Parenting was never that easy, Dr Williams

The Archbishop of Canterbury can have only the vaguest idea what skills to teach children today

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There's a series on television at the moment called Blame the Parents. It gathers together a group of adults who are having trouble with their children, and mentors them via a child psychologist. Any post-modern suspicion that there is some subtle challenge in the title, with the programme somehow revealing the finger-pointing accusation of the title to be lazy, inaccurate stereotyping, is entirely misguided.

There's a series on television at the moment called Blame the Parents. It gathers together a group of adults who are having trouble with their children, and mentors them via a child psychologist. Any post-modern suspicion that there is some subtle challenge in the title, with the programme somehow revealing the finger-pointing accusation of the title to be lazy, inaccurate stereotyping, is entirely misguided.

Instead, the show features parents and children turning the air cobalt as they exchange the most colourful verbal abuse imaginable. No topic of conversation is taboo, no taunt or sneer too unfair or hurtful. Any idea of behavioural boundaries, for parent or for child, has been long since abandoned. Parents and children are rudderless, bobbing along in an unremitting gush of generalised anger and resentment, feckless, irresponsible, chaotic and desperate - desperate mainly to blame the nearest breathing entity that is not themselves for everything that's wrong in their lives.

Certainly, this is what teachers have been saying for some time now. Not only, they say, do certain disruptive elements in most of their classes seem to have been given no disciplinary input at home, so too when the parents are contacted, they are unwilling to support teachers in enforcing discipline. Instead, they see teachers as yet another outside force that is letting them down when it should be making life easier for them.

I doubt that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has taken in too many episodes of Blame the Parents. But yesterday, during a lecture at the University of London, he pointed his own finger in the same direction, suggesting adults were not mature enough themselves to take responsibility for their children. "Childhood is most positively valued and fostered when we resist infantilism. When adults stop being infants, children can be children," he declared.

The Archbishop did not stop there. He also criticised the "obsession" with economic activity, the limitations of the welfare-to-work ethos, the romanticisation of "victim status", the immorality of advertising to children in an attempt "to consumerise and sexualise childhood", the over-emphasis on testing at school, and general attitudes of "apathy and cynicism" to issues of public concern.

His points are fairly sound, if not startlingly original. The gist is that as a society we have become passive, stirring only to take part in the economic activity that gets us the cash to buy our leisure, and in the process abusing our children by spending little time with them. This, he claims, is no idle interpretation reached as a consequence of "pop psychology", but a neurologically measurable phenomenon, whereby the human brain's ability properly to look and listen is declining.

I think plenty of people would agree with some or all of the Archbishop's points. I, for one, am fed-up with companies commissioning advertising that pays no heed to the family audience that is seeing it. I find myself rather pleased that three years into formal education, my son can't read, when confronted with a huge poster, done out like an embroidered sampler, saying: "There's no place like home for a gangland killing." How, Living TV, am I supposed to explain this piece of urban sophistication to my little boys?

But I'm also uncomfortably aware that the Archbishop, like so many other critics of the modern world, is harking back to an era which never existed when he vaguely suggests that parents long ago had time to play with their children. I don't think they did. Dr Williams is on the right track, by singling out paid work as a contributory factor in less effective parenting. In fact, it's my belief that ever since the industrial revolution, the paternal role has been declining for this very reason. Now, finally, the maternal role is going the same way.

My grandmothers didn't spend a lot of time horsing about with their children, reading to them, dancing with them, taking them to museums, taking them abroad on holiday or drawing with them. They didn't have time because running a home then was hard work. They didn't just cook and clean in more labour-intensive ways than we do now. They also knitted, crocheted, made clothes, made curtains, made jams, rubbed the sheets clean on a wash board, gardened, blacked the fireplace, got the coal in, boiled the bathwater and so on.

The other week, my mother remembered how everyone in her rural Essex family (except her father) used to be enlisted to make rugs for the house. My dad, brought up 500 miles away in industrial Lanarkshire, laughed, saying that they did the same thing, again except for the man of the house.

Mum and kids would all gather round a large piece of hessian - a laundered coal-sack - and form a rug by weaving through strips of the family's old clothes. For the parlour, hardly ever used but kept beautifully, my mother added, her mum had ordered a proper rug kit with wool, by mail order from The Ready Rug Company, which had been made communally as well.

The point is that even in my own childhood, my time spent with my parents was very often spent "helping" them, although we of course relaxed together as well. The former was the stuff of everyday life though, and usually meant getting in the way while they instructed me in car-washing, gardening, dressmaking, baking and just about everything that they imagined I'd have to know when I was an adult myself. They were happy, productive times. And you learned not just the practical skills, but the importance of being able to act in unison with someone else, and the satisfaction to be won from creative self-reliance. With my own children, I'm afraid, I don't do much that's comparable.

Yet this sort of thing shouldn't be overly romanticised, although, neither should the ability to work outside the home for a mere four hours in Britain in order to earn enough money to buy a nice rug made by some family in Indonesia.

The salient fact is that in the very recent past there was a complex body of craft that children learned from their parents in order that they one day would make a home themselves and continue the process. In a consumer society, though, no one does these things for themselves. On the contrary, the more skills that can be hired rather than self-generated, the more magically the circle of economic activity can forever continue. Nowadays children need to be taught more intangible and less practical skills by their parents to survive. The trouble is that the culture has changed so quickly that parents have only the vaguest idea of what those skills may be and how they might be taught.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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