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Parental accidents waiting to happen

Sir Ron Dearing says he wants nursery schools and playgroups to teach all four-year-olds to respect others, take turns, share fairly and know right from wrong, but I say that's a tall order for some of the four-year-olds I've met.

Sam Barnett springs instantly - unforgettably - to mind.

Sam went to nursery school with one of my children and was a child who understood no boundaries. If he felt like doing something, he did it; if he wanted something, he took it; if he was frustrated, he thumped someone. And seeing his parents it was easy to see why.

Every morning his father would roar up to school in a souped-up Ford, scattering children to left and right, push Sam out, and roar off again like a traffic accident waiting to happen. His mother would pick Sam up any time within an hour either way of the school finishing time, invariably with some hugely complex, headache-inducing story about why, once again, she hadn't been able to get there on time like everybody else.

Everyone liked Sam, but no one liked the attention he leached from the class, and there was relief all round when he moved on, no doubt eventually to become one of the growing army of problem pupils Gillian Shephard now wants to make it easier for schools to exclude.

The thing about Sam is that nothing his nursery school teachers did or said made any difference. It was too late. He was already receiving altogether more powerful messages from his parents. And his parents, while they clearly loved him, equally clearly didn't have a clue.

Although which parents really do? Most of us, though ever keen to point the finger at our children's teachers' standards, rarely give our own a thought.

The first time I held a baby in my life was when my first-born was put into my arms and everything I learned about parenting after that came either from the pages of Penelope Leach or from long, stressed-out telephone calls to other mothers ("Oh, I know," we'd all croon to each other, "I know," like a coven of Sybil Fawlties).

I never thought twice about it: I thought that's what being a parent was - flying on a wing and a prayer and little else.

Then, years later, I met a chemistry lecturer called Lorrie. Lorrie had a profoundly disabled child of eight, two smaller children, and a baby on the way. She was not young, often exhausted, and meshed in a constant battle to keep her blind and learning-impaired son in mainstream education, but she was always cheerful and patient, with enviable negotiating skills, and a ready ear for her children's problems. I never once heard her raise her voice.

Being a natural cynic I assumed this could only be the calming effect of having a husband rich enough to provide her with a fabulous ocean-front home and a resident maid in the annexe. But Lorrie said the waterside house was a nightmare, given her son's blindness, and the maid drove her up the wall. What really kept her sane was the weekly parenting group where she could let off steam, hear talks and swap advice.

"I tell you," she said, "there are so many times when I can only hold on to myself because I know that at 10am on Thursday morning I can go somewhere and just scream. And I tell you something else too. I didn't have the first idea how to parent until I started to go there."

I remember this speech with absolute clarity not only because it was the first time it occurred to me that the word "parent" could be a verb as well as a noun - that parenting was something you could learn and get better at - but also because I knew that if it had occurred to me, I would have thought (oh, dreadful snobbery) that it was something for disaffected teenage mothers, not clever women with masters degrees in biochemistry.

However, this was in the can-do United States, where parenting is seen as a task to be worked at, just like everything else, and where national and local governments spend $250 million (Pounds 155m) a year on parent support. In this country, in comparison, we allocate only about a paltry Pounds 400,000 and even this may be under question now that Virginia Bottomley is no longer around to give it her blessing.

In truth, as the late Joan Lestor, MP, once said, we put more effort into learning to drive a car than in learning to be parents.

And as a result we do a truly terrible job. We're terrific at yelling and blaming, cuffing and walloping, but when it comes to praising and listening, and giving our children the time and respect that they need, we're hardly at the starting gate.

Talk to any teacher, in any kind of school, and you will hear about the results of this. Minor problem pupils - the bullies, the chronically disorganised, the withdrawn and the attention-seekers - inhabit every classroom, while the real problems - the severely disruptive children, the suicidal and the anorexic - are all on the up and up.

A patchy network of parent groups is now creeping across the country, but lacks any serious funding and co-ordination. As a country, it seems, we're still quite uninterested in supporting parents in this way, even though the costs of poor parenting - in school and out - are beyond computation.

There's another problem, too. Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, whose organisation Effective Parenting works with some 50 primary schools, has found parents reluctant to join in such programmes, both because they don't want to expose their inadequacies, and because they don't want schools to tell them what to do. Guilt and resentment rule the day.

The only way to counteract such fears would be to create a climate in which it would become as normal for parents of all kinds to seek advice and support as for, say, people to go to Weight Watchers, or the Citizens Advice Bureau, or evening classes on Indian cookery.

There are any number of ways this could be done - videos in maternity wards, drop-in centres at baby clinics, telephone helplines, community groups, classes for parents of children starting school, specialist counselling centres, in-depth degree courses.

While such things would never touch deep-seated family problems, they could do a very great deal to change our cultural perceptions of what being a parent actually entails.

But do we want to try? Apparently not, for despite the fact that most parents really do want to do right by their children, we still turn our backs on this highly-motivated pool of potential learners, and expend our best efforts on the groups to either side - pressing flour-bag babies on teen pupils who couldn't be less interested in learning about the challenges of good parenting, and paying up for the sin bins and social workers needed by the children who didn't manage to get any.

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