The "tough love" style of parenting needs to be resurrected to help improve children's chances in life, Labour MP Frank Field has suggested.
Mr Field, who is writing a report for ministers on tackling poverty, said children needed "clear boundaries" in their early years to prosper later on.
Most people wanted to be good parents, he told the BBC, but many lacked the "technical knowledge" how to be so.
Improving support was more important than cash handouts, he insisted.
Mr Field has been dubbed David Cameron's "poverty tsar" after the prime minister asked him to produce a report on the link between the care and support given to children in early years and their progress in later life.
The Labour MP, who was asked "to think the unthinkable" during his short-lived time as welfare minister under Tony Blair, told the BBC that the learning, emotional and physical abilities of poorer children were largely determined by the age of five and too many were falling behind.
"It is gloomy and it is shocking," he told BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour.
'Gloomy and shocking'
There were children starting school in his constituency who did not know their own name, were not able to hold a pen or to sit still for any time without hitting another child, he said.
While the situation was less serious in better-off areas of the country, there were clear "warning signs" about the situation facing children right across the country.
"I wish it was just only Birkenhead," he told Radio 4's Woman's Hour. "It is a national phenomenon."
While acknowledging there was no "golden era" of parenting, he said attitudes had changed for the worse in recent decades.
"Middle and working class parents stumbled across this 'tough love' approach where you put clear boundaries, but within those boundaries you are totally child-centred. You nurture them, love them and journey with them to adulthood.
"But that, for all kinds of reasons, has got fractured. It is a wish for young people to know how to get back to that."
Money not enough
While there were some "feckless" mothers and fathers, he said "the truth is that most parents want to be better parents".
Mr Field said his report, due to be published in December, would urge an overhaul of early years support and that he would prefer to see cash benefits reduced than support services for parents pared back.
In a scarcely veiled criticism of Chancellor George Osborne, the BBC's Political Correspondent Ross Hawkins said that Mr Field was arguing that one £1.2bn change to child tax credits in June's budget could have paid for a doubling in the funding for Sure Start children's centres.
"Money alone is not going to tackle the issues we see," Mr Field added. "Money alone will not give people the space, the abilities and knowledge to be the good parents that most want to be."
Anne Longfield, chief executive of charity 4Children, told the same programme that continued support for Sure Start centres needed to be at the heart of future early years support.
"It would be wrong to cut them for short-term savings," she said. "In the end of the day, this will save money. It is what parents need and what children need."