Amanda Platell: The Christ child complex

Because we want so much, we work too hard. Because we work too hard, we spoil our children and let strangers look after them. We have only ourselves to blame when it goes wrong

The secret BBC film last week revealing that even some of the best nurseries in the country are cruel to our kids sent a shiver down the collective spine. This was partly a simple human reaction to children being hurt, emotionally and physically, and partly because it played into the curse of the modern parent - guilt.

However dedicated, however loving, however thorough, part of being a parent now is to feel guilty. We worry about working or not working, about how much we work and how much it affects our children. But the one thing we didn't think we had to worry about was the care our kids would receive inside Ofsted-approved nurseries. For the hundreds of thousands of parents for whom nurseries are the only option, where there is no kindly granny to help look after their children while they are at work, this film was a living nightmare.

I have a friend, a young working mother, whose first reaction on seeing it was: "That's it, I'm taking Luke out of the nursery and giving up work."

It's an understandable reaction, but is it a realistic one? My friend and her partner have started to do their sums and, by moving house, giving up her Harvey Nichols card and generally cutting the consumerism, they think they can manage without her salary. But while that may be an option for my friend, it is not for many women who are either single mothers or in low-income families. Nor for the many women who, although the juggling act is a difficult one, genuinely enjoy their work, feel fulfilled by it and don't want to give it up.

But her reaction does raise some interesting questions, the questions we as a society are increasingly asking, especially as the divorce rate and the number of problem kids increase apace. Do we really need as much money as we earn? Do all those luxuries improve the quality of our lives? Are our kids paying too high a price for us working so much?

And before I'm howled down as unfit to even raise the issues, not having children of my own, let's address that issue first. We live in a world where only black or Asian people can talk about race, where only women can discuss sexual discrimination and only mothers tackle the issue of work and kids. We are all caretakers of our society - childless, male, female, black, white or Australian.

The author Tony Parsons recently said it was time we accepted the fact, however much we hated to admit it, that our selfish, consumerist society was wrecking families and hurting our kids. Only a man whose wife deserted him and their young son could utter such heresy, but he's right.

Putting aside the school fees, why are we working so hard, and for what? Do we need two holidays abroad every year to be fulfilled? Do our kids need the latest Nike trainers and Gameboys to grow up well-adjusted? There is no doubt that parental guilt can have a detrimental effect on the way we raise our children. Completely understandably - I know I'd do it myself - exhausted mums give their kids treats to buy them off or to buy a bit of peace. Yet we have produced an alarming number of children, especially in the middle class, who believe they have a right to be the centre of attention at all times. They are seen and heard at every opportunity, no manners, no boundaries, no respect.

I sat near one such family only yesterday in a café in Hampstead. Four adults danced attention on this spoilt, wilful child. He is what another of my friends, a dad of four, calls the new breed of kids, the Christ childs, because their parents treat them like the second coming. Only the promise of a new iPod stopped this particular child from throwing another tantrum and hurling ketchup-covered chips at fellow diners.

The truth is so undeniable we even have political consensus on it - both Tony Blair and Michael Howard agree that we live in a world where many parents have indulged their kids to the point of spoiling them. It is partly a consequence of working long hours, the longest in Europe, the simple function of not being there enough. How can you expect a 19-year-old girl in a nursery or a Polish nanny to teach your child respect?

A new book, How To Be Idle, by Tom Hodgkinson examines these issues. Despite the flip title, its premise is that we work too hard, our family lives suffer, yet we are incapable of stopping. We say we need the second income, but do we? And might it not be better if both parents worked part-time?

The one thing that defines our parents from us is the absence of guilt. They grew up with so little during the war years, just owning a second-hand car made them feel like millionaires. Money was always tight and they were often tired but they did not feel guilty. Because they knew that they were doing the best they could with the hand God dealt them. They had few options. The absence of choice meant the absence of guilt. Yet they taught us boundaries and respect and manners. There were no little Christ childs in our generation, so why have we produced so many? Because we feel guilty.

Yet the biggest problem stopping mothers and fathers from working part-time is society itself. There is the lack of respect we show fathers who take time off to care for their kids. It is no surprise that only one in five has taken paid paternity leave since the government introduced it last year. It's no good changing the rules if our attitudes won't change, too.

Second, the rigid work structures and endemic attitudes still existing in most companies prevent women, and men for that matter, from working part-time in top jobs. Two employment tribunals last week illustrated the point. Diane Winship, 35, a city accountant on £70,000 a year, claimed her employers, Goldenberg Hehmeyer, were delighted when she told them she was pregnant and that she could return part-time to her job after maternity leave. She claims they later reneged on the deal.

Mary Siergiejew, 36, a recruitment specialist, claimed she was forced out of her job for being pregnant. Both cases continue, but what they do tell us is what we already know: that we have not legislated for women, especially women in good jobs, returning to work after having a child. It's a case of career Russian roulette for most returning mums.

We still seem to punish working women for having kids. The problem is so acute that even the Vatican is attempting to address it, producing a paper about the role of women in society and mothers in the workplace. It calls for greater recognition of motherhood and for governments to make it easier for women to hold jobs without relinquishing their family life.

The only way to do that is to make more jobs at every level part-time and shared. But it also means a complete re-education for all of us: not to resent the mum who takes maternity leave then comes back part-time.

Any maybe, just maybe, if we had more mothers happily back in good jobs part-time and more fathers doing the same, then we might take a hard look at how much we're earning and whether we really need as much - or whether we're just being rather selfish. And we all know that selfish parents produce spoilt kids, however many pairs of Nike trainers they own.

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