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How Rude! Modern Manners Defined

Rachel Johnson

Grown-ups are too involved in their children’s lives now, and should back off, says the Mayor of London’s sister In many ways, nothing changes. We love our children. We want our children to grow up to be competent, decent human beings fit for adult purpose. These are the main things, and in these we have, I think we are all agreed, not done too badly. Our children, and I’ll generalise here, are not serial axe murderers or kitten drowners.

Our children do make an effort — at least on special occasions anyway — to repay the enormous investment of time, energy, money and emotion we have poured into them. Children are programmed to please, to be loved, and to love us back. Thank Christ.

So we are not here to examine our children. Where we should peer in this chapter is under the stone — at the damp place where pale worms wriggle in the dark, for this is the condition of the modern parent — to try to find out where we have gone so terribly wrong.

Before we come to the wretchedly indulgent state of modern parenting, though, I suppose I’d better set out my stall. Inevitably, when one becomes a parent, one can’t help revisiting one’s own childhood to make comparisons. When I was little, we were given no choices — about what we ate, what we wore, what we did, where we went to school, when we went to bed etc. I could only choose what to read.

There was not so much stuff (many of my son’s 15-year-old friends have iPods, iPads, MacBooks, unlimited access to their parents’ credit cards, PayPal, eBay and iTunes accounts — and not just iPhones, but BlackBerrys too), so we made our own fun, rather than bought it in Westfield.

Our parents provided us with the essentials, then got on with their own lives. Which makes me realise that my parents were brilliant, not for what they did, but more for what they didn’t do.

So we were fed, we were clothed, we were loved, and we had all the books we could read — and, I should admit, the best secondary education that money could buy (up until the age of ten we went to state schools, including among many others Primrose Hill Primary, alma mater of the Milibands, and the European School of Brussels). But there was not the expectation of having every wish granted, as there is now, and that is the best thing that my parents could ever have given us. I remember only once going to a restaurant in the UK. It was a Happy Eater on the A303. My father told us, wincing as he looked at the laminated text, with its stomach-churning pictograms, that we could have the spag bol. From the children’s menu.

We had a TV, but as we lived in Belgium there was nothing to watch apart from two American sitcoms, Rhonda and The Partridge Family. They came on only once a week.

My parents were so hard-up that when we went to England for holidays on the family farm on Exmoor — mainly spent “wooding” for winter fuel on rainswept hillsides — my father would invariably book cheap overnight ferry crossings from the Continent.

He would never shell out for a cabin, despite the 1am or 3am departure slots. Instead, Dada, having formally slipped into some striped flannel PJs for the occasion, would tell us to go to sleep in the back of the Opel Kadett, parked with the handbrake on in the lower deck, where we would eventually pass out from suffocation or diesel fumes.

We never had friends round for “playdates”. Keeping children busy and happy was not a parental priority. If we were bored, that was our own fault. In fact, there was nothing to do for weeks on end except rake leaves (my father once made us spend a whole half-term raking leaves) and read on our beds. Occasionally my mother would shout up the stairs: “Stop reading!” Imagine that now, when children are on their laptops in their rooms, looking at ... I don’t even want to imagine. Once, and only once, my older brother had a friend round who, as soon as I said hello, punched me in the head. This was water off a duck’s back. Not only did I have three brothers to fight, my father and mother both believed enthusiastically in corporal punishment. My mother once broke a large stick over my legs after Boris and I had spent a happy and, we felt, productive morning carefully filling every Wellington boot in the passage to the brim with water. I bear neither parent any ill feeling for beating me. I would have done the same.

My mother tells the story of how, when we lived in Washington DC, she was racing to meet my father with Boris, aged 4, and me, aged 3. As a crowd pressed behind us to cross Pennsylvania Avenue. I refused to cross. In the end, she had to pick me up by my hair, at which point a woman tried to grab me, shrieking: “You don’t deserve to have that little girl!” But she did deserve me; rather, I didn’t deserve her. One of her most revealing relics of the tribal Johnson childhood (she has also kept our first haircuttings, baby teeth, and exercise books for the year she homeschooled us, one of my happiest times) is a note composed by Boris and signed by all four of us saying: “Dear Mama WE are SORY that we were SO BAD today.” As for school, well, reports were read, but not dwelt upon, as they were not my parents’ business, but ours. As for parental involvement, all I can tell you is that my father’s proudest boast as a parent is not that all his six children went to Oxbridge but that he never, not once, attended a parent-teacher meeting at any one of our schools.

When I was 10 and Boris was 11, my mother would drop us off at the Gare du Nord with our school trunks, hand over a few francs for frites on the ferry, and then get back to the much more interesting business of painting or seeing her psychiatrist. We would get on a train to Ostend, where we would catch the ferry to Dover. At Dover, we would get the train to Victoria, where we would change trains for Forest Row. There were very few trains to Forest Row then (actually there are very few trains to Forest Row now), so Boris and I would kill time in the Cartoon Cinema, where paedophiles in brown macs were waiting for little lost prep school children like us, so they could offer us “sweets”. Then we would get our trunks on the stopping train to Forest Row. It would take all day, and was problem-free until the time when we did the journey in reverse during the Cold War of the Seventies and managed to get on the train to Moscow.

As I say, it never did me any harm, but still, I can’t repeat this sensible regime of character-building, toughening, anecdote-forging benign neglect for my own children ... and nor, it appears, can anyone else. Now examples of “wet parenting” abound.

Mary Killen, the author of How the Queen Can Make You Happy and the Spectator’s Agony Aunt, and mother of two daughters, admits that she is a classic example of a wet modern parent. Especially when it came to the gap year of her older daughter, Freya. For this important period for the young adult about to take wing into the world, Mary paid an older male student to accompany Freya, 24/7.

“Yes, I did pay Karl to go on her gap year with her,” Mary said, by way of explanation. “You see, Freya had grown up in a tiny Wiltshire village, where all the men were nice, or at least not active sex offenders. And then she’d attended Marlborough College. I knew that if I didn’t hire a male chaperone, she would be raped and beheaded on her first day, and weeks later her body would be found in the bottom of a ravine.”

“But she was going to Italy!” I shrilled. “It’s not exactly darkest Peru! I still don’t understand why you couldn’t let her go to Tuscany on her own.” “The truth is, I had to pay someone not just to fend off rapists,” Mary confessed at my query. “But also to be the person who swept up all the passports, purses, airline tickets, keys and so on that Freya litters on tables when she leaves restaurants.”

We also live in a world where a manic Chinese mum calls herself a Tiger Mother and writes a bestselling book by the same name about how to produce straight-A violin-playing tennis-champ superkids, and where pushy, anxious helicopter parents hover over every school. A friend reports that when her son was due to visit the Brecon Beacons on a school camping trip this summer, three mothers pulled out their sons because the weather forecast was “rainy”.

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University dons are also complaining of a traumatic level of parental over-involvement just at the exact moment that mummies and daddies are supposed to be letting go.

It was the complete opposite in my day. When I was on my gap year, I called my father from Israel in September and told him I’d decided not to take up my place at Oxford. I announced that I wanted to stay in Galilee with a handsome Israeli shepherd called Ehud. For ever. My father didn’t miss a beat. “Great scheme!” he cried, astutely divining that if he approved the plan, I would never carry it out.

In my lifetime, parenthood has undergone a terrifying transition. Becoming a mother or father is no longer something you just are. It is something you do, like becoming a vet — complete with training courses, parenting vouchers cashable at Boots, government targets and guidelines, and a host of academics and caring professionals (as well as their websites, and telephone helplines) on hand 24/7 to guide you through what to expect when your twentysomethings return home. Parenting has become subsidised and professionalised, even though anyone can (and, frankly, does) have a baby, after which they become parents.

I love being a parent, most of the time anyway, but we should immediately de-professionalise it, on the grounds that: one, it’s unpaid; and two, thanks to the economy, lack of housing and jobs etc, you never get to retire.

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