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You CAN be a mother and find peace and quiet
By Amanda Blinkhorn
Ham & High
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There's help at hand when the kids are driving you up the wall and Armageddon is just another day chez vous. A new book about good parenting shows frazzled mums how to turn your children into the little darlings you know they can be - by being positive, firm and consistent. Peaceful children

What is etiquette when you bump into n long-lost friend in the waiting room of a parenting class? I hadn't felt quite so awkward since I backed into a parked Mini, then realised the driver was still inside it, cowering and cursing.

But north London parents are neurotic critters at the best of times, so it's no surprise that the hall of the New Learning Centre in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead, is like the deli counter at Waitrose, or the car pound in Regis Road, Camden.

Parenting classes should and are becoming, as routine and free from stigma as driving lessons, according to Cassandra Jardine, journalist, mother, and co-author of How to Be a Better Parent.

Cassandra believes bringing up children is too important a job to be left to chance. She should know, she's got five of them, a tally I rashly described as 'ludicrous' in its potential for sheer unhinged exhaustion. But Cassandra, who is married to an actor and holds down a full-time job at The Telegraph, looks alarmingly youthful and pretty rested on it.

'Children are my chief interest in life. That's who I go home to and that's what I want to do really well,' she said, adding that although she gets upset if things don't go well at work, failing to get it right at home is what makes her feel really wretched.

She wrote the book, not because she felt her children were at risk of going off the rails, but because she felt that there had to be an easier, calmer way to get herself and her children through the tedious business of getting up and out and back and homework done without taking up huge amounts of screaming and time which could be better spent having fun.

She was also intrigued by the idea that she had no qualms about taking her dog to obedience classes, yet somehow assumed her children would pick up rules and routines by osmosis.

She discovered an intriguing parallel between her puppy's behaviour and those of a demanding toddler.

She discovered an intriguing parallel between her puppy's behaviour and those of a demanding toddler. Of course, her puppy trainer had told her when the dog is an adorable puppy we might let it get away with sitting on the sofa. But when it was fully grown this sort of thing would drive us mad. 'So true,' I thought. A toddler who hogs the best seat and throws a tantrum is sweet.

But a teenager who sprawls all over the sofa and won't get up for an aged aunt is maddening. 'It struck me as odd that I could be bothered to learn how to make the dog behave well, yet leave the training of my children, so infinitely more precious, to chance and amateurish instincts.'

At the back of her mind there was always the fear that if she didn't get a handle on things when the children were young (they are currently 13, 11, eight, nine and four) the teenage years could be unnecessarily hellish. So it was that she was drawn to Noël Janis-Norton's New Learning Centre through a combination of professional and personal curiosity rather than desperation.

Noël is a serene and softly-spoken former New Yorker with three grown-up daughters and a teaching career behind her.

Cassandra's sister, she said, had a high old time watching her get everyone fed and off to bed last night. 'Are yon sure that's exactly what you should be doing? Does it say that in the book?' she mimicked. But in what way has what she has learned from Noël and co-author Luke Scott changed her life?

'Start earlier even if it means getting up at dawn. Those 15 minutes of sleep you lose will buy you more peace of mind than if you stayed in bed longer.' And stop waiting on them hand and foot. 'I was doing far too much for them,' she said. But didn't she crack under the strain of being permanently 'positive, firm and consistent', praising every step towards positive behaviour? 'I see you have a sock on' rather than 'Will you get your shoes on NOW' and reflective listening.

It took about a year, she said, before it became second nature. 'It's like learning a second language. You don't expect it to happen overnight but you carry on because it's worth the effort.' Between them they do suggest that all is possible. I test them out by running through my normal but dubiously skilled - parenting-wise - morning.

The day begins with the traditional yells for our three children to sit down to breakfast as I try to prise them off the television, followed by a short order cook's mantra of available options 'toast, cereal, beans on toast, omelette' all of which is rejected in favour of a yoghurt and rumbling tummy till lunchtime.

We leave on time, preceded by a non-stop chorus of Noël's favourite morning reprise: 'Come on, hurry up, we're going to be late', which she said, does nothing but spread alarm, frustration and panic.

The highlight of the pre-school morning is getting to the playground to find one daughter has forgotten her swimming gear. Do I tough it out and abandon her to the horror of wearing the school's emergency swim-suit in the hope that it will teach her to be more self-reliant? No, I thunder home to collect her costume, towel and goggles. I give myself a D minus, I say, prompting Noël to suggest that I am not only not preparing for success, I seem to be actively seeking failure.

That, explained Noël, is the heart of the matter: 'Parents are afraid to set rules for their chiIdren because they think it will mean losing their affection.' Nothing could be further from the truth. Children, she said, yearn for and seek rules. When they don't get them, they go their own sweet way. Sounds good, I suggest, but how does that help you when you're trying to restrict the hours of television to at least the hours of darkness? 'That was a piece of cake,' said Cassandra, triumphantly. Allow them to set their own rules and they go power crazy, setting far more restrictive rules than parents would. All you have to do is help them stick to it.   Given enough rope, she said, children will spend their time watching cartoons and eating ice-cream

There is little doubt that Noël and Luke's techniques work. Popping into another room we were introduced to a little boy of about seven or eight who was having a reading lesson with one of Noël's colleagues.

As Noël quizzed him about a book he had been reading, it became clear that he may not have exactly read it cover to cover. But Noël zoomed in on the positive, praising his co-operation, his enthusiasm for the book, and encouraging him to take another look at the characters to work out what they were up to.

An automatic, or rather, thoughtless, response along the lines of, 'I don't think you've really read it, have you?', or even, 'Are yon sure you read it properly?', would have really crushed him. Instead he left the room beaming, a shining credit to himself and her. He was, she said, unrecognisable from a few months earlier. He had been excluded from school for swearing, shouting and screaming at his teachers.

At the heart of the book is the uncomfortable conclusion that 21st century parents are killing their children with kindness. We are so afraid of denying them love and affection, said Noël, we let them treat us as doormats. Given enough rope, she said, children will spend their time watching cartoons and eating ice-cream. The trick is to remember you are the grown-up.

FactFile

Simple rules for mealtimes:

  • To prevent Jack in the Box behaviour Luke suggests that all children should go to the lavatory, wash their hands, and equip themselves with a drink before they sit down.
  • To discourage fights and fidgets, no-one should bring a toy to the table.
  • To minimise faddiness, children should be hungry, so they are more likely to try the food.
  • That means there are no snacks for them to pick at before the meal. If you allow juice, that should be served after the main meal, so they aren't full before they start.
  • To encourage an older child to take a leadership role, (other than in the creation of mayhem) give them a responsible role such as carving or opening the wine.
  • Saying "yuk" or anything equally derogatory about the food is not allowed - though praising the chef or the food is.

How to be a Better Parent, no matter how badly our children behave or how busy you are, by Cassandra Jardine, with Noël Janis-Norton and Luke Scott is published by Vermilion, Random House, and is priced £11. To order a copy, click here.

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