Leading Article: Nannying and coercion

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The Independent Online
THE NANNY state would have reached its apotheosis if parents were press-ganged into classes on nurturing their offspring. Visions are conjured up of mums and dads being lectured on the dangers of Enid Blyton and warned against overdoses of Nintendo. The idea that the hand of officialdom could so obtrusively and compulsorily rock the cradle is offensive.

Yesterday's report from the Royal Society of Arts - recommending withdrawal of child benefit from those not attending 'parenting' classes - smacks of such folly. What qualification does the state have to impose its views? The RSA's demand that nursery education should be compulsory from three to six - far too long for most children - falls into the same category of arrogance. After all, the state itself has had a lamentable record in child-rearing, notably in its children's homes.

That said, there is some good sense in the RSA report. Many first-time parents will recall moments of panic when their insomniac, inconsolable babies would not stop crying, could not eat, or preferred vomiting to digestion. Who might not have benefited from some expert advice on such matters?

The demand for knowledge is clear. No middle-class family home is complete without a bossy tome on child-rearing. Television programmes such as Nanny Knows Best and Bringing Up Baby are hits. This thirst for advice reflects a lack of parental confidence. Many new mothers and fathers come from small families and have had little first-hand experience of young children. The extended family is often far-flung and can offer only occasional support. Yet a child's first years are accepted as being the most formative. Parents are desperate not to make mistakes.

One approach would be for schools to spend more time preparing pupils - especially boys - for parenthood, while warning them that the experience will always be shock, whatever the preparation. A further option would be to build on the success of Britain's antenatal programme, which can claim considerable credit for the continuing fall in infant mortality.

Parents often complain that having been led through until their child's birth, they are abandoned within weeks to cope in isolation. That need not happen. Meetings of new parents who gather to exchange ideas about their new tasks, helped by an expert, are proving increasingly popular. Free of the coercive elements proposed by the RSA, such schemes are participatory rather than didactic. They offer the best way of ensuring that parents are supported without being nannied.