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Arnold's World

A psychology professor at Berkeley has cast serious doubts on the value of the "quality time" which working parents go to such lengths to share with their children. Her research suggests that sporadic bursts of attention, activity and affection can leave children feeling anxious and confused. One of the many young people whom I am happy to number among my readers does not disagree with these findings, but he, nonetheless, feels that children can still benefit from quality time.

He offers the following words of advice to his peers: "Left to their own devices, mum and dad would spend the evening being couch potatoes, clutching a Gamp;T, a Heineken or one of the other fizzy drinks that they will claim "all our friends are allowed to have". It is now, when they are at their most frazzled, that they are most vulnerable, so it's the ideal opportunity to suggest a game of Hungry Hippo, finger painting or some exciting activity with sticky-back plastic and empty washing-up bottles.

They will almost certainly blubber words to this effect: "We're simply too tired, darling, because we have been at work all day. We're rotten parents, we know that. What, if anything, can we do to compensate?" It's now that you present them with an Argos catalogue in which you've highlighted the items that you feel are most likely to help you cope with their shortcomings as parents.

"Leave them to wallow in angst until the high point of their day - your bedtime. Hardly able to contain their excitement, they'll launch into a laboured programme of theatrical yawns and unfounded assertions to the effect that Santa doesn't visit little boys and girls who stay up too late. Do not believe a word of it. Any ad hoc playground survey will reveal that he is peculiarly generous to the children of guilt-ridden working parents; it's those of struggling single mums on family credit that he seems to have it in for.

"So don't feel pressurised about bedtime. Each of us is subject to our own circadian rhythm, so only you can decide when best to climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. In my own case, I don't even consider initiating the ritual of "nightie-nights and a big kiss for Teddy" until Jeremy Paxman has taken his quick look at tomorrow's front pages.

"Once under the duvet, a bed-time story is absolutely essential. A recent NOP survey published in Bella revealed that only one in seven adults had read a book in the previous year and that 40 per cent of men had never even visited their local library. There is no escaping the disturbing truth that if your dad doesn't read to you, he probably won't read at all. Let him choose the book.

Invariably, he will opt for a title that will enable him to assume the maximum number of unconvincing regional accents and silly voices. Resist the urge to groan. It's far more diplomatic to indulge him for five or six chapters, and then to feign sleep, allowing him to tip-toe out of the room.

"When you know that he is safely downstairs, you can switch on the nice television you have in your bedroom (Argos catalogue number: 5308068) and relax, happy in the knowledge that even if they haven't turned out to be exactly what you'd hoped for as parents, you have, at least, made the most of the quality time they've spent with you."

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