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You can't treat children like Dickensian slaves

Children aren't offshoots of a production line. But some parents think this is the case.

Recently, I had a couple of friends over from the UK with their children. We all had babies at one time in London and were each other's family. They brought someone with them who they got to know after I moved home to Ireland.

Never in my life have I felt like putting someone out of my home, but her tone and her attitude towards her own offspring was Dickensian: 'I had it tough so they'll have it tough'. There's nothing like a broken record stuck in one place to depress you.

My friends were embarrassed but they've got the 'survival of the fittest' London attitude. They expect results from their children in so many ways that mine look like straw chewers beside them. But my friends are still laughing with and affectionate towards their children. This woman didn't crack a smile the entire time she was here.

Her three children were clearly split between favoured and non-favoured. They were all expected to function at adult level, despite being years away from it, but one of them got it in the neck more than the others. Naturally, this child was a girl.

The child was harassed from the moment she woke up to 'help your mother'. The absence of nurture was a shock to me; I know this kind of coldness exists in some, but to see it at such close quarters had me phoning a family-life therapist friend. She advised me to say nothing because it would make it worse on the girl.

This kid has housework chores, homework duties and other dogsbody activities, including spending her entire Saturday in her father's business. She says she doesn't mind.

One of my friends came to me and said quietly: "We had no idea she was like this. We've never spent this much time with her." The woman was going back to London friendless.

The sad thing is her daughter craves her affection and is never going to get it. The more she doesn't get it the harder she tries, which is heartbreaking to watch.

All the children, mine included, were teched up to the eyeballs. The eight of them had laptops and it was very 1984 to see them all on the sofas on Facebook instead of talking to each other.

"It could be an office," I said. My guest looked at me: "I'll get them off those soon enough."

She went in like a bull in a china shop. They did as she said, but the three mothers watching tempered her bullishness with little Mammy jokes to take the sting out of the air. This pushed a button because she began to railroad her girl.

Later, I saw the girl walking on her own, unable to join in the games because she was too ashamed of what had been said to her.

We sat at the kitchen table and began a muted conversation about recessions and how to ignore them. She joined in saying: "My children will earn their keep. You can't wrap them up in cotton wool."

The thing is, if you do, they take the knocks better later on.

I saw the girl get on the plane to London. She had asked to sit at the window since her brother had done on the way over. I didn't see her face.