E Jane Dickson: 'Children respond best to short, sharp commands. Engage in dialogue and the game's up'

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The Independent Online

"And what," Clara demands to know, "is this?" She is holding a paperback book, at arm's length, between finger and thumb, but would clearly prefer to use tongs.

"And what," Clara demands to know, "is this?" She is holding a paperback book, at arm's length, between finger and thumb, but would clearly prefer to use tongs.

"It's mine," I snap, guiltily. "Give it back this minute."

Clara drops the book at my feet and we contemplate the baldly incriminating title: 123 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children. "And how long have you had it?" asks my outraged daughter, sounding more and more like Margot from The Good Life quizzing poor Jerry on a stash of pornography.

There's no point lying about it. The book arrived, by mail order, some time ago, but I haven't got round to doing anything with it yet. It was warmly recommended by my friend Deirdre, a mother of four who says it transformed her family life, and certainly her children are charming advertisements for its efficacy. I'm not sure I would buy a used car from the man pictured on the dust jacket but the blurb reassures me that Thomas W Phelan is "a registered PhD clinical psychologist" from Illinois. I'm faintly worried by that overemphatic "registered" but who am I to pick nits with the man who is going to put me Back in Charge of My Home?

Dr Phelan's Three Strikes and You're Out system operates on the basis that children, like puppies, respond best to short, sharp commands. Engage in dialogue, he warns, and the game's up. He may well be right, but I can't see his discipline-by-numbers working in this house, where Clara and Con are chipping in their tuppenceworth before I've even read the bloody book. Alerted to the new childcare programme on the premises, Conor is phlegmatic. "She'll just be reading it for work," he assures his sister. "She won't actually do it."

He's probably right. Much as I drool over recipes I will never cook, I consume child-rearing theories by the dozen, but I have yet to find the magic bullet. It's the same with the Supernanny series on Channel 4 at the moment. I watch with a mixture of awe and irritation as devils' spawn tots are miraculously readjusted by a firm but fair professional (personally I think it's Supernanny's S&M gloves that do the trick - they sure scare the pants off me), but I'm not sure that watching makes me a better parent.

The point is that everyone is an expert on other people's children. Just as kids invariably behave better for other people's parents, adults are full of insight and patience and common sense when it comes to children not their own, whether it's the kids across the road or hand-picked television stooges. When it's your own flesh and blood, the whole human muddle of love/rage/ humour/guilt overwhelms any system you care to implement.

Dr Phelan's theory, like just about every other childcare theory, boils down to the incontrovertible fact that consistency is the key to good parenting. I think I knew that already. But hell, who can be consistent all the time?

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