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Not In Front Of The Children - Please

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Mr Cameron is in the doghouse again.

Predictably, the prime minster is taking flak over his decision to run parenting classes for people. As expected, some are calling the initiative an example of the 'nanny state'. In due course, editors will pull out examples of poor parenting by members of his government or those who advise him. We all know what's coming, don't we?

But what's he to do? There's enough evidence out there that parenting is failing. Teachers report not only children being violent towards them but their fathers and mothers too. Frustrated with school some are resorting to physical threats. Sound argument and debate is clearly not enough for some. This is not good.

The government's initiative is being linked to the need for stronger parental discipline clearly lacking during last year's riots. A good example perhaps but surely the problem is much deeper. There are two problems are the heart of good parenting. First, it's the hardest thing you're likely to do in adult life. Second, there are few public models out there to guide us.

Take the latter first. TV drama is a major source of information about how things work when we grow up. But in order to be interesting, it must be dramatic, exaggerated, and not what we'd experience, hopefully, ourselves. We enjoy in part because it excites us and shows us worlds at arms length that we don't experience first hand. Soaps are not the places where we look for models about our own behaviour. Rather, they show us things best avoided - but entertaining.

As for parenting itself, well any help you can get the better. Unlike antenatal classes, which can be as wonderful as they are daunting, everything after the first child happens in real time. And it's far too quick. There's no time to learn how to do the things you have to do and we all hope that when our children become adults they don't throw back comments made in passing whilst running out to work on a frosty Tuesday morning. Given the welter of words that a parent will dispense, it's hard not to fail to be inconsistent at least some of the time. Often more than that.

But it's much harder than that. Shortly after children acquire the ability to speak they become political. They understand that where two parents have differing views, there are opportunities. They exploit inconsistencies. Indeed, they create them. Children will posit that one parent has one view in order to trigger a response in the other. Hard-pressed parents don't have the time to carbon-copy each other into exchanges. It all happens too fast.

Hard enough for two parents, life must be unbelievably stretching for one. From whom do you draw support? Friends might help. Parents? Maybe. Not all parents are perfect role models. Some might help you to repeat the same mistakes with your children that they made with you.

And in the midst of all this, who wants to admit that they are a failing parent?

The middle classes are often best placed to address this challenge. Smart thinkers join the right groups. There are many of them. NCT, breast feeding mothers' groups, church hall crèches. All create space whilst children run around to reflect on your own practice and to get advice and support when things are not going well. But there are no such groups when children get beyond a certain age. You only hope that your networks are strong enough and that you can find willing ears when young people enter puberty, a time when testosterone is abundant and fuse are short.

Of course, you can read. And we did. There's plenty of self-help material around. You need time to read and time to reflect. At the end of an exhausting day, few people have either. Nor can you always share a moment to reflect. Stresses in families pollute all relationships. Parents fall out too. Being a parent is a big ask.

We all know how hard it is. But we're the first to criticise others who chide their offspring too heavily in the supermarket. The people hanging around on street corners are other people's children (we hope). We all have a view about what people should be doing - even though we know how hard it is.

We also know that poor parenting can create social problems. Young people look to their parents for behaviour models. People who mouth off in front of their children endorse that behaviour. Social problems are expensive to address and, in all honesty, rarely fixed. Once children become adults, they may inadvertently pass on unhelpful behaviours.

Something must be done. We all say it. So when Mr Cameron steps up and does just that, you'd think we'd be all happy. We're like people moaning in a supermarket. We're all keen to tut at other people but we're loathe to admit we could all be better. It's a lot easier to criticise than it is to praise.

We should all watch what we say about this. Our children will be watching.

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