The Herald

The mother of all battles is raising your children


CHILDHOOD is over by 11. Nonsense. Children may be behaving like teenagers, but they are still children. If anything, they are slower to mature than their grandparen­ts; though they couldn’t be slower than their parents. Too many of them have never left their teens.

The writerJacq­ueline Wilson has kicked off the publicity campaign for her latest book by bemoaning that childhood is ending too soon. She cites her experience of preteens wearing heels and tight short skirts, and piercing their ears. Her observatio­ns are backed up by an ICM poll of parents. More than half thought childhood ended at 11 years of age. A similar number allow their 16-year-olds to stay out after 11pm and more than one-third allow them to sleep overwith a girlfriend or boyfriend.

Most tellingly, 71% said their children had little regard for parental authority. Surely if your children have no respect for you, it says far more about you than it does about them. We are talking about a relationsh­ip where parents have age, experience, a house, a car, the money that buys the food, clothes, holidays and gizmos on their side. The child has the ability to strop. So how come parents sound so helpless when they start out with all the advantages?

Every child looks to their parents as role models. Almost every child will offer their parents respect, until that respect is forfeited.

The trouble with the modern world is that parents forfeit it all too easily. We know that a high proportion of adults drink excessivel­y, live on credit, spend too much time at work and are inclined to be unfaithful. Replace the word adult with parent and you will see why I say too many have never grown out of their teens.

I’m not denying that bringing up children is tough. The media presents family life as some sort of idyll. On-screen families are handsome, bright and cute enough to eat. The real-life satisfacti­ons come at a price – and the price is time for yourself and the ability to do what you want, when you want. That obligatory selflessne­ss is especially hard for women who have had careers. They are accustomed to an environmen­t in which their successes are rewarded. In the domestic setting, there’s no merit rise when potty training is mastered and there are no mates to celebrate with. Young mothers are told that bringing up their baby is the most valuable job in the world. No-one addresses the fact that it is lonely, repetitive and singular in commanding no salary or gong.

However much they love their children, most want to work – and need to. So sooner, rather than later, both parents are back in the workplace and the children are cared for by childminde­rs and grandparen­ts, then attend afterschoo­l clubs. By the time they are between 11 and 16, their time-short parents are probably feeling an above-average level of guilt, which makes them lenient just when they need to be firm. Many also want to curry favour. Typically, they will have reached their 40s – and the early 40s are a peak time for divorce. That leaves a lot of preteen and early teenagers with a broken family. I’m sure it makes them appear to grow up faster. I’m equally sure it must retard their emotional maturity.

Forwhat do people in their early 40s do when they divorce? They start dating again. If daddy is giving a lot of attention to a woman with high heels, short skirts and pierced ears, what is daughter going to want? If mummy is nursing herway through the long evenings with the assistance of cabernet sauvignon, how much heed will her son pay to curfews or alcohol bans? If mum and dad have new partners staying over, who are they to say a 16-yearold cannot?

The bottom line is that children will do as their parents do, not as they say.

I had a pretty 11-year-old girl to stay recently. She has her ears pierced and a pair of shoes with a slight heel. I spent an afternoon with her in H&M, Topshop, Gap and Zara in search of the perfect fashion item. She twirled her way in and out of fitting rooms with the practised ease of a profession­al shopper and paraded her choices with the poise of a catwalk model. She even budgeted to match her savings. Then, back at home, she played two games of Othello and spent a happy hourwith a book. In other words, she is doing what healthy children have always done. She’s dipping her toe in the water of teenage-hood, then withdrawin­g to her comfort zone.

She is what the head of Dulwich College Prep School described as a “tweenager”, and she will be for some years yet. George Marsh complained publicly back in 2000 that this age group was being pressured into growing up too soon by the media, an exam system that put them under pressure at school and by working parents who wanted them to be independen­t as soon as possible.

A Sesame Research report divided the mothers it interviewe­d into “Sooners” and “Laters”. The Sooners wanted their children to embrace every new product and opportunit­y. The Laters, of whom there were slightly more, were keen to slow childhood.

I’m neither a Sooner nor a Later. I don’t think it matters too much when young people of either sex pierce their ears or colour their hair. I think what is important is that they feel emotionall­y secure and can, for as long as they want, take one step out of the home and three back into it. I think they challenge with their time-keeping and their dress code in order to test boundaries – and that their parents’ role is to hold those boundaries.

One of the best tips I ever received from my (much older and extremely tolerant) parents, was not to attempt to be my children’s friend. “They will make friends of their own,” my mother said. “Parents should be parents.”

What does that mean? It means you let yourself be a little duller than you might otherwise be. It means you don’t chase the hottest job in town – or the hottest man either – if it would damage family life. It means letting children know that you won’t let them drink and sleep around because you value them. It does, of course, mean getting it wrong and falling short most of the time, but relentless­ly trying again.

It means recognisin­g that children are just children, however sophistica­ted the veneer, and that those who become parents and want to be decent ones, have to accept that babies aren’t just a career break. colette.douglashom­

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