Jayne Dowle: Car has become a major battlefield in war between parents and state

HERE’S a question to wake you up on a Monday morning. You’re a parent in a car. Which of the following do you find acceptable? Lighting up a cigarette and blithely puffing away while your children cough and splutter in the back? Or pulling up as close to their school as possible when it’s chucking it down with rain and hurrying them through the gate as quickly as you can? I think I know which one you will choose.

Parenting is a constant process of judgment calls. No one is born knowing how to bring up a baby/toddler/teenager. You can learn the practical skills with classes for nappy-changing and instructions for unfolding pushchairs. Yet when it comes to taking responsibility, we expect that somehow our instincts will kick in. The problem is, our instincts are being eroded by constant badgering from the nanny state.

I wouldn’t dream of lighting a cigarette with either of my two in the car. And I won’t let anyone else do it either.

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I don’t need politicians to spend hours of valuable Parliamentary business debating whether we should have a law against it though. The recent move by shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger to outlaw adults smoking in cars seems like a tremendous waste of time to me.

Smokers have become pariahs already. In 10 or 20 years’ time, I’d wager that we’ll look back in amazement that anyone ever lit up in front of a child anyway.

Meanwhile, what about parents who smoke in the home? Is a cigarette in a car more dangerous and toxic than a cigarette in a room with all the doors and windows shut? The shadow Minister produced some figures which suggest that toxins produced in a vehicle are 23 times more poisonous than those which are not. This was evidence of a sort, I guess.

However, if we think the campaign is all about protecting vulnerable youngsters in a dangerous environment, we’re missing the point. It’s all about policing the parents. I’d like to know when parenting became a potential criminal offence. At some point in the past decade or so, it’s gone from being a slightly haphazard, learn-on-the-job kind of process to a series of tests more demanding than The Hunger Games. And the car has become a major battlefield.

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I sometimes wonder if those who oversee the nanny state would be altogether happier if parents were banned from using cars full stop. It seems to me that there is something about a mother at the wheel – sorry chaps, but we tend to do most of the ferrying – which offends those who seek to control and direct the way we bring up our children.

The latest instance is this school in Northampton which is threatening to name and shame parents who park too close to the gates. Now, like most other parents, I totally accept the need to avoid those yellow lines which denote access for emergency vehicles. No one wants to imagine an ambulance or fire engine unable to get through if children are in danger. However, this obsession with creating a “safety zone” around schools is going too far.

The case in Northampton might seem extreme, but it is by no means in the minority. At my daughter’s primary school the headteacher appears to be on a mission to banish parents from behind the wheel. She cites road safety. She has a point, obviously. Accidents are more likely to happen near schools because there are lots of people in a concentrated area at one time.
No sensible parent would disagree.

However, this is no excuse for her endless patronising missives home on the subject, nor for the attitude of the local community police officer. He clearly has nothing more pressing to do than patrol the adjoining roads threatening to prosecute parents who park yards and yards away from the yellow lines. Between them, I’m sure these two won’t be happy until every family is trotting to school hand-in-hand as if it’s 1952. Many of us would enjoy the fresh air and exercise of walking there and back twice a day. However, for most of with work and other commitments, it simply isn’t practical to leave the car at home.

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The main achievement of this draconian attitude is to get up the collective backs of parents who feel insulted, stressed and aggrieved. We’re adults, not children ourselves. Yet what does it say about our capabilities? School premises are school premises, but surely it’s for us to judge where it’s safe to park and to teach our children how to cross the road? Even the most lax of parents will take care not to walk in front of a lorry. Even the most laid-back will pass this on to their children.

If we are to make a decent long-term job of being a parent, we must learn how to handle parental responsibilty.

However, if our natural instincts are stamped all over by the endless rules and regulations imposed upon us, just how are
we expected to learn? I’d say that this is a question much more difficult to answer than my original one.