The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 23, 2003
Lead Article

Bringing up kids brightly

The latest bright idea on childcare is to use management techniques on your kids. Kate Kellaway tries it out at home.

LOOKING after my first baby was like running a hotel. I remember checking on the customer, leaning over his Moses basket. Is everything all right, sir? It wasn't, usually, and there were furious tears when service was not up to scratch. I knew then what it was to be management. Or mismanagement. It was with slight incredulity that I picked up Ros Jay's new parenting book Kids & Co, with its subtitle 'Winning business tactics for every family', because it goes to show that one woman's joke is another's gospel. Jay suggests that we treat all our children as if they were customers. She writes amusingly, but her book is no joke. She is the author of mature books on business and has worked in corporate management training. The idea for her latest book came to her when she was trying to get her reluctant two-year-old son into the car. She gave him a trick choice: 'Do you want to sit in the front or back?' It was, she suddenly realised, an 'alternative close', a technique she recognised from her 'selling days', and it made her wonder: how many other business skills might be transferable? Now she has tried out all her negotiating, selling and customer-relation skills, and her family (three boys under six) has become a happy little corporation.

What I love about parenting books is the theatrical possibility of transformation. This looked like another chance to take leave of myself and pretend to be a magnificent mother/manager. I had set up a customer services department for Leo, aged 11, Bernie and Os, six, and Ted, four. Jay reminds us to smile at the customer—even if he is not always right. We need to keep 'the team' happy. I didn't particularly feel like smiling, but I turned up the corners of my mouth and beamed indiscriminately at everyone. Teeth needed cleaning and, as usual, nobody wanted to be first. According to Jay, it is essential to listen to complaints without interrupting. My customers were all talking at once. I listened. I smiled... Now to practise my negotiating skills.


Negotiating seemed easy: the children agreed that the fair way to solve the dispute would be with that (tried and tested?) management tool: Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Mo. But after much riotous chanting, everyone was angrily convinced that everyone else was cheating. The toothpaste had dried on the brushes and the smile had died on my face. I am an impatient person. I took Ted hostage and told him to open his mouth.

Impatience is bad news for mother/managers. You need time in which to be a competent parent. It was a relief, therefore, to read Jay's thoughts on bribery (that quick-fix) as a 'motivating' skill, even though she knows that in the wrong hands (mine) it can be a disaster. I wanted the children to get dressed quickly and mentioned the possibility of chocolate (at breakfast) for successful dressers. The result was brilliant. I watched a nonchalant nudist colony turn into a team of focused speed dressers.

Jay is a believer in family meetings, naturally. (The 'minutes' of our last attempt at a meeting read: No shouting. No hitting. Every one must be kind and gentle.) I thought it might be useful to have another little 'ideas' meeting. But getting the team round the table proved a problem. Ted packed his Petit Prince suitcase and announced breezily that he was going abroad. Os was cutting out tickets for 'the cinema'. Bernie was already at the table, but his mind was elsewhere. He was thinking aloud about reincarnation: 'I think when we die, maybe we'll come back as Americans.' It would be nice to conclude that there is nobody to assess the performance of those of us in mismanagement. — GNS