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No wonder Downton Abbey is a success: it shows what English people were like before we were spoilt rotten

We long for a habit of politeness and respect that parents no longer instil in their children

By on Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Captain von Trapp understood the importance of discipline

Captain von Trapp understood the importance of discipline

The word “spoilt” and its connotations have been besetting me on all sides. First, I happened to read Dr Aric Sigman’s The Spoilt Generation; this was followed by Theodore Dalrymple’s Spoilt Rotten! Then yesterday in the Telegraph, I found an article by Michael Deacon, with the headline, “Children need a firm parent before they need a friend”, suggesting that the old adage – “Spare the rod and spoil the child” – is actually true.

Dr Aric Sigman is a psychologist and a hands-on Dad with four children. His book is tough on namby-pamby parenting and in favour of tough love. The culture of instant gratification has led to “little emperors”; these terrorise their teachers and their parents (indeed, it is almost a criminal offence to smack our offspring) and generally demonstrate what happens if you give up on the idea of instilling boundaries, discipline and order at home.

“Entire empires have crumbled because of spoiling,” he insists. Whether the British Empire fell for this reason or not, I don’t know, but the old certainties of the English way of life – the stiff upper lip, the stoicism, the smacks, the hierarchy, the idea that children should be seen and not heard – have certainly gone for good. I think that children calling adults by their Christian names probably started the rot. When I was a child it would have been unthinkable to call my parents’ friends anything other than “Mr” or “Mrs”; indeed, I carried on addressing them thus well into adult life, until a more familiar form of address was graciously permitted. Today, everyone is on first-name terms at all times, starting with telephone bank clerks and total strangers in call stations on the subcontinent.

No wonder Downton Abbey has been such a success. It is not just because we all love the class system (though we do); it is because everyone is so polite. Children have to be taught how to be polite – over and over again, daily, for years on end. Parents today lack the time, energy, commitment, confidence or whatever, to do this boring but necessary task. As a child I was once sent to my room for pointing at an elderly visitor’s hands (covered in a disfiguring rash) and asking in a whisper what was wrong with them. At least I remembered to whisper.

Sigman, a Jewish agnostic, who also has my approbation because he uses the term BC rather than the modish, modern BCE, states: “A child has the right to a parent who will slap him on the wrist to teach him a life-saving lesson”. Don’t let officious social workers see you doing it, though.

Theodore Dalrymple, well-known prison doctor, shows what happens when Sigman’s little emperors enter the food chain, otherwise known as adult life. They often end up in prison or cause social mayhem in other ways. He believes it is simply a toxic sentimentality which thinks children should be allowed to “express themselves” as they like. Michael Deacon, in his turn, quotes Sigman with approval: “In our liberal age, it’s thought to be much better to have a laissez-faire attitude to children doing what they want than to be authoritarian.” But surely it’s possible to be authoritative without being authoritarian? Apparently Frank Field, the Coalition’s poverty adviser, wants school children to be given lessons in parenting. Personally, I approve of the parenting style of Captain von Trapp; teaching your children to come when you whistle for them.

  • Athanasius Kircher

    “Sigman, a Jewish agnostic, who also has my approbation because he uses the term BC rather than the modish, modern BC”

    I've read a fair few archaeological journals in my time, but I can't remember ever seeing the wretched “BCE/CE” in use. On the whole, it seems to be preferred by the kind of hopelessly smug amateur who believes such a patronisingly transparent ploy at imitating tolerance is somehow more important than being clear. I may be maligning some genuine and professional archaeologists, but the vast majority I suspect see it as a waste of time.

  • Ursula Canfield

    I would like the article save for this ridiculous remark: 'It is not just because we all love the class system (though we do)'.

    We certainly do not. I think it's dishonest to confuse the widespread yearning for manners and respect with any kind of support for a system which kept inbred, cruel, unChristian aristocrats in an elevated position which they used to oppress others.

    Bottom line, Christ was born in a stable. His foster-father was a carpenter. I don't see support for a class system in anything Christ said.

    There should be no class system, and we should all have equal opportunities. That means less servants and nannies for the wealthy, and that's a damn good job.

  • Phillipturnbull

    Read only yesterday, “I am happily married and have a number of children whom I see for, what I hope is, ten awe inspiring minutes a day.” Evelyn Waugh.

    I think that is 2 minutes over the required limit, but there you go.

    Children need to know three things if they are to grown into social beings who do not trample on others or scratch their eyes out.

    1. What are the rules?

    2. How far can I bend them?

    3. What will happen if I do step over the line?

    The last is the make or break point and shows whether a parent or a 'keeper of the law' loves and respects the other.

  • paul

    I think complaining that it is 'almost illegal' to smack our children is quite unethical. Smacking is crossing a bridge to far

  • EditorCT

    Goodness, just when I had you down as a red (literally) hot socialist, you spoiled it all by advocating enforced unemployment for the “lower classes.” Shucks.

    The fact, Ursula Canfield, that you cannot see support for a “class system” in anything Christ said, is neither here nor there. You certainly won't find any support for revolutions in the interests of “equal opportunities” in the Gospels or other New Testament writings.

    Indeed, Christ made a point of saying that His followers should “give to Caesar” (Emperor) the things that are Caesar's” – due taxes/lawful behaviour etc. and, He spoke of returning to earth at the end of time as a King in judgment. Nothing “classless” about that.

    Now, listen, there's nothing I'd like more than to be elected 'President of Scotland and the UK' and be able to lord it over the minions, in their various layers, beneath me, and I do mean “beneath.” But it won't happen. Somebody else will be at the top of the tree. Won't be me. Has to be somebody, though. And I've always been sceptical about this business of 'equal opportunities.'

    Seems a bit at odd to me, to hold up the example of Christ's lowly birth and his father's mundane occupation as some kind of argument for a classless society and “equal opportunities.” But then, I can be a bit dim at times.

  • Ursula Canfield

    Dear Editor,
    Don't be daft. Giving unto Caesar is an instruction not to be a anarchist, not Christ's way of telling the majority of people that they should be treated like serfs. I find it difficult to believe that anyone, least of all a Catholic, would advocate the British class system. It kept the poor (and that was most people) without any opportunities (and that means a decent education, a chance at a good job), simply so that a tiny bunch of inbred, arrogant, bullies could pretend to be aristocratic. Please don't tell me that the CH (which I very much admire) supports some insane divine rights of kings. That divine right was used by Henry 8th to massacre Catholics. It's a man-made invention, as is the indefensible and cruel caste system in India.

    Of course Christ will return as a King – he is God. He's the exception not the rule. It's a huge stretch to claim that gives some syphlitic war-monger the right to treat everyone else like peasants. That's what most aristocrats are by the way: people who were given land and titles because they slaughtered other people. They are very far from being God's choosen people. Do I even need to point this out? Look at the British Royal family.

    Why do some Catholics view the words 'equal opportunities' as a threat? Just because crazy femmanazis and liberal creeps have hijacked the term it doesn't follow that we Catholics should then want to deny opportunities to everybody. And everybody deserves them. My mum's family were very bright but very poor (like a lot of people in the 50s/60s). Twenty years earlier my mum would have been told to be a maid, actually she was more or less told that anyway but she is not the meek kind. Against considerable odds she trained to be a nurse instead, and all of her kids went on to go to college. That's what I mean by opportunity. Would it have been better if she had been aware of her 'class position' and ended up skivving for someone?

    I don't believe in the class system. The explosion in new technology and knowledge is precisely because more 'lower class' people got to go to school and college.

    And the rise in bad manners and yobbishness is mostly because of family breakdown and the lack of moral authority been shown anywhere (including, again, the awful British Royals).

  • Ursula Canfield

    PS I agree that kids are spoiled rotten. The only cure for that is to have a married mum and dad and to have a large family, puts manners on everyone :).

    Can't abide the Sound of Music though, sorry.