Andrew Gimson

Getting both socks on

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How to Be a Better Parent

Cassandra Jardine

Vermilion, pp. 229, £

Children, like dogs, need to be trained. After this promising start, Cassandra Jardine sets out to offer parents some practical advice on how to teach children ‘good habits from an early age’. Heaven knows such advice is needed, not least because, as Jardine remarks, ‘Many is the time when the children of delightful parents have left me speechless with irritation as they behave boorishly around our house.’

I had hoped, after reading her opening remarks, that Jardine was going to come down like a ton of bricks on modern parents and belabour us for spoiling our children rotten. She has it in her, I believe, to produce a reactionary masterpiece, which could be given at Christmas by long-suffering older members of the family to every sentimental, over-indulgent parent in the land. In other words, I longed for Jardine to give her seal of approval to my own almost entirely ineffectual style of parenting (dread word), which consists of bellowing like a demented sergeant-major at my three children (girl aged seven, boy aged three, girl aged one) when I see in them any lapse from the standards which I consider indispensable to civilised life.

Jardine is unfortunately too kind, too tactful and too unsure of her own authority to have written such a book as yet, but I trust that when she is older and her own five children are grown up she will have another stab at it. Almost all the necessary wisdom is here. She has come to realise that it is far kinder to children to establish a routine: as Jardine remarks, she discovered, on starting to make rules about when to go to bed, that her children’s ‘natural instincts were those of camp commandants’. She might have added that even for mischievous children, it is more amusing to have rules to evade and tyrants to outwit, than to be looked after by the kind of naive and frightened adult who defers to the superior judgment of a three-year-old.

But we do not get such common sense straight in this book. Jardine instead leans heavily on the advice of two rather tiresome experts. One of them urges the use of no fewer than 16 skills which can be applied ‘to any given parenting situation’ and taken together ‘can solve most problems’. The fourth of this expert’s 16 commandments is: ‘Use descriptive praise.’ The point, apparently, is not to tell children they are brilliant, which they will not believe, but to find things they have done well: ‘Ah, you’ve got one sock on.’ It strikes me that this remark would almost certainly sound ironic, but according to the expert, ‘Before the children leave the house in the morning, you should have descriptively praised each of them at least ten times.’ One takes the point that children should not be crushed by constant, nagging criticism, but is it not more often the problem that they are praised even when they have failed to do what they could reasonably have been expected to do, such as put on both socks? The poor things drown in a hypocritical mush of compliments, which amounts to an underhand attempt to control them with chilling thoroughness.

Michael Oakeshott described the kind of mistakes that modern parents make in his great essay, Rationalism in Politics, published in 1947. The modern parent is a rationalist exactly as detected by Oakeshott: ‘With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail.’ This kind of parent disdains all customary and traditional knowledge and imagines he can learn without outside help how to bring up his child. He is so ignorant that he does not even know he lacks anything, although as midnight approaches, and he vainly attempts to persuade his mysteriously unhappy child to go to bed, he perhaps begins to sense that making it all up as he goes along is not proving an unmitigated success. If this parent had any sense, then first thing in the morning he would go to an old woman with long experience of looking after small children and would ask her for help. But since he is too arrogant to do that, he should at least go and buy Jardine’s book.