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Do we really get the children we deserve?

ARE WE LISTENING TO OUR CHILDREN? By Paolo Crepet. Translated by Patrick Creagh. Piccadilly Press. pound;7.99.

Accusations that parents are failing in their job are nothing new, particularly in Protestant cultures used to struggling with feelings of guilt about anything or everything. But Paolo Crepet writes from Italy, a country with a long tradition of caring for its children, where his book has been on the bestseller list for more than nine months. If he, in his role as psychiatrist, sociologist and professor of youth culture, believes something bad is happening there as well, it should be worth paying him some attention.

The principal case he makes is that "every society, like every individual, has the children it deserves". If children no longer seem to have time to spare, he argues, it is because their parents usually appear to be in the same position, handing down this lesson every time they ignore their children in favour of the next television programme. If children are over-competitive and materialistic, once again it is their parents who are setting these standards.

It is certainly true that childhood has always served as a preparation for the type of adulthood the young are going to experience. Children today, sweating over endless exams while working in their spare time to save up for whatever is in fashion, are simply anticipating the strains and rewards of that life in the fast lane awaiting at least some of them.

Despite its commercial success, the book is too vague and generalised for readers used to a more pragmatic approach. Making contentious points via a stream of anecdotes rather than through properly conducted case studies ensures easy reading, but the overall intellectual effect is like being on the receiving end of grapeshot made up from pieces of wet sponge.

There are some telling images - amusement arcades are described as creating technological autism, and the lack of feeling found in some adults for the young is termed "paedophobia". But there are also some absurd statements:

"Pain should be restored to the teaching curriculum, a daily grammar lesson"; "Children join sports clubs and delegate the enforcement of rules to an adult who acts as referee. They therefore grow up without learning to take responsibility"; "Many parents and teachers have transmitted to their children and pupils that great emotions are dangerous."

The author also bemoans the fact that seven out of 10 unmarried Italians choose to live with their parents up to and often beyond the age of 35. But if his account of such uncaring parenthood is correct, why should grown-up children want to stay on, and be encouraged to? Yes, rents are high and jobs sometimes scarce, but hostile parents would still put a stop to such freeloading if they genuinely wanted to.

A more convincing answer might be that the real test of family relationships is not what parents and children say but what they do. By concentrating mainly on verbal reports, and not looking deeper into available research, the author sells himself, and Italian parents and their children, significantly short.

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