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David Robbins: Being a right-on, PC, D6 dad will only get you so far

Parenting is such a difficult task, I often wonder that the Government, or the UN or at least the Walt Disney Corporation, doesn't demand some sort of certificate of competence.

It wouldn't be so bad if there was one generally accepted way of bringing up children. In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, they were all taken away, sedated and educated while they slept. There were times when our daughter was a toddler that I seriously thought of giving it a try.

At the beginning, it's relatively straightforward. There's the Gina Ford approach, which sticks to a strict timetable of feeding and sleeping, and also allows the parents to have some sort of life in those early years.

To those who don't follow it, the Ford approach can seem arbitrarily cruel. My wife once phoned a Ford friend, but could hardly hear her because her baby was crying at the top of her voice.

"She's not due a feed until 12.27," said the friend. "But it's 12.20 now; I'd better let you go," said the wife. "Oh no, we have seven more minutes," came the reply.

Ford's great rival for the baby-raising loyalties of the middle classes is Penelope Leach, who advocates a more child-centred approach, with feeding on demand and a more relaxed approach to bedtime.

Despite the best of intentions, we never read either book, but instinctively ended up with a more Leach-like approach. I was secretly proud when I heard that Leach had dismissed Ford's approach as "a good way to train dogs".

However, we knew several Ford parents and I have to admit that their children were happy and well behaved. Their parents, too, seemed a little less frazzled that the Leach-ers.

One dad of four once summed it up for me: "If you don't mind listening to your baby crying, then try Ford; if you can't stand it, go with Leach."

The Ford-Leach debate relates almost entirely to the infant stage. What do you do when they get older? Now they can talk, argue back and deliver withering put-downs like the one my daughter hit me with yesterday: "You smelly sock!"

The advice here is decidedly less clear-cut. I find myself constantly asking: am I being too strict? Not strict enough? (And I also often have to ask myself a toughie: who is being the child here?)

Parenting children around four, five or six is really about setting boundaries, yet you're constantly worried that the ones you're setting are too strict, too lax or are moving all over the place, like the Balkans.

The experts say that the way you handle this stage is a precursor to how you will deal with the teenage years. Thus I have often stopped myself from saying "you're not going out in that" to my five-year-old because I can already hear myself saying it to her in 10 years' time when she wants to go to Wesley wearing dental floss.

I was stressed enough before I came across Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua (Penguin, £16.99) who was interviewed in the Irish Independent this week. Chua, a Yale professor, lifts the lid on the hidden world of parenting, Asian-style.

To a right-on, politically correct, Dublin 6 dad like myself, some of it is jaw-dropping stuff. Chua drives her children hard, not allowing them to have playdates, appear in school plays, watch TV, play computer games or go on sleepovers.

She forces them to practise the violin for hours on end with a relentlessness that Western parents will find unacceptable. She screams and threatens them, saying to one daughter that she will burn her toys if she doesn't keep at it.

They must never get less than an A grade at anything other than drama or gym. They are, she explains, an extension of her, and failure is not an option.

This is the Chinese way. They believe their children are strong and can take it; Western parents believe their children are weak and need to be coddled.

The book, which has created a storm on parenting sites such as mumsnet, does ask serious questions about our supportive, ever-praising approach to our kids.

I certainly recognised myself in some of Chua's characterisations of Western parents, and found myself grudgingly admiring her determination for her kids to be the best.

I wondered what she'd make of my spirited daughter's ultimatum to me the other day as I tried to hurry her up for school: "Take your hands off me or face the consequences!"


Indo Review