The Sunday Times – Middle-class child neglect<br/> It’s a depressing world when people need to be told to speak to their children, by India Knight

Anyway, I was sitting there thinking that it’s a depressing world when people need to be told that it’s a good idea to speak to their small children, especially if those children can’t speak very well themselves. And then, when I got home and finally read the papers, I came across an article about one Judith Rich Harris, an American psychologist who believes that parenting doesn’t have much to do with how a child develops; according to her, the family counts for very little and peer groups count a great deal.

Ergo, you could sit there staring blankly at your child and not saying anything for decades on end and it presumably wouldn’t matter terribly provided a pack of children came round to tea and helped it to integrate. I’m slightly simplifying her hypothesis, but not much.

It sounds completely insane to me, I must say, though I can see how it might seem tempting if you are possessed of especially recalcitrant teenagers. Except that even – especially – recalcitrant teenagers need a bit of robust parental debate every now and then; otherwise frankly it’d all be weed, girls and My Chemical Romance.

Harris’s theory is somewhat undermined by a big long-term government-backed study whose findings were made public last week. Researchers from the London-based Institute of Education studied the way parents interacted with their children and how this affected the way the children grew up. In their report, academics said a home stuffed with toys, books and so on stimulated children up to a point when they were very young, but the effects did not last. Preschool computers and electronic activity boards, which teach toddlers numbers, shapes, colours and language, are among the fastest selling gadgets for young children, but researchers found they were largely unnecessary and said that what children craved above all was personal attention. (I find these toys weird. Why get a computer to teach your child her alphabet, so that she learns it from a disembodied voice with a US twang?)

Dr Leslie Gutman, the report’s lead author, said: “Toys and books have their place and do help children develop, but what is important is having the parents interact with the child. To have parents read to their children is much more important than having 100 books – that’s great, but if you are not reading to your child, that is not engaging with the child.”…

How I wish a toy manufacturer would just produce toys for distinctly average children, which is what most children are, regardless of their parents’ boring, ungrateful ambitions. And how I wish that when you looked around schools, someone would come and club those women who loudly ask what provision there is for “gifted” children, when theirs are not even two yet and from what you can observe are about as “gifted” as my big toe. Still, if you want to get away from them, I can recommend asking loudly about special needs provision; you’ll find they recoil in horror and go and stand as far away from you as they can.

If there are any child-psychologists-in-training out there, I have a great idea for your senior thesis (I want co-writing credit, especially if you’re a professional about to rip me off, damnit): get a bunch of kids together for your study (but individually) and shower them with expensive computer educational games and things, and one plastic dump truck or wagon or pony or something, and then after a couple of weeks randomly break or steal one of them, and see which ones they cry over the most.

Teddy bears might be too easy. As I sit now, at this ripe old age, you could take this computer with every song and photograph I’ve ever listened to or taken on it, but if you got near my pooh-bear I’d kill you with my teeth.