Without a shred of irony, the parent and prime minister David Cameron, who appears (on paper at least) to hate children and their futures – and to be doing all he possibly can to make their lives a misery, especially all the poor children who love going to libraries, living in affordable housing and eating breakfast – has suggested that all parents, regardless of social or economic background, attend state-funded parenting classes. Campaigning for this, while implementing welfare cuts that have seen a rise in child poverty for the first time in a decade, is like Kim Jong-un enforcing mandatory recycling workshops while developing the hydrogen bomb.
Unveiling his Life Chances Strategy, the Tory leader hopes the classes will become “normal – or even aspirational – for parents to attend”. Unfortunately, Cameron won’t be giving the classes personally, which is a shame, because I’m sure a lot more people would go if he did, if only to ask him if all parents should be leaving their daughters in pub toilets. Will it be like prime minister’s questions? Will parents have to stand up when they speak? Will the PM sarcastically address them as “the honourable parent”? Will John Bercow tell us off for clapping, or call us incorrigible delinquents? None of this is clear.
They will, however, include valuable guidance on how to discipline children (say “no” sometimes), as well as tips on how feckless, inept parents should behave. Apparently we’re not supposed to walk across roads unless the green man (sexist, racist, totalitarian) says we can; we shouldn’t laugh at their rubbish drawings, or call them stupid t**** in front of their teachers or priest. There will be advice on not leaving your child with a bucket and spade near an open sewer, or in a sugar factory if you’re planning an early night.
As part of his speech on families, and coming less than a week after George Osborne (who I’m convinced is descended from a Patricia Routledge-worshipping alien race) warned of a “creeping complacency in the national debate about our economy” and a need to push through cuts, Cameron argued that, “Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one.”
And I thought that anti-austerity was the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. According to a report by the Fabian Society last month, 2 million more children will grow up in poverty because of Osborne’s latest round of cuts, rising by 75% over 15 years to 4 million.
Much of parenting is based on common sense and instinct. If we rely too much on guidance, we’ll lose that skill, along with so many others; already we have cars that park themselves, self-stirring mugs, apps that remind us when to wipe our bums. Being a parent is a constantly evolving, terrifying process that you learn on the job. The only advice my father (who had nine children) gave me when I was pregnant was, “Don’t read any books and go with your instinct”, even if that instinct was to run away and join the circus.
Oh yes, and don’t have nine, just maybe one or two and stop at that. My parents didn’t mollycoddle us and weren’t natural worriers, so we were left to our own devices. That’s why we’re all so independent. I was changing my own nappy at two months. They had fun with us, too. As for me, I worry about germs and dislocated joints and traffic, and when my children ask me to engage with them in an entertaining way, I tell them to go through my agent like everyone else.
I’m not the best parent, but nor am I the worst. My children are encouraged, cooked for, read to and washed. Equally, I often have spit dribbling down my chin from shouting at them when they are being unreasonable or annoying; I don’t laugh at their jokes unless they’re funny, and I sometimes hide from them.
Maybe I shouldn’t tell them off? Maybe I should tell them off more – who knows? Each family sets their own boundaries, which are right for them, but may not be for others. For example, I think it is perfectly reasonable for me to lock someone else’s child in my cellar for a whole day if they say my cake is disgusting; others might argue that it would give the child lifelong issues with cake or cellars.
All I know is this: if David Cameron wants more people to attend his new classes, he needs to distance himself from them as soon as possible. Because all Britain’s parents are really thinking right now is, “Parenting advice? From the bloke who put his genitals in a pig’s head? I think I’ll pass.”