies Institute did identify one huge difference between the offenders and others: the degree of their deprivation. But banning that isn't so easy.

A FEW years ago I watched a documentary about Eton and was unable to summon any response beyond a kind of awed envy. So, failing a revolution, it seems entirely sensible to me that children from Brent should be able to become Etonians in the school holidays. The invitation to Brent is, in any case, in a long tradition: my uncles remember in the 1930s travelling from the East End to play football and cricket against Eton, and camp at Cuckoo's Weir, where Etonians swim. They were members of the Eton Manor boys' club, founded by Old Etonians and run by them rather along the lines of the school, with boys joining one of the four houses at 14; they also remember bright young things coming down to play sport with them on Hackney marshes. Memories of Eton Manor are still cherished by people from Hackney Wick, if not at the school: the archivist and I talked at cross purposes for some minutes last week, when she thought I meant 'manor as in serfs and villeins'. In fact it did all become a bit feudal after the war, when it was run almost as a personal fiefdom by Arthur Villiers, second son of the Earl of Jersey and chairman of Barings, who lived in the East End with his butler and servants until his death, and occasionally doled out houses and businesses to people to whom he took a fancy. Rather like Eton, the Manor had a weird game: this one was based on netball, and involved stripping off, possibly to shorts, possibly altogether. (One of my uncles, who drove Mr Villiers, absolutely insists there was never any sexual impropriety.) My father refused to join because he thought it was all a bit patronising. But many people from Hackney Wick still feel passionately grateful to Eton and Etonians.

PERHAPS traditional girly sports such as netball and hockey just aren't televisual, I used to think. But now women are playing boys' games in large numbers and they're still not on television. I'd like to see the Arsenal women's football team, which includes six England internationals, plus one Welsh and one Irish. And why haven't we seen any of the women's rugby world cup? Some of the games must have been . . . well, novel: England beat Russia 66-0, and America beat Sweden 111-0.