I WENT to an evening lecture last week, in which the art of bringing up children was likened to cooking a stew - a bit of this, a bit of that, and stir it all around - but since this analogy was neither new nor gripping I fell to musing about my own kitchen, three hours' drive away, where my own un-parented children were probably at that moment tearing open the stuffed-crust pizza box and shoving its contents into the oven.
And it occurred to me that there was more to this cooking analogy than met the eye because, in our house at least, there is a direct and significant correlation between matters culinary and matters familial.
It's as simple as this: when I, the family's main cook, am too busy to bother about food and our cupboards are bare and our evening meals instant curries and a spoonful of frozen peas, then a silt of neglect and indifference seems to seep into every part of the house. Washing breeds in the laundry basket; old newspapers lie in yellowing heaps. And when it comes to suppertime, everyone bolts their unappetising meal and goes.
But buy good food and cook it carefully, and the molecules in the air seem to change. The washing retreats, and the old newspapers acquire a rakish air. Children drift towards the kitchen as the meal is cooking, then linger over their empty plates talking about their day. Family life seems to go better than on the nights of the instant chicken korma.
This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us reared on Germaine Greer and Betty Frieden, who vowed never to spend a minute more than necessary on what we saw as household drudgery, but it isn't hard to understand why it should be so.
To feed people what my children call "proper" food is to acknowledge that you care for them, and they are worth the trouble. Food is primitive, too. It speaks of warmth and safety; of being connected to each other, and to the things which sustain us. And when we fail to honour these connections, when we try to short-cut or over-ride them, we reap the results in all kinds of ways - BSE being merely the most obvious.
But this isn't a gender issue, or even necessarily a parenting one - there are no rules about who should cook a meal - nor is it a sentimental yearning for the cereal box family of the 1950s, but a question of how, in crowded lives, we learn to identify what matters, and find ways of giving it time and attention.
For this reason alone, the Government's Green Paper on the family is to be welcomed, struggling as it does to drag children centre stage, and to acknowledge that bringing them up is not something to be squeezed into the crevices of time left over from everything else, but a demanding job that needs more support than it is getting now.
Yet, as with all official attempts to fiddle around with society, its good intentions amount to little more than tiny sticking plasters of policy, many applied in quite inappropriate places.
School parenting classes might be fine in theory, but how many 16-year-olds can think beyond having sex at all, let alone about the 18-year consequences of what could come in its wake? When it comes to marriage break-up, would counselling from some Government-mandated official really have any impact on the deep-seated assumptions that ultimately decide the outcome of any faltering relationship? And who is to say that staying together is the best thing anyway? Such certainties have long gone from our world, and cannot be willed back just because you want them.
Instead of flirting with marriage guidance, the Government should concentrate on developing truly family-friendly employment policies, which would not only allow parents more choice in how they bring up their children, but do more than anything else to encourage a culture in which it would to be seen as valid for adults to give their children time, as it is for them to work long hours to provide them with material comfort and security.
The most sensible thing about the Green Paper is its suggestion that health visitors should help families right through to the teenage years. Because if looking after children means lurching unsteadily from one problem to the next, inventing solutions as you go, as it tends to do for most of us, nothing could be more welcome than knowing that practical, non-judgmental advice is on hand to help you.