Wise woman with a child-sized gaze

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UNTIL recently I sat on a panel with Penelope Leach which previewed up- and-coming children's programmes for a television magazine, then picked the best ones for a guide. With her steely grey hair, headmistressy manner and exceedingly firm views, it was easy to see why she has an image problem. She radiates a mixture of high-minded conviction and coldness.

Like most of my generation, I marked the imminent arrival of my first child by buying a copy of Mother and Baby. And like most of my friends, I have been provoked at some point to throw it to one side as her child-centred teachings drove me to direct action.

But watching Dr Leach at close hand, making up her mind about the sad medley of imported cartoons, comedy and the rare kids' drama being served up too often by British broadcasters, I switched sides. This woman is a national treasure. Both her heart and considerable intellect are in the right place and in fine working order. And I for one can live with her quirkiness and overstatements.

Unlike some remote academic, Dr Leach understood precisely, during our programme viewings, what would appeal, say, to pre- school children; how things needed to be both bright and relatively slow in pace. She was shocked that British television (it was a time when the ITV franchises were being handed over) was offering such poor fare during the summer holidays. 'Not all children are going to be in a Cotswolds garden,' she snorted.

I thought of her the other day as I sat watching, with my four-year-old, a truly dismal edition of Playdays. Here was our publicly funded broadcaster running a pre-

recorded insert about harvesting vegetables from a school garden, in spring. I know only too well what Penelope would say - and she would be right. She has an uncanny ability to spot when children are being short-changed.

Which brings me back to her views on child-rearing. With about 11 years of experience behind me, I'm sure that her basic child-centred approach is correct, even though it can be hard on messy adults. Parents should exercise a thoughtful respect for babies and small children in their charge: they are people and sensitive personalities in their own right. Children most certainly need the chance to develop in security, at their own pace. And in the course of being a parent I have changed my views about the big issue of smacking, on which she was a pioneer: I used to, but now I don't.

But she's moved into deep new waters with her new book, Children First. This is an ambitious and passionate quasi-political tract aimed at changing society and the world of work, to make it both children-centred and parent- friendly. It is a wise book drawing on her constant theme that rearing children is a most difficult task for which most people are unprepared. But she now displays a refreshing, even mellow concern for mothers and fathers, for families in the round.

She makes small-scale idiosyncratic suggestions that are easy to sneer at: post-boxes with low slits so children can post letters, child-sized lavatories in public toilets, playrooms on trains (and why not?). But I happen to think she is right to be scathing about so many shibboleths of modern child-rearing: 'quality time' is an untruth, she writes, and so it is. She says that nurseries (the modern solution to the problem) are not the place for small babies, who need one-to-one caring. Society should be arranged so mothers are at home for the first six months of their life. She also puts her finger on a key social flaw: the way children are excluded from the work and structures that absorb so much adult time.

A deep humanism and compassion pulses through this book, for which Dr Leach deserves recognition: she knows that modern parents are obliged to 'live like trapeze artists' and that inadequate and bad parenting is wreaking huge damage on society. After I finished her book this week, I watched an item on News at Ten about the spread of telecommuting. This week MPs also debated improved maternity leave, forced on the Government by Europe. And on my desk is a BBC publication in which a recently promoted pregnant executive says she is not making the mistake of rushing back to work shortly after giving birth as she did with her first baby. I think Penelope Leach, to date, has made some of us better parents.

A year ago I started a weekly column. I chose the pen-name Margaret Maxwell. Journalists are supposed to brim with self-confidence. This one does not always. But from now on I shall be writing under my own name.