Squeezed Middle: We all want to equip our kids for the future, but Mandarin at four years old?

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa.

‘‘I’ve just brought the twins here for an hour while my four-year-old has her Mandarin lesson.”

Huh? I stare blankly at Rosa, a mother I have just started chatting to at the soft-play session. She is young, smiley, nicely dressed. She isn’t wearing a twinset or pearls or any other obvious accoutrements of an awful, pushy parent. And yet . . . Mandarin? Four years old?

“Then this afternoon we’re just staying at home.”

“We are, too,” I say, relieved. “God, afternoons, eh? We never do anything. Other than sit around watching Fireman Sam!”

“Really?” Rosa looks alarmed. “We usually do home schooling but this is our day off. I believe kids need to learn to manage boredom.”

This is happening to me more and more often: I’ll start a perfectly normal conversation with a perfectly normal-looking fellow parent and after five minutes things will get all weird. The other day, the mother of one of Larry’s friends from nursery told me she had signed her son up for a private primary school in a distant, leafier suburb. I almost choked. I mean, get a grip! Does she think she is doing him a favour? Quite apart from anything, he’s going to have to wear one of those dorky little hats.

I don’t blame people for feeling edgy, though. In a way, it’s good to know I’m not the only one. We are all trying to equip our children for what lies ahead and we are all fumbling uselessly in the dark. Will they live in a totalitarian cyber-state? Become drone labourers for the Chinese? Experience a hideous environmental apocalypse? We can’t confidently rule anything out.

Rosa yawns and rubs her weary eyes. On the trampoline, one twin is jumping on the other twin’s head. Before having children, she was a doctor. She was trained to figure out what is wrong with people and give them pills to make it better. She is applying the same practical, problem-solving approach to her children’s prospects.

There is a tiny, nagging part of my brain that thinks I should be more like Rosa. Instead of brooding helplessly about the future, I should focus on finding solutions. No doubt Mandarin would come in handy, and I’m sure there are computer programming courses for toddlers out there . . .

It’s no good. I just can’t do things that way. I’m not organised or determined enough. Instead, I fall back on a fuzzy conviction that if Larry and Moe are generally loved and have fun they will find a way to be happy even in challenging circumstances. If they both have nice friends and, when the time comes, nice girl (or boy) friends, I will consider myself to have done well.

Of course, this lackadaisical attitude is probably partly to blame for my own tumble down the socio-economic ladder.

There are some advantages to the fuzzy approach, though. As she bundles her twins into their double buggy and rushes off to carry on managing her daughter’s boredom, Rosa sighs and says the saddest thing in the world: “If you knew what it was really like before you had kids, you’d never do it, would you?”

Allez Français - Mandarin is the new in thing. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.