Please stop all these scare tactics

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The Independent Online

Her smile exudes competence. Her eyes are brimming with love. She leans over an infant who is lying on his back on what seems to be a changing-table. It's hard to be sure: The picture is soft-focus and fades away at the edges. But it's such a familiar image, we can do without the details. This is what a good mother looks like. This is what all babies deserve. And that is why it's such a shock to read the words underneath: "Later she wanted to hold a pillow over his face."

Her smile exudes competence. Her eyes are brimming with love. She leans over an infant who is lying on his back on what seems to be a changing-table. It's hard to be sure: The picture is soft-focus and fades away at the edges. But it's such a familiar image, we can do without the details. This is what a good mother looks like. This is what all babies deserve. And that is why it's such a shock to read the words underneath: "Later she wanted to hold a pillow over his face."

If you haven't seen this billboard in your neighbourhood yet, you will soon. It's part of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's controversial Full Stop campaign, which is now moving away from generic child abuse to focus on the protection of infants. Another billboard in the series features a happy mother holding her infant up in the air next to the words: "By bedtime she wanted to shake him like a ragdoll." A third features a doting father with a gurgling baby and the words: "That night he felt like slamming her against the cot." The message the NSPCC is trying to send to parents is that snapping under the strain of it all is normal, common and very, very dangerous.

The first time I saw one of these billboards, that's exactly what I did. I came to a full stop because I thought I was seeing things. I had just stepped off a late-night train. I was tired, cold and hurrying to join a taxi queue. The ad was still clear in my mind when I mentioned it to a friend the next morning, but when I passed it again that afternoon I saw that I'd misremembered it. I'd told my friends that the words were: "And later that night she killed her child."

So I have to hand it to the creative minds behind this ad campaign. They do a masterful job of getting through your defences. They press the right buttons to bring you up against your worst fears about yourself. The most chilling thing is that the words on the billboards are drawn from life. They are things that even Quakers say in passing when they are telling friends about a night with a colicky baby. "I'm telling you," they say: "There were moments when I felt like... and then I had to stop myself from... " If there is a reluctance to admit how widespread the problem is, it's because we have so much invested in the idea that most mothers and fathers are equal to the challenge. You could argue that this idea is reinforced by the string of stories we've had in the press in recent years about fathers who throw their babies against cots and mothers who shake their babies to death or try to smother themn the moment the nurse leaves the room, only to see their actions recorded on a secret video. Such stories would not be in the news if they were not exceptional. In causing public revulsion, they confirm what most of us believe a good parent should and should not do. But at the same time, the spectre of the "anti-parent" resides in all of us. As the old myths about mother- and fatherhood fade away, it casts an ever-longer shadow.

As it should, perhaps. Anyone with the care of a needy and defenceless infant has a terrible power. While there may be a limit to the amount of good I can do my child, there is no limit to the amount of harm. So it has to be good to remind people that loving a child is not as easy as it looks.But is this really the message that new parents are going to take away from the new campaign?

Let's leave aside for the moment the parents whose babies go on the at- risk register the day they're born. Most of the stories you read in the papers are about parents from this category; they are as much about drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, mental illness and poverty as they are about sleep-deprivation or constant crying. Let's imagine instead a more middle-of-the-road-type person - someone who does not stay up nights worrying how he's going to pay the mortgage if his short-term contract is not renewed, and who is careful not to have a sense-of-humour failure when he's standing penniless in the middle of the night in a city in Central America, staring at the cash machine that has just chewed up his NatWest debit card. But now it's 4am, and he's back in Britain, walking back and forth across his sitting-room with an infant who has been screaming blue murder without a let-up since the nine o'clock news.

He and the mother have been taking it in turns. So when he feels himself about to snap, he bursts into the bedroom and says to his wife: "How can you just lie there when your child is in such pain?" She does not take kindly to the implied accusation. They have an argument, while the baby continues to scream. By morning, both of them are ready to snap. But then, at almost exactly the same moment, they both remember the terrifying ad they saw on that billboard in the train station. They see themselves in it. They know they need help.

Yes, but where is it? Well, the best place to go first, I would say, is the new national parent helpline (Parentline: 0808 800 2222) but alas this number is not featured on the NSPCC billboards. Nor do we see generic instructions such as: "If you are worried about snapping, seek advice from your health visitor." In the absence of practical advice, the message takes on a rather punishing tone. It's: "You'd better pull yourself together and fast but don't expect us to tell you how."

To be fair, the NSPCC did not invent this attitude. It was there when my own mother and father paced up and down their tiny flat with me when I was a baby. On one terrible night, they tell me, I cried for 11 hours without pausing to catch my breath. When I stopped, there were so many sighs of relief in the neighbourhood that you would have thought there was a breeze. But never once in the night did they think to knock on one of those neighbours' doors. This was the Fifties, after all, and good parents stayed inside their nuclear boxes.

But as my grandparents and their grandparents could have told them, all parents and especially new parents can flounder without a large network of friends and relations. They need other people to be there for them topick up on early signals of distress, to take the baby off their hands while they pull themselves together, and to let the pressure off by admitting that yes, they had just as hard a time of it in the beginning, so not to worry. It's not the parent who is in greatest need of this sort of support; it's the baby, whose life depends on it.

To its credit, the NSPCC is aware of that basic fact. Next week, when it convenes a national conference on the protection of infants, it will be speaking to government policy-makers and parent educators as well as speaking to the already converted about the need for a carefully conceived, parent-friendly support network. Many of those present will, no doubt, have memories of sleepless nights when they were pushed to the limit. I hope they will remember that a diet of stark warnings was often terribly undermining, while what helped them far more was friendly, watchful reassurance. I hope that at least a few of them will then come to a full stop in front of their own scare tactics and see how short of the mark they fall.

ensbo@snow.csv.warwick.ac.uk

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