By Fiona McIntosh The Sunday Mail, 2/5/2004

YOU are in the corner shop with your three-year-old when she says: "I want a lolly." You ignore her.

"Mummy, please can I have a lolly," she begs, but you hold firm and say No.

"But why?" "Because you didn't finish your lunch,"
"But Mummy, I'm really hungry," "I said No."
"But Mummy, please,"

And on and on it goes. Only there are days when you are so worn out by work or home or both that you don't have the energy to argue. You can't even say "No" as if you mean it. So, instead, you give in.

This, according to a new hardline childcare book, is a fatal mistake. By handing over that treat, you may as well be handing your toddler a one-way ticket to Brat Camp.

And it's not just you who will suffer by their tantrums and disobedience. According to American child psychiatrist Robert Shaw, such lax parenting is causing a human time bomb — a generation of children who are too selfish and spoilt to put anyone's needs before their own.

"Our society has spawned an entire generation of unattached, predatory, cognitively smart, but emotionally stunted children without the capacity to appreciate the feelings and legitimate needs of other people," he writes. "These children are manifesting the various stages of a serious epidemic that is devouring the children of comfortable and educated parents.

It's shocking stuff, and the opening pages of Dr Shaw's book,The Epidemic, which looks more like fictional horror than a childcare guide, drip with fire and brimstone. From the first word, he terrifies you into questioning your sloppy parenting style.

Opening with a graphic description of the 1999 Columbine shootings when two teenage boys slaughtered 12 pupils and a teacher at their American high school, Shaw leaves you in no doubt this is the thin end of permissive parenting. As he warns gravely:

"Wherever I go — in stores, on the street, in restaurants, in people's homes — I see repetitious scenes of whining and tantrums, and an increasing number of kids who look sullen, unrelated and unhappy. These kids are in the early stages of what I believe is a serious epidemic of disturbed children. Those who become school shooters are simply at the far end of the spectrum."

It's a long way from Penelope Leach, the childcare guru who advocates "baby knows best". But then The Epidemic is intended to be a backlash against the past 30 years of touchy-feely liberal parenting practices and a "wake up call" to the current generation of lost parents.

"Too much freedom is as fraught with danger as too much discipline," warns Shaw, who, rather than advocating a return to "rod of iron" Victorian parenting, argues there is a third way, called "firm loving".

This is about returning to the basics of structured eating and sleeping routines, forming strong parental bonds, setting limits and teaching children traditional values of honesty and effort to help them combat an "increasingly toxic world saturated with consumerism". He says we have all been too worried about crushing our child's fragile self-esteem and noble spirit to say "No". As a result, we are raising a generation of uncontrollable children who are so pampered it's as if they are on a permanent spa break. How, he asks, is that going to equip them for the real world?

He also warns that with the rising number of families in which both parents work full-time, we are often too exhausted and too guilt-ridden to be good parents. Instead of being connected to our children and offering them firm, moral guidance, we placate them with treats and too much TV.

Shaw stops short of ordering all mothers to stay at home to fulfill their maternal duties, but he does urge all parents to consider flexible working hours so at least one parent can be at home with the child some of the time. His uncompromising tone will grate with many parents, and it won't be hard to find child care experts who disagree with Shaw's calamitous predictions. Much of the book flies in the face of childcare theory of the past three decades. He sees children as tiny savages who need to be trained if they are to lead civilized, happy lives.

As such, tantrums should never be tolerated, but instead addressed with zero tolerance. The worst a parent can do is to ignore or try to talk down a screaming toddler with "but Mummy loves you" type of reasoning. Shaw suggests that, instead, you put the screaming toddler in a safe place, perhaps with "a pressure-mounted safety gate" to lock them in, and wait until the storm has passed. He even sanctions the use of those immortal words last heard 30 years ago: "No, because I said so." In the context of other child-care books, this is fabulously controversial advice. But once you get past the melodrama in the first few pages, Shaw's book makes an awful lot of sense. At last, here is a childcare expert with 45 years' experience who makes it OK for parents to lay down the law firmly and fairly. To the mother of two small children, I can tell you, this is enormously empowering stuff.

Like a lot of parents I know, my husband and I started off with good, firm intentions when we put our babies in a sleeping and feeding routine in their first few months of life. But it's easy to be worn down by a clever and capricious toddler who knows exactly how to press all the right buttons. Shaw reminds us that growing children who are programmed to push their parents to the limit need to hear the word "No" as much as they need big hugs.

So next time my three-year-old asks for a treat when she hasn't deserved one, I vow I will not enter into UN-style negotiations. I shall say "No" with utter authority and walk straight out of that shop.