When did it become normal to assume you have a great deal of influence over how your child turns out? Which is not to suggest that parents can behave however the hell they want without any consequences.
Quite the opposite. It's a proven fact that in terms of educational achievement a child's background is a far better predictor than his or her abilities. But beyond the basics, can we really make or break them?
This week BBC2's documentary Meet Britain's Chinese Tiger Mums showed the extreme side of in-your-face parenting and asked whether there was "a price to pay". This insightful film focused on pupils from the Hsu Hsia Chinese School in north London where children – many the grandchildren of British-Asian immigrants – learn Mandarin on Sundays.
The quotes from the parents were priceless. "They can achieve. And they will. With hard work". "If you want to be the best, you have to pay a lot of effort". "But not everyone can be the best". squeaked the interviewer feebly. "We are Chinese so we have to be". "Western parents give their kids a lot of freedom," growled one predatory momma (who actually turned out to be a pussycat with a passion for Arsenal), "We have very heavy discipline. That's how we've been brought up."
This mother saw nothing wrong with "three hours' homework – still plenty of time to play". For a six-year-old. The timetable she had constructed for her son was a work of art. From dawn to dusk, no minute was idle. The film showed her own diaries from her childhood: she used to get up at 5.15am to learn English and was expected to do homework between 7pm and 10pm. I didn't want her life (or her son's). But I admired her. This was love. She was showing her son the love her parents showed her: by making sacrifices and teaching the value of hard work.
What was most striking was not how extreme these families were. It was how normal they were underneath. The parents just wanted the best for their children. And the children were pretending to go along with what their parents wanted. But they mostly also had a glint in their eye.
Perhaps the documentary had set out to highlight the superiority of a traditional Asian upbringing versus the inferiority of laissez-faire parenting. (Hand up here: I'm definitely more hedgehog than tiger.) Presumably the mothers who took part hoped it might prove their point. But something much more subversive shone through: no matter what the parents did, it appeared to have very little effect on the children, positive or negative. They just were who they were. (And they were all delightful children. Not because they were hot-housed, but because they were loved.)
It was a brilliant lesson in how powerless we are as parents: we can try to control and influence everything, but ultimately children will turn out however they are going to turn out. It also showed up the flaws in either lax or strict parenting. Both methods are focused on outcome. The Tiger parents hope their children will achieve great things. The Western parents hope their children will love them. But neither outcome is guaranteed.
Of course, what all this parenting debate is really about is anxiety. As one of the Chinese fathers said, sadly: "England is sort of going downhill. In terms of league tables. And everything else." But where should we focus that anxiety? The fact is, if you have the luxury of worry, you're probably not a bad parent. It's the neglected children of unworried or uninvolved parents we should really be worried about.
One thing is sorted, though. Judging by the documentary, in about 15 years' time we will have no shortage of fluent Mandarin-speaking, Ferrari-owning dentists. They all wanted dental practices because they saw that as prestigious and high-earning. Let's hope they let in some NHS patients.
Now we'll never know if Abbott had a valid point
It's not easy to have much sympathy for Diane Abbott. She fell into a trap for the unwary. Never try to debate ideology in 140 characters. But the real idiots are the ones who cry "racist!" without analysing what Abbott was trying to say in the first place. And now because of the way Twitter encourages knee-jerk reactions and blink-and-they're-on-to-the-next-person witch hunts, the chance for a real debate on race has been lost.
Abbott appeared to be making a significant point about where we're up to with racism in this country. She was defending the media's – some would argue lazy – use of commentary from "the black community" (whatever this is). Abbott seemed to be suggesting that it's counter-productive to criticise so-called "black leaders" because it just encourages divisions and conflict.
But that's just how I read the situation. She could have been saying something else entirely. We'll never know. Abbott hasn't been able to explain what she was trying to say because she's been too busy saying sorry for having used the words "white people". I suppose some people may be offended by this label, but speaking as a member of this ethnic grouping I'd just like to state for the record that I don't mind anyone calling me a white person. Because I am. Equally I don't mind them calling me a freckly, dough-assed pasty-face because (a) it's a fairly accurate description and (b) I'm in the majority so it's my job to suck it up.
It would be useful to have heard Diane Abbott say more on this. (On race, obviously. Not on my doughy ass. Although that has also been a source of social tension.) Because this is important. And this is a subject where she knows what she's talking about. Is there any point in suggesting that "the black community" exists? Or is it racist to think of things in those terms? If you're black are you automatically part of "the black community"? What if you don't want to be?
I don't know the answers to these questions and I suspect I never will. Because they can't be answered in 140 characters and without using expressions like – sharp intake of breath – "white people" and "black people". And where would we be if we had a conversation like that? In a world of sensible debate where we say what we mean, mean what we say and take the time needed to say it. How unimaginably awful.
Happy birthday, Nick. It's all downhill now
Many happy returns to Nick Clegg who turns 45 today. Unfortunately for him this age has just been revealed as the moment when deterioration of the brain sets in, according to a new scientific study of over 7,000 civil servants. It's also officially the point where memory loss begins. Spookily enough David Cameron also recently turned 45. This may be one instance, though, where total amnesia is helpful. I mean, whose idea was this Coalition business anyway? Don't look at me, Nick. I can't for the life of me remember how we got into this dreadful position in the first place. Happy birthday, though! It's your birthday, Nick, remember? Oh, never mind.