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UK parenting madness reaches new heights

Published Nov 6, 2006


By Kate Kelland

London - Britain's middle classes are in the grip of a new madness, says author Meg Sanders - parenting madness.

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Desperate to excel in every field, normally sensible, well-educated parents are resorting to increasingly insane measures to outdo other families and give their offspring the edge.

From mothers who secretly train at home for the grown-ups' egg-and-spoon race on school sports day, to those who follow the school bus on its trip to France in case any harm might come to their offspring, parents are taking it to the extreme.

Sanders and fellow author Annie Ashworth have brought out a book - "The Madness of Modern Families" - which they hope will encourage the worst offenders to take a step back and laugh at their own sometimes ridiculous behaviour.

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The book tells of parents who play foreign radio stations in childrens' bedrooms so they can learn languages in their sleep, mothers who buy supermarket cakes and "distress" them to make them look home-baked and fathers who forge their children's homework and include "authentic" errors to make it look real.

"I've spent nights sort of rubbing out her times table and rewriting them and trying to recreate her handwriting, and getting the five round the wrong way and stuff," one father confesses. "And you think: What am I doing, what am I doing?"

British parents are not alone. In the United States, some middle class parents have long been prepared to do whatever it takes to give their children an edge that can lead to better marks, better colleges and a better future.

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The authors paint light-hearted, but worryingly recognisable, sketches of certain modern parent types.

There's Helicopter Mummy, who hovers constantly by her child's side, never allowing it out of her sight, and Touchline Dad, who bellows "get stuck in" at his reluctant mini-rugby playing son and whose wife sits by the swimming pool timing the child's backstroke laps on the stopwatch on her mobile phone.

Eco Mummy feeds her children - all of whom were born on her kitchen floor at home - on "biodynamic felafel and organic mushroom pate", while Craft Mummy will "carefully hand you a collage of leaves and grasses that is not quite dry" when you go to pick up your children up from a playdate.

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Sanders, who has 12-year-old twins, says Britain's parents are living in a state of almost permanent anxiety and guilt that they might do the wrong thing - fuelled by a constant stream of criticism and advice.

She points to a recent campaign in British newspapers which lamented the "loss of childhood" and criticised parents for being too pushy. A month later, research in the United States suggested children who are coached with extra music, languages or sports perform better and have healthier relationships with their parents than their less driven peers.

On top of that, there is constant media coverage of how children are becoming obese because their parents are too lax and let them do nothing but watch television, play computer games and eat junk food all day.

"As parents we are bombarded with information - and a lot of it is contradictory - so we no longer know what to think," Sanders said.

"Parents are coming in for a lot of blame at the moment, and that's just making us more and more neurotic."

In some cases, neurotic is an understatement.

"We had a call recently from a mother who wanted her child to have hours of Italian classes," a tutor says in the book. "She had heard that if a child is exposed to a language early, it is easier for them to be fluent. The child turned out to be one and a half."

But sport, it seems, brings out the worst in pushy parents.

A swimming trainer tells how the parents of one young girl took her to two 6am training sessions and five after-school sessions a week. When she broke her arm, she still had to train, holding her injured limb out of the water as she swam.

A tennis coach adds: "We had one girl who played pretty well until she suddenly stopped coming. I saw her a few weeks later and asked her what had happened. 'Mummy doesn't want me to play any more,' she said, 'because I'm not winning.'"

Sanders is eager not to criticise modern parents - after all, she says, much of this madness was born of constant criticism - but she hopes that by gently poking fun at them the book might persuade them to calm down.

"The spirit of the book is 'fessing up to all the daftness and absurdity that we find ourselves getting sucked into," she says.

"It's quite a serious topic, and it's very close to peoples' hearts N because if people feel they are being criticised for letting their children down, the reaction is visceral. That's why we felt that humour was the only way to go with this."

But if even this exposure of their most ridiculous behaviour does not persuade pushy parents to back off, there is always the prospect of mutiny in the ranks.

The book tells of one little boy who told his mother it was "a violation of his human rights to make him go to orchestra on a Saturday morning".

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