The last thing I would want you to think is that I was anti-child in any way, which would be virtually the same thing as saying I was anti- life. And this isn't just circumspection - a man steering carefully round a sacred cow that has gone to sleep in the road. Whatever my wife thinks on an average Saturday morning, I'm really not anti-child at all. I can see that the point of them goes far beyond the replacement of society's worn-out parts. But there remains a paradox. If bringing up children is a way of saying yes to life then why is it that one spends virtually every waking hour saying no to them?
I was struck by this question after a day of unusually concentrated prohibition, the standard trilogy of the adult-child relationship - No You Can't, Don't and Stop That Right Now - having been deployed in every conceivable circumstance and every tonal range - from the exhausted to the enraged. And such days are unusually draining on parental energy - because the general denial seeps into the very fabric of life. It's like driving with the handbrake on - a sense that forward motion is achieved only at the expense of some grinding friction deep within the machine - a puzzled awareness that things should be rolling more smoothly than they actually are. I started to check on my own negatives ... This is just a short selection of recent denials and interdicts uttered in my own house:
Don't stick your head in the washing machine.
Stop blowing your nose on my trousers.
No we can't go to Africa for lunch.
Don't bite the toothbrush while I'm trying to clean your teeth.
Stop rubbing lemonade on your hair.
Don't wipe your hands on your mother.
No we can't have a baby killer whale as a pet.
No you can't go to school dressed as a Wookie.
Don't try to drink your juice with a fork.
Stop sitting on my head.
No you can't put your pajamas on inside out.
Please don't shout.
No, we can't have a police car when this one gets broken.
Don't poke your finger in your brother's ear while he's having his hair brushed.
No, you can't poke a finger in his ear now.
Don't post the house keys through the letterbox.
NO!! Mummy's hair dryer isn't a good way of warming the bath up.
Don't climb up my arms while I'm trying to button your coat.
No you can't watch Newsnight tonight.
For God's sake stop shouting!
No you can't sleep in the bath tonight.
Stop sitting on the dishwasher door.
No you can't wipe your brother's bottom.
Don't look at the pictures, look at the words.
STOP BLOODY SHOUTING!!!!!
I suppose the first thing that should be said about such an audit is that a certain amount of prohibition is inseparable from parental responsibility. It's hard to imagine that even the most liberal programme of empirical learning would allow a child to drop an electrical appliance into a bath to see what happened next.
It's also true that it would be inhuman to deny a parent's right to a certain amount of consoling obstinacy - after a long day in the trenches of parenthood, after a day in which perfectly reasonable requests have been repeatedly ignored, the odd arbitrary ban can be absurdly satisfying. But what's also clear is that the habit of saying no inexorably spreads beyond its useful bounds. It's like attempting to write a legible note on blotting paper - the line thickens and melds until it is almost impossible to make out just what the message was in the first place.
"You don't rule my life!" my six year old shouted the other day after a bedtime showdown over whether he would be allowed to go to sleep inside his duvet cover rather than under it. "Don't be silly", I thought, "of course I do".
But walking downstairs, the battle won, I did wonder why I had hit the brake pads so hard for such a gentle bend in the road. Why couldn't he sleep inside his duvet cover? No rational reason of safety or decorum or hygiene presented itself. A concession to this desire now was hardly likely to lead to delinquency and probation in ten years time. Even Jack Straw might think that the interleaving of person and bed linen was a matter that could be left to the individual conscience, however unformed it was. I had simply got into a habit of denial - a twitch of resistance which implicitly assumes that raising children is largely a negative experience.