To smack or not to smack. Children have become the new parents, a powerful interest group supported by numerous well-paid advisers. Rachel Cusk on motherhood - the land that feminism forgot

Paranoid Parenting

Frank Furedi <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 214pp, £9.99 </em>

ISBN 07139

I was reading Paranoid Parenting in a train station cafe. The woman at the next table was ringing each of her four children on their mobile phones in Weston-super-Mare, trying to persuade one of them to put the dinner on. Three were watching television and wouldn't budge; she manoeuvred the fourth into the kitchen and impressively talked him through cooking sausages while rolling her eyes to the ceiling.

"Does it help?" she asked, hanging up. She was referring to Paranoid Parenting. I gave her a brief summary of Frank Furedi's thesis, which is that the modern culture of paranoia about physical and emotional risks to children, and about how we should be parenting them, is making it impossible for parents to do their job. "That's right," said the woman. She told me that, when she was a child, she and her brother used to go off until ten o'clock at night, without their parents knowing where they were.

I told her that Furedi claimed there was no more risk to children now than there was then. "Yes," she sighed, "I know. But you worry, don't you?"

At my stepdaughter's primary school, the NSPCC has put up posters. They are stuck to the wall at the head height of the average five-year-old: they concern adults, but they are not intended for our eyes. Don't ever talk to strangers, they say; don't ever accept sweets or toys or anything else from strangers; say "no" very loudly if any adult, even an adult you know, ever tries to touch you in a private place, or in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable.

Reading the poster, I began to feel uncomfortable. I became convinced that it wasn't put there for the children at all. Most of them can't read, for a start. Its wording, its graphics and its positioning on the wall represent a kind of code, a subliminal message from the "authorities". The message is directed at me and my kind. We know what you're thinking, it says. And we're watching you.

Furedi believes that such posters demonise adults by suggesting that every adult is a potential child abuser. They disempower adults by destroying their solidarity and ability to help each other. Parents, as a ruling class, have been brought down. They are cringing creatures who walk the streets like prisoners on parole, eyes forward, hands tied behind their backs. It is now children, not adults, who have private places. It is children who occupy the throne, the centre: they hold the sceptre and orb of power in their small hands, amid the throng of their advisers.

Like all advisers, "child professionals" are a self-serving, untrustworthy lot. Their puritanism hints at the presence of dark thoughts: after all, they're the ones who can't stop talking about touching people in private places, not us. Their concern for the vulnerability of their weakling monarch is a mere mask for their lust for power. They people the world with dangers and then soak up university stipends, government jobs and publishing contracts to analyse them. They rub their hands together with glee when, as a result, we come to them for advice about how to be better parents. We are offered courses, counselling, lorry-loads of books. Occasionally, some heretic stands up and says that children are getting fat and wall-eyed with lack of activity, deranged with lack of freedom, suffocated with over-protectiveness. He is immediately offered a stipend, a publishing contract, and invited into the ranks of "child professionals".

The British have always made terrible parents. I imagine that, historically, our indifference as a society to the welfare of children in general has been second to none. We have produced generation after generation of fathers incapable of showing affection, of mothers so judgemental that they filled their children with a lifelong fear of disapproval. We have beaten, ignored and exploited children. We have poisoned them with our class- ridden ways. We have mucked up the world for them and made no effort to sort out either it or ourselves. We continue to tolerate an education system that accepts money to put some children at an advantage over others. We allow corporate greed to infiltrate and shape every corner of their lives. Paranoid? Moi?

Parenthood has certainly provoked a number of changes in my experience of the world, as I imagine it does for most people. Parenthood, like death, is an event for which it is nearly impossible to be prepared. It brings you into a new relationship with the fact of your own existence, a relationship in which one may be rendered helpless. I don't know why parents of the past smacked and suppressed their children, nor why parents of the present privilege them. I hesitate to say that we love our children more than our parents loved us. Even if this were true, it is not the kind of love that makes the world go round. That family you see out on a Saturday afternoon, with their cycle helmets and their fear of strangers and their 14 varieties of apple juice in special beakers, wouldn't stop to help you if you were bleeding to death in the road.

Kate Figes tells a good story on this subject in her book Life After Birth (Penguin). A friend of hers is offered a lift home from a lunch party by a couple with a three-year-old child. The friend gets into the back of the car, where the child is sitting in its car seat. They set off, and the child begins to complain: she is used to having the back seat of the car to herself; she doesn't want this person sitting there with her. She becomes upset; the parents stop the car and apologetically tell the friend to get out. They drive off, leaving the friend in the middle of nowhere.

To Furedi, incidents such as this characterise a culture of child worship, wherein adults have become second-class citizens, and this story alone would seem to prove his point. In the good old days, the child would have been smacked and probably told to get out of the car herself. In the modern version, the parents are doubtless embarrassed by their child's behaviour, but feel themselves powerless to do anything but obey her. What if the friend had been black, and the child's objections made on the basis of race? What would they have done then? The mind boggles.

Furedi's view is that, from the moment of their birth, we are indoctrinated in the belief of our children's vulnerability - not just to the big bad world, but also to us. We can damage them, not just by what we do to them, but also by what we don't do for them. From this assertion, the virus of "child management" is born. It is virtually impossible for a British parent to remain uninfected by at least a low-level version of this virus. You can catch it from doctors, midwives, health visitors, teachers, books, pamphlets, posters, other parents and every national newspaper on a daily basis.

Typically, it presents itself as aspects of life that have undergone a process of "scientific research" and emerged in the form of a "truth", often fused with a "statistic". Did you know, for example, that breastfed babies may be more intelligent than bottle-fed babies? Or that boys display on average 13 per cent more life satisfaction if their fathers spend 2.3 hours per week playing football with them? Those are the kinds of truth we are talking about.

To return to Furedi, his point is that to discipline your children under these circumstances is like trying to discipline a laboratory experiment. In fact, discipline itself has been suspended pending investigation. In Sweden, he says, where smacking has been made illegal, the number of reported instances of child-beating has actually gone up. Might this just be because, well, it has been made illegal? Furedi is in favour of smacking. He bristles at the story of the child who was awarded £10,000 compensation by the European Court of Human Rights for a caning he received from his stepfather. He claims that seven out of ten people in Britain are in favour of smacking - to me, that figure doesn't seem quite paranoid enough.

I must intervene here with my own view, which is that there are silly parents just as there are silly people. If they want to read books about the importance of sharing your bed with all four children and their pets, let them. If they want to believe that the world is full of murdering nannies and satanic child abusers, well, let them. You can't cure the world of stupidity, Frank. I have read many poignant accounts of mothers who parented in the Truby King era. They weep as they relate how, following the edict of this early (male) childcare guru, they sat outside the nursery listening to their baby cry with hunger because they were "allowed" to feed it only every four hours. You will get no pity from me, ladies. These same babies presumably grew up to become paranoid parents. Their children will doubtless have their own children up at dawn doing military manoeuvres and saluting over the breakfast table. As Philip Larkin said, they fuck you up, your mum and dad.

As for the NSPCC, why doesn't it produce posters inciting children to say no very loudly if someone tries to teach them in a class containing more than 25 children, or if an adult makes a racist remark? Why doesn't it tell them about what adults, even adults they know, are doing to the environment? Why doesn't it tell them about the world as it is, not as it might be?

Furedi would fall triumphantly on Rebecca Abrams's Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush, which is positively riddled with the wormwood of "child management". Its subject is the experience of having a second child, a matter currently close to my own heart. It is brimming with "evidence" that leads to incontrovertible but strangely unsatisfying conclusions: "While many women find motherhood pleasurable and rewarding, it is clear that many others find it extremely hard going"; "Studies in the UK of men whose partners are suffering from post-natal depression have found that 40 per cent of those men also showed symptoms of depression, while a startling 50 per cent of husbands whose wives were hospitalised with depression became clinically depressed themselves."

I disown those italics - I am not remotely startled. People are paid, in droves, to find out these things. Halfway through the book, I began to feel about them as I sometimes feel about people who make wildlife programmes in which animals tear each other apart. Don't just sit there. Do something!

Having your second child, in case you were wondering, is a lot harder than having your first, except for those people who find it easier. I'm afraid I don't have the latest figures to confirm this. Motherhood, as I think someone once said, is the land that feminism forgot. The statistics that I do find thrilling are those relating to the amount of housework and childcare that mothers in full-time employment do in comparison to their husbands. I like hearing about men sleeping in the spare room because they have to go to work the next day, whereas their wives are just staying at home, looking after the children.

I know it is unlikely that any sleep-deprived, at-home mothers of people under the age of three are reading this - but if you are, then try saying "important meeting" and "clients" out loud. Go on, it'll make you laugh.

Rachel Cusk is a novelist and critic