Don't let's get too emotional: Today's mothers should be wary of criticising the Queen, says Christina Hardyment

Click to follow
The Independent Online
DAME Fortune is a fickle jade. In June 1953, Joan Williams wrote in Woman magazine next to a picture of the royal couple and their children: 'Here is family life at its best. And the woman at its centre is a wise and understanding person as well as our loved Queen.' Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Anne were the perfect nuclear family. Now Jonathan Dimbleby, in his new biography of the Prince of Wales, tells us that this model mother was an absent parent, emotionally distant and absorbed in her duties. As a baby, Charles saw her only from 9 to 9.30 in the morning, and from 4 to 5.30 in the afternoon. It was his nannies who 'witnessed his first steps, who punished and rewarded him, and who helped him put his first thoughts into words'.

Visiting the sins of the child on the mother is not a new idea. 'The future good or bad conduct of a child depends entirely on the mother,' said Napoleon. What has changed is the way mothers are supposed to behave. There is something deeply unfair in the present craze for visiting retrospective recriminations on the unfortunate parents of subjects eminent enough to warrant biographies.

'Emotional distance,' for example, is a modern invention. As a young mother, Princess Elizabeth was likely to be reading books that said 'the parents' task is to turn their children from unrestrained, greedy and cruel little savages into well-behaved, socially adapted, civilised beings' (Your Child Makes Sense, Edith Buxbaum, 1951).

The Intelligent Parents' Manual, published in 1953, would have alerted her to ways of dealing with 'a boy of seven who was over-cautious and more backward in physical accomplishment than his fiveyear-old sister', and whose sense of inferiority (the buzzword of the time, thanks to Alfred Adler's theories of its importance) 'was making him bad-tempered and sullen and unsociable'. The solution was more time doing active things with his father, 'his model of man and husband'.

On sending Charles to Cheam, she would have had in mind Charis Frankenburg's advice that 'when you visit him at school, remember that he will be acutely self-conscious, and if you value his confidence and respect, do not kiss him or put your arms round him unless he makes the first move' (Common Sense in The Nursery, 1954).

Novel child-centred theories lie behind Dimbleby's criticisms of Charles's nursery experiences. They derive from Spock's advice that a child needs unstinted love and fun rather than formal training, and Edward Bowlby's belief that 'the constant, loving presence' of a mother was essential to 'healthy emotional development'.

Surrogates like nannies became unfashionable; so did the idea that temperamental difference or sibling rivalry could explain as much about children as the way they were treated by their parents. It is no accident that this was also the first time in history that women had enough domestic equipment and few enough children to be able to devote all their attention to their babies.

But things are changing. These days most mothers work for at least part of the week, and childcare books are moving the goalposts of parenthood once again. Behaviourist habit-training is back. Permissiveness is a dirty word, and genetic influences on behaviour are gaining respectability.

'I believe the winds of change are starting to blow down the corridors of baby care,' writes Christopher Green, in his best-selling Toddler Taming, published last year. 'Ten years from now I am sure the teaching will be for much tougher limits. Smacking, used correctly, cannot be all that damaging to children. If it was, then our ancestors, right up to our parents' generation, must have been a pretty disturbed lot.' Quite so.

The present generation of mothers, if they are honest, will be wary of criticising the Queen. How many are giving their toddlers the two hours a day of undistracted attention that she gave to Charles? Who is going to be as good a 'surrogate mother' as faithful Nanny Anderson to the tots who are hustled off to childminders and nursery school every morning, or cared for by a bewildering range of au pairs? As we wring our withers over the sad demise of the extended family, can we offer our children a grandmother as sympathetic and devoted as the Queen Mother, or a great-uncle as fond as Lord Mountbatten?

If there is to be a measure of good mothering at all, it has to be not how children judge you, but how they themselves turn out. And has the Queen all that much to be ashamed of? Has there ever been a more cultured, thoughtful, concerned, and punctiliously responsible heir to the throne?

He has been criticised for wanting his side of the story to be heard.

Silence might have been more dignified, but the erasure of the boundary between public and private by the prurient and puritanical tribunal of the media is enough to make a saint lose perspective. It must be reminiscent of the cowardly weight of the bully boys of Gordonstoun's rugger squad, piling into him secure in the knowledge that he was too much of a gent to sneak on them. But the modern line on bullying is to tell your teacher what your problem is. Can we blame him for at last cracking, and doing just that?

(Photograph omitted)

Comments