There was a time when middle-class liberals used to complain that the English were a nation of child haters. They packed them off to boarding school as soon as possible and banned them from the dinner table as soon as they got back. Why-oh-why, they asked, can’t the English just relax and enjoy the presence of children like the French did?
Well, they’ve got their wish. That old, much-mocked Victorian proverb — children should be seen and not heard — has been replaced by a new dictum in child-centric Britain: children must be seen, heard, celebrated, praised and obeyed all of the time.
Once children were expected to fit themselves around the needs of grown-ups; now it’s the other way around. In progressive minded households, children are regarded as mini-adults with rights who must be consulted on all family matters. When I asked a friend about suitable dates for my son and me to visit his family during the summer break he said great, but he’d have to check with his daughter first and get back to me. His daughter is 11.
Going to the cinema with friends with young children — especially if you don’t have them — is now impossible. You want to see something smart or sexy; they want something fluffy and fun for their kids. And whatever you do don’t get stuck in a car journey with friends who have kids and Spotify. Adults are not allowed to choose a song as I discovered when I had to sit in silence for four hours on the motorway listening to a Taylor Swift singalong.
We used to have something called adult time and adult spaces. It gave parents and kids a break to do their own things. Adults were mysterious creatures; now they’re your best mates (or want to be). We have kiddie time, all the time. There’s no social segregation. You go to a cocktail party and the kids are serving drinks. Who wants to be pissed around children?
Or you go to dinner and the kids are there. Don’t get me wrong, that can be great fun. I love my friends’ kids, but sometimes you need adult-only conversation. I know that’s meant to happen after they go to bed — but kids don’t have bedtimes any more. I’m in bed before they are. I suspect one reason for the ubiquitous presence of children is that middle-class parents want everyone to see how wonderful their children are first hand. After all, if you have the wonderful house, with the wonderful kitchen and the wonderful garden, you have to have wonderful children, too.
In child-centric Britain, there is one great taboo no one dares to break so let me be the first: your child is not fascinating to other people. Sorry. Those photographs you put of them on Facebook and their cute sayings and their drawings and your discussions at dinner parties about your children’s educational attainments? Stop it. You’re boring us to death.
I’ve seen how child-centric Britain is changing the social landscape. For I have lived in London neighbourhoods that have been subjected to large influxes of Yuppies, drug dealers, teenage gangs, the homeless and hipsters. That lot I could handle. No sweat. It’s the hordes of babies, toddlers and pre-teens who are fast taking over my neighbourhood that worry me.
Look, I’m not prejudiced or anything but there’s too many of them. My bit of Islington in north London used to be kind of cool. Now I’m living in a Nappy-Valley nightmare, where the streets are paved with prams. And not small pedestrian-friendly prams either, but those big, multi-baby juggernaut prams that push aside all before them.
I used to love to go for coffee in my local deli. I’d stroll around the place looking for comfort treats to purchase. Now I get caught for 20 minutes in a pram jam that stretches from the counter to outside the door.
It’s become a sociological truism that kids today never want to go outside and play. That’s not quite true. They want to go outside and play — play their iPads and iPhones without earphones and at full volume (while Mummy and Daddy are too distracted by their own phones to notice or care). So no more quiet summer lunches al fresco for me.
And what has happened to the great British baby? They used to beam and gurgle with delight; now they whine and whinge and cry all the time and everywhere. There’s no escape from crying babies. Is it the hot weather that’s making them so bad tempered, or their hot-housing parents?
Yes, I know that babies have always cried; but not like this generation. What makes it worse is that parents used to feel embarrassed and concerned about the distress their bawling baby inflicted upon innocent members of the public. Not now.
I did when I was a young father in the 1980s. If I was in a restaurant and my baby son was crying I would take him out of the restaurant and settle him down — and then return to my table. But times have changed. The onus is no longer on the parent to remove a crying baby — the onus is on you to get up right in the middle of your meal and find another table as far from the maddening cry of the baby as possible. Thanks to progressive child-rearing practices popularised in the 1960s by the paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock adults today don’t want to act like adults and set rules and boundaries regarding their children. According to Spock, the worst thing you could do is to stifle a child’s self-expression.
I recently saw a child bouncing up and down on the seat of an Underground Tube train. I politely asked his mother to stop her child from bouncing because people had to sit on that seat. I then proceeded to wipe the seat. ‘Don’t you dare touch my child!’ she cried. Gulp! And with that I was now a paedophile.
I pointed out that I had not touched her child, but had wiped the seat her child was despoiling with its grubby shoes. ‘Don’t you touch my child!’ she said in a louder voice.
Everyone in the carriage was watching me and I made a high-minded speech about our civic responsibility to our fellow citizens. We should think of others, I said expecting applause. I got silence and disapproving looks. Then a large tattooed young man came up to me and said: ‘He’s only a kid. Leave ’im alone. He needs to express himself.’
I realised then that the battle for Britain is over: babies and their kind have won.
Spectator.co.uk/podcast Cosmo Landesman and Henry Jeffreys on today’s children.