Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Friday, 10 July 2009 15:55 UK

The ultimate mea culpa

Baby's hand
Sorry, no cuddles

No childhood traumas could be blamed on my parents because they had an alibi - a doctor on the other side of the world, says Laurie Taylor in his weekly column.

I first learned about the sinister Doctor Truby King after a particularly bad row at home about whether or not I'd given my mother all the change from the milkman.

Like other rows at home in which I'd been in the wrong, this one had ended up with me at the top of the stairs shouting down at my enraged parents (I knew that if either of them charged up the stairs after me I could dash into my bedroom and latch the door behind me).

"You don't like me. You've never liked me!" I shouted with all the moral fervour of a hypocritical 12 year old. "What is there to like about you?" bellowed my dad. "You're a little devil." "Well, if I'm a little devil," I shouted back over the banister. "Then you must be big devils for making me like this in the first place."

I was rather pleased with my retort. But the retaliation from my mother was swift and to the point. "You can't blame us for what you are," she said. "You were brought up according to strict scientific principles."

Laurie Taylor
Hear Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed on Radio 4 at 1600 on Wednesdays or 0030 on Mondays
Or listen to it here on the iPlayer

That's a phrase which has come back to haunt me throughout my life. Whenever I start to wonder if any of the mistakes and problems and traumas that I've encountered in my adult life could possibly be blamed on my parents, I remember that I can't really have this alibi. Anyone who was raised according to strict scientific principles has only themselves to blame.

It was a few months after the row over the milk money before I realised the precise nature of the scientific principles that my parents has used for my upbringing. It was all there in a book which my mother often left lying around the living room, a book with lots of big pictures of very healthy children (There was a particularly striking photograph of a set of Canadian quintuplets).


But only as I began to read the accompanying text did I realise that I'd stumbled upon my mother's scientific procedures. There, laid out in stark clear terms, were all the rules which had to be followed if you were to produce a child who resembled any of the strong, morally upright offspring who leered out from its pages.

The author was a New Zealand doctor called Truby King and it didn't take me long to realise that he had little time for my sort of childish tantrums. King went on and on about how now was the time when science must take over from such non-scientific matters as a mother's instinct when it came to bringing up children.

The notion that little children were on the whole a pretty bad lot who needed to be put in their place at the earliest age possible

Children, I learned, must never be allowed to dominate their parents. If very young children started to cry and scream in the times between their regular feeds, then they must be left to cry and scream. Exactly the same principles applied to sleeping and bowel movements. Children had to learn that they couldn't eat or sleep or defecate when they felt like it. There were proper times and places for everything.

There was one other golden rule. On no account should children be regularly cuddled. I can't now remember the scientific basis for this but it seemed perfectly constant with the underlying theme of Dr King's work - the notion that little children were on the whole a pretty bad lot who needed to be put in their place at the earliest age possible.

When my own son was born I was determined that he should not be subject to such an authoritarian regime. His mother and I embraced a far more libertarian code. If he wanted something - milk, biscuits, plasticine - then he should have it. If he chose not to take part in any activity that we thought might be good for him - learning the names of flowers, how to play the piano, how to build Meccano platforms - then that was his prerogative. "Do what you will" was our only philosophy.

Alarming slogan

And did it work? I only know that five years ago, he turned to me one night in the pub near his workplace and told me, in slightly slurred tones, that he'd always resented one aspect of his childhood. "Why," he asked. "Did you never make me learn things properly? Why didn't you insist that I learned to play the piano or to speak French? Why did you let me get away with it?"

I decided to say that I was sorry. It seemed the easiest path. Somehow I didn't think he'd thank me for explaining that anything that was currently the matter with him was due, albeit a little obliquely, to the practices advocated by a New Zealand doctor, whose childcare organisation rallied under the alarmingly patriotic slogan: "The race marches forward on the feet of little children."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Surely the very fact that your parents brought you up, regardless of which method they used, or who they listened to, means that they are responsible. They chose that particular style of guidance, therefore they consciously made a choice in your upbringing. To allow the blame to be shifted to any child for their own upbringing is just ignorant. Incidentally my parents were also of the liberal variety described above - I have never stuck to anything, but it has given me the confidence to try everything. That too is a valuable gift.
Dee White, Paris, France

Parents should stop blaming things on science. The problem is they forget what it's like to be children. They forget, because they are so wrapped up in the busy lives, of work and bills and stress. It is not a single person's fault, it is a community of people to blame. Everyone has a hand in raising a child - mums, dads, nans, doctors, school teachers and friends. So the fault never truly lies with one person alone.
Leanne, 16, Kent

I think the majority of parents tread the path between the extremes, I will encourage my children to learn when they don't feel like it, and go to bed at bedtime etc, but if I can see a situation is causing them unnecessary trauma then I will react instinctively. There is no right way, it is an organic process.
Isobel, Kendal

"Fads" come and go. I recall when Dr Spock was widely read, then he fell out of fashion, then back in again. In all these methods scientific or otherwise, parents need commonsense. Unfortunately not all parents have commonsense.
Pauline, Perth, Western Australia

Children blaming their parents is a healthy part of growing up and away from their childhood. Whatever the parents' regime is, their children should test it, otherwise they will just be carbon copies. I can't understand why parents feel guilty about it. Stop trying to be perfect. Relax, and enjoy the fact that you have raised children that can think for themselves! Use ear-plugs if necessary.
Jo Edkins, Cambridge, UK

Can I have the answers please. I have two kids and they are different - they act differntly, learn differently and I love them lots... We just need to do our best to help them function in a normal society.
Clare, St Albans, UK

"Don't do as I do, do as I say," was my mother's saying on that subject. Tongue-in-cheek, of course, because animals naturally learn by example, not by teaching per se. A child is a mirror - doing just what they see being done.
Helen, Devon

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