Deborah Orr: Don't blame the parents, they're confused

Television shows like 'Supernanny' have come to dominate as once did Delia Smith or 'Ground Force'  

Its not often that you find a really strong consensus over any issue these days (except in France, of course). But there is almost universal agreement that the perceived plunge in children's discipline is down to parents. The General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, says children come to school unable to use a knife and fork or wipe their own bottoms. He also recently remarked that the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's plan to put "parent power" at the heart of state education was tantamount to "putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar".

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, believes parents no longer spend enough time playing with their children. Peter Mills, a chief inspector of police, reckons that parents don't keep track of where their children are carefully enough, especially at night. Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry - on the contrary - believes they are mollycoddled too much, and exposed too little to risk or responsibility.

Jamie Oliver, and a host of nutritionists, believe the problem is the food that children eat now, and suggest that fresh ingredients and lean protein, would refashion the nation at a stroke. Yet other advocates of environmental explanations point to mercury in the food chain, to overloaded immune systems, to pesticides, pollution and toxic chemicals, suggesting that such disorders as autism or hyperactivity, as well as asthma and allergies, are caused by our habit of producing intensively and disposing thoughtlessly.

Yet others, of course, point to the corrupting power of the media, with its efforts to market to children rubbish it could never sell to adults, its competitive yearning to be as sensational as possible, even in the early evening, and its desire to wrap the whole world in a massive great poster depicting very beautiful people having very satisfactory sex. The latest of these, by the way, is not some torch carrier for Mary Whitehouse, but the Brook Advisory Clinic. Everyone, it seems, draws the line at Celebrity Love Island.

Yet, reality television is not just a tool for messing up children. It is also increasingly promoted as a tool for educating parents. Television programmes called Supernanny, Bad Behaviour, Blame The Parents, Brat Camp, Little Angels and The House of Tiny Terrors, have come to dominate the schedules as once did the spawn of Delia Smith, Changing Rooms and Ground Force.

It may be instructive in itself that the children were not attended to until every sea bass was drizzled, every sheet of MDF had been satin-wooded and every clump of black bamboo watered-in. But now that the home environment has been so exhaustively buffed, the children inhabiting it have finally come, it seems, to appear a little on the non-aspirational side.

Except that what all these shows depict, of course, is just what all our moral guardians have been pointing out for so long. It is parenting, rather than childhood that appears to be in crisis. From supernanny Jo Frost - now big in the US and a multimillionaire - to matriarch of the tiny terrors, Tanya Byron, all of the television experts, in the nicest possible way, concentrate on changing the bad behaviour of the adults, in order to change the bad behaviour of the children.

On one show, itself called Bad Behaviour, Warwick Dyer never even sees the children whose challenging habits he seeks to curb. Instead, he has one face-to-face meeting with the parents, then follows up with nightly phone calls.

Yet what all of these shows have in common is that their methods are simplicity itself. The children need rules, routines and boundaries. They need consistency and calm. They need sanctions and rewards. They need, in short, all of the things you'd imagine that any fool knows children need. Yet the astounding results that occur when these principles are applied suggests that even people who are very far indeed from being fools do not, in fact, understand this at all.

The audience for these shows is partly made up of voyeurs, of course, especially when it comes to the really sensationalist shows such as Blame The Parents. It's a relief, when you're worried about your children, to see little tots on television behaving in ways that you cannot imagine your own even dreaming of. But it isn't just that. People are looking for pointers too. There are any number of books available on bringing up children. Up and down the country, meanwhile, it is reported that demand for parenting classes far outweighs availability. Not for the first time, it appears, the more information there is about a subject, and the more expert the advice that is available, the more confused people are about how to apply it.

Traditionalists are fond of citing the "child-centred Seventies" as the point at which parental authority began to falter. Certainly, there's some truth in that. Yet even those same traditionalists are not so nostalgic when they are reminded of some of the extremely adult-centred policies - such as "Spare the rod and spoil the child" - that existed before the liberals came along with their cuddles and their I-love-yous and their Don't-say-he's-a-naughty-boy-say-he-did-a-naughty-thing.

In fact, the child-centred Seventies achieved a great deal that few would wish to sweep away. There may still be controversy around criminalising parents for hitting children. But the disgust most people feel when they see a weeping toddler being dragged or smacked in the street is pretty universal. And while the debate about fatherhood continues to be locked at cross purposes, few people hope to return to the days when the ideal father was a stern and distant disciplinarian, and little boys were taught that it was wrong to display empathy or sensitivity.

But there has certainly been a great deal of confusion around "liberal" parenting. Too often it has been interpreted as boundary-free, non-interventionist parenting, when this was only ever a theory bandied around at the wilder shores of the movement. Yet this idea has flourished, with the sweetest parents allowing their children to watch the most unsuitable films on video, or preferring to pretend they don't believe in bedtimes rather than admitting that they'd rather be watching EastEnders.

The trouble with liberal parenting is not that its wrong, per se. The trouble is that it veers away from rules and offers only guidelines. Just like children, parents are confused for the same simple reasons that the child experts on telly are happy to point out to them. Parents as well as children need rules, routines and boundaries. They need consistency and calm. They need rewards and sanctions. They may, in the absence of a supernanny, have to provide them too. But the only alternative to that is that the nappy state does. And this, if we are not to become an infantilised nation, is to be devoutly avoided.