The GOS usually likes to write his own stuff rather than pinching other people's, but this article written by Dani Garavelli for The Scotsman was so well expressed and apposite that he couldn't resist.
The mummy and daddy state
by Dani Garavelli
I EXPECT many of you will have experienced that moment of shame before. There you are, trying to get on with your shopping, when a deceptively amiable-looking old lady leans over and says to your toddler in a sing-song voice: "I hope you're being careful, because it's very dangerous to stand up in mummy's trolley," while casting a reproachful glance in your direction.
My usual response to this kind of public ticking-off is to scoop said toddler out of the trolley while smiling through gritted teeth, only to pop him straight back in the moment the woman and her zimmer disappear into the next aisle. While muttering, "Mind your own business, you old bat," under my breath, I salve my conscience by remembering that, back in her day, children were allowed to roam free in back yards that closely resembled skips and drink condensed milk straight from the tin.
It's a bit more tricky, however, when it's the government that is taking on the role of interfering busybody. Hence the flurry of activity last week surrounding car safety. As complicated new laws on travelling with under-12s came into effect, there were children to be measured and weighed, booster seats to be bought and battles to be waged over why someone "who can tie their own shoelaces should be treated like a baby". There were sub-clauses to be examined and loopholes to be sought out and exploited. And, of course, there was much whingeing to be done: about how Stop and Search would now become Stop and Measure, and how this is just another excuse to make money out of beleaguered motorists.
Looked at from the perspective of a parent, it is a particularly asinine law. Anyone who has ever carried a lively six-year-old in a car knows that, with or without a booster seat, they spend most of the journey twisted round on their knees waving at people in other cars or trying to poke their siblings. The new measures make it more difficult to share school and club runs with other families - a move the government is supposed to promote to cut CO2 emissions. And there are so many get-outs. The rules do not apply on short, unexpected journeys (to the doctor or hospital, for example), in the back of a taxi or if you are carrying three children in a car where there's only space for two seats.
What makes them so offensive, however, is not their redundancy, but how they epitomise society's contempt for parents' abilities. No longer are mothers and fathers to be trusted to assess risk for their own children. Instead, every cough and splutter of their day is controlled by edicts and guidelines from the government, schools and other authorities, all of whom know better than you do how to look after your offspring.
It's high time for a backlash, and one is already brewing. The mothers who recently hit the headlines for passing fish suppers through the railings of their children's school in protest over the headteacher's decision to put a stop to the lunchtime exodus to the local chippy made themselves the butt of a national joke. To many they were throwbacks: opting to give their children fat-laden junk, when good, healthy, and apparently tasty fare was available cheaper in their school canteen.
But don't think I'm alone in having a sneaking sympathy for their direct action, counter-productive as it undoubtedly was. What these women were expressing was not their desire to breed morbidly obese children, but their need to regain control: to be consulted over matters that affect their children's daily lives; to have their voices heard, and their opinions respected.
So many decisions about how our sons and daughters are cared for are being foisted upon us from on high - either through legislation, guilt-tripping, or the drip, drip attrition of moralising articles in newspapers - that a degree of frustration is inevitable. And you can't help wondering where it will all end. If the government can introduce a law forbidding you to allow an eight-year-old to travel without a booster seat, then why not one that prevents you crossing the road anywhere but at a pedestrian crossing? Or one that insists you keep stabilisers on your children's bikes until they have passed a cycling proficiency test?
And if it is legitimate for the state to intrude to guarantee our children's safety, then why not their general well-being? Perhaps it could produce charts showing us what time children of different ages should go to bed, or what type of outer garment they should be wearing in different seasons.
The latest bÍte noire of the chattering classes are the so-called "helicopter parents" who destroy their children's confidence by constantly hovering over them. Well, what we've got now is a helicopter government, and it risks neutering our parenting skills in the same way.
Indeed, our faith in our own instincts has become so diminished that if age-to-bedtime or coat-to-season charts did exist, some people would seek them out and use them. If you think I'm exaggerating, ask yourself if you know anyone who has invested in a special thermometer which tells them whether or not the bath is the right temperature for their baby: they no longer trust themselves even to dip their elbows into water and make a decision.
Last week, there was a lot of hype around a programme called I Smack and I'm Proud, which featured families who use physical punishment as an integral part of their discipline. Now, I'm no advocate of smacking. Any time I have smacked, it has been because I have been at the end of my tether, and it has demeaned both me and my children. However, I do believe there are worse forms of discipline. Prolonged derogatory shouting (of which I have also been guilty) may well have a greater impact on self-esteem than one sharp slap and no grudges borne.
So did the documentary look at these issues in an intelligent and balanced fashion, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions? Of course not. Since the prevailing consensus amongst opinion-formers is that smacking is tantamount to child abuse, it presented the families it featured as either fundamentalist Christians or inadequates with a family history of violence, and ended with a couple who had seen the error of their ways on viewing footage of themselves in the programme. Mild smacking is not illegal, but it might as well be. Such is the heap of judgment against it that parents have little choice but to toe the line.
Like the fish-supper parents, I am not really asking for the right to sit my children in front of air bags that might damage their spinal cords, strike them every time they irritate me, or feed them on a diet of deep-fried Mars bars. I just want to be allowed to get on with the job of looking after them without constant intervention from outsiders.
The way I see it, unless the government is prepared to send its representatives to oversee my children's homework, or get them to bed of an evening, then it should butt out of my life. Instead of adopting the censorial attitude of the stereotypical mother-in-law, it should presume people are capable of making the daily life-and-death decisions parenthood requires until proven otherwise.
If ordinary couples cannot be trusted to do that - to make choices based on their knowledge of their sons' and daughters' own personalities, and to judge situations on their own merits - then perhaps they shouldn't be allowed to have children at all.
Although, come to think it, that might be the next thing.
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