The scenario: My five year old granddaughter is taking part in a show in June, so the dancing school were having an afternoon rehearsal, supposedly ending at 4 o’clock. The plan was to pick her up and deliver her and her six month old brother to their parents, who were working locally. Sunday 24th May was a scorcher.
We duly arrived ten minutes early and sat in the stifling car. Five minutes later, I went into the building. The dance studio is up 5 flights of stairs and all the parents were lining up along one side of the stairwell. It was hot and I was increasingly anxious about the baby sitting in the car with my husband. Babies don’t do heat very well.
At 4.25 an imperious voice echoed down the stairwell. ‘They are still performing the finale. So they’ll be a bit late.’ No apology.
I was disgusted and amazed at the high-handed attitude on display. After all, they had stipulated that we needed to pick up the children at 4. Nearly half an hour late, they condescended to inform us that there would be a significant further delay. But there was no real sign of anger or resentment from the long line around me. Except yours truly. After all, I’m no longer an ‘active’ parent – I’m not used to being treated as if I’m a stinking smear on the side of a shoe.
‘How much longer?’ I called back.
The face peering down at me scowled, clearly shocked at my temerity.
‘I’ve no idea,’ she snapped. ‘It could be ten minutes. It could be longer.’
‘Yes, but how much longer? Another half an hour? An hour?’
‘It’s no good getting cross with me,’ she huffed defensively. ‘It’s not my fault.’
‘I’m not cross. I’ve a six month old baby in the car. I’m wondering whether to take him back home, or not.’
‘I’ll go and find out,’ she announced. And disappeared. That was the last we saw of her.
I got the baby out of the car and stood in the shade outside, where there was a breath of air. Luckily for all of us trapped there, he’s a poppet. In the circumstances, he’d have been entitled to start howling with the heat, and the fact he’s teething with the resultant nappy rash. He cried for a short while when we first rejoined the queue, but then decided to coo and gurgle at anyone who caught his eye.
They finally let the children out. One at a time. Fair enough. Did they ask the parents at the front of the line who they were waiting for and work down the queue? No – they yelled each child’s name down the stairwell and their parent battled up the stairs, passing other costume-laden parents and their children coming down, while those of us waiting shuffled closer to the wall to try and make room…
When someone, quite courteously, queried this approach, the response was, ‘You’d be the first one to complain if we just let your children go any old how. It’s your children we’re protecting.’
I wondered just how this was protecting anyone. Watching the lines passing each other on stone stairs, with some of the children as young as 4, it seemed to me that sooner or later, someone was going to trip. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to inching up the stairs with the baby in my arms and then coming back down with baby, costume bag and a weary 5 year old in tow… Fortunately, my granddaughter takes a long time changing, so the line was a lot shorter by then. As her name was called and I started to walk up the stairs, the parents around me took matters into their own hands.
‘She’s got a baby.’ Someone called up, before turning back to me. ‘Hang on, they’re sending your little girl down. Stay there.’
A familiar face peered over the banisters. ‘Granny?’
Kind hands passed her costumes and lunch box down to me and we negotiated our way out. By the time we got the children loaded back into the car, it was 5 o’clock.
As you may have gathered, the incident niggled. But it has also sharpened my anxiety over a major societal fault line that is only going to get worse in the coming hard times. What I found striking was how very cowed the waiting parents were. This is an inner-city area and some of the waiting dads were big, burly men, shifting uncomfortably in the heat. I was expecting a lot more grumbling, but everyone just seemed wearily resigned. It came to me, standing there, that parents are used to being treated in this manner. And it doesn’t take long to figure out why.
Parents are an oppressed underclass, these days. Think I’m exaggerating? Take a quick trawl on the Internet – everyone from Ricky Gervais to Government agencies and ‘Bad Parent’ sites takes a pop at them. Reality programmes such as Supernanny has us shaking our heads at households where the children are clearly in charge. I have attempted to watch the critically acclaimed sitcom Outnumbered. Twice. But I don’t find it funny – it’s too near the knuckle for my taste. I don’t relish watching children talk and manoeuvre their parents into tongue-tied helplessness as I’ve seen it happen too often as a teacher. And I also know just what a handful those children are at school.
The problem is, we have some very muddled notions about parenting. We acknowledge on one hand, that it is vital for the long-term health of our society that parents put in the necessary time and effort to instil core values and acceptable behaviour in a loving, supportive environment. But somehow think that this can be shoe-horned in between having a career and running a home. House prices and rent being what they are, the majority of young mothers I know don’t have the luxury of ‘deciding’ whether to be a stay-at-home mum. They work because their wage is vital to keep a roof over the family’s head.
Grandparents are stepping up in unprecedented numbers to take on some of the burden of childcare. Many of us do it with love in our hearts and can utilise the skill and experience gained by years of looking after our own children. But what of those who are really too old and physically frail? Looking after babies and small children is a gruelling, energy-sapping slog and if you don’t have the necessary stamina, you are unlikely to be able to do the job adequately.
Professional childcare is also a chancy business. My daughter is fortunate to have found a wonderful lady whom I am happy to entrust my precious, precious grandchildren to. But we’ve read the horror stories in the papers… Let’s face it, the inhumane business of packing our four year olds off to full-time education is because it is a low-cost method of childcare. Many four year olds – particularly boys – are neither physically or emotionally ready for formal education and they are being asked to behave in ways they cannot manage. Not because they don’t want to please, but because they are unable to sit still for long or follow complex verbal commands. They are being set up for failure before they have a chance to succeed. Hence the significant numbers of angry, resentful nine and ten year old boys creating havoc in our classrooms. Hence the gangs of unruly teenagers who regard adults with contempt and aggression, preferring to use their peer group as the ultimate guide in deciding what to do over vital issues like sexual behaviour, attitudes to drink and drugs. Which is a major disaster and we – the adults – should be hanging our heads in collective shame. We didn’t need scientists to tell us that the teenage brain undergoes a major rewiring, whereby a teen’s ability to make coherent decisions is compromised by the flood of hormones and that they are far more prone to take unnecessary risks… Those of us who endured the teenage years of our own children know these facts only too well.
What do we do about this state of affairs? I’m not sure. It’s a complex and difficult subject. As a lifelong feminist, I am torn. I don’t want to see a generation of full-time mothers forcibly consigned to resentfully looking after children. However, I also believe that our children deserve a great deal better than the current made-do-and-mend care that they are currently receiving. And, for starters, I think we should think very carefully about how to empower parents and give them back their self respect…