Children: rarely listening…always watching. Why parenting matters.

The Government’s latest wheeze is parenting classes. 

The Beeb has the story here:

The Guardian has the same story here:

Both stories show the Government is anxious to repudiate claims that this is “the nanny state” over-involving itself in our private lives. It’s the “sensible state”, we are told. 

Parents want help. It is in our interest as a society to help people bring up their children.

says David Cameron. And in principle I agree with him. I tweeted about these stories yesterday morning, saying:

There’s a whole lot of wrongness packed into the rightness. But fundamentally, he’s right. 

He’s right because parenting, for all its joys and pleasures, can be hard work, often lonely and help is needed; because navigating the modern world with our children demands more of us than simply replicating what our parents did (for better or worse). Things were different then. 

He’s right because homes and households are the cradles of our society. The relationships we nurture at home become the foundations of the communities and nations that we grow together, so what happens at home matters. Done in the right way, it’s healthy for us as a society to think together what good enough parenting looks like and to help families of every kind to achieve that.

So, having agreed with the principle, what about the Government’s proposals in practice? What about the wrongness wrapped up in the rightness?

Wrongness: Shopping for better parenting

Well, there’s the vouchers from Boots (and – to be fair – other places too). £100 for parenting classes. Hmmm. Many parenting programmes across the country are currently offered for free. Vouchers for classes aren’t about parenting. They’re about creating and developing a market in parenting classes. That’s about economic ideologies, not parenting practice. The transactions that these vouchers create and the messages that they send (good parenting comes as a freebie with your shopping!?) are problematic.

This isn’t helped by the fact that one of the organisations tipped to benefit from this new market in parenting vouchers is an old Etonian pal of the PM, with some…um…novel approaches to parenting, for which the evidence-base may…ahem…lack rigour. 

Wrongness: Ideologues colonising families

Does that mean that Government and public-sector bodies should be exclusively responsible for parenting classes? Well, no, we have to be careful here. Government classes that are in some way “one size fits all” – and in particular those that focus on validating particular family lives, styles and practices – could be propagating core ideological messages that are unwelcome to many of us; unfair, stigmatising, inappropriate or even discriminatory. Cameron apparently said:

…I would love to have a bit more information about how to get them to do the things I need them to do sometimes…

He might have been talking about rebellious back-benchers or naughty puppies, but he shouldn’t be speaking as a whip or a dog trainer. Parenting classes aren’t (or oughtn’t to be) about controlling and moulding children and creating an army of little Government-sponsored conformists. Here’s a great quote from Robert Fulghum (about whom I know nothing so he could be in every other way a wrong’un, but he’s right about this). He gets to the heart of what it is about parenting that really matters:

Don’t worry that your children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.

Our children are they way they are because we are the way we are. Whatever we may tell them, whatever instructions we give, they watch what we do and that’s how they learn. Parenting advice, help, classes and programmes need to be about preparing and enabling parents to do the things they need to do to provide the right environment for their children, so that they in turn learn and grow into happy, curious, loving, responsible adults.

And there’s plenty of that going on already.  

Wrongness: Ignoring existing good practice




My colleagues in our Children’s Centres were very fed up yesterday that there was no mention of the important work they do. There is already good, open access, universal provision of parenting and family support in Sure Start Children’s Centres across the country. The Government has removed the ring-fence from Sure Start funding, reduced the value of the overall Early Intervention Grant, and stated clearly that it wants to see Sure Start re-focused as a ”targeted’ resource concentrating on families with higher needs and vulnerabilities.

Many Children’s Centres have closed and many family workers have lost their jobs as a result, despite much popular local support for them to continue (as these images from some recent “Save Our Sure Start” campaigns show). For the Government now to be promoting a universal parenting offer through their voucher scheme is a kick in the teeth to all those who have long been committed to and involved in this work. 

Furthermore, it is a straightforward transfer of public good into private pockets (see above). What else did we expect from knee-jerk, neoliberal nitwits I suppose? But the fact that the Government is wanting to transfer the delivery of this work from the public to the private sector doesn’t invalidate the very good reasons for providing parenting programmes, any more than the existence of Bupa means that we shouldn’t want universal free-at-the-point-of-delivery healthcare.

Wrongness: So-called parenting experts aren’t ‘all that’.

The Guardian outlines the form that this new Government initiative will take:

Parenting classes will take place as pilot schemes, backed by a new website, in Middlesbrough, Camden in north London and in High Peak, Derbyshire. A relationship support service will be pilotted in York, Leeds, north Essex and in some London boroughs from July for all expectant parents and those with children up to the age of two. 

Elsewhere, I note from the Wikipedia entry on Old Etonian Octavius Black ( that:

Black’s parenting programme, Parent Gym, claims to be the UK’s most robustly evaluated programme. […] Parent Gym has been selected as one of the government suppliers for a pilot parenting scheme in Camden.

Oops! In the first outing of this blog, I mixed up the Mind Gym programme, with the flawed Brain Gym programme in schools, and thereby linked Parent Gym to Brain Gym. But Mind Gym’s not the same as the Brain Gym programme, it appears, so this edit withdraws that comparison. 

Nevertheless Parent Gym’s credentials are possibly problematic. 

In a curious welling-up of agreement with the Government yesterday I tweeted this link to the Department of Education’s website, where a range of evidence-based parenting programmes are listed:

I described their advice as “good and useful”. But tweetmate and respected Professor of Social Work at the University of Birmingham, @ProfSueWhite pointed out that:

It is until you look at the research – some good some bad – not clear cut. 

She was right to pull me up short on this. But that said, I note that the ‘robustly evaluated’ Parent Gym is not anywhere among the approved programmes. Interesting, eh?

My all-too-rare agreeableness towards the DfE information is because some programmes that I commission and value have their evidence-base supported there. But I haven’t sense-checked the evidence for all the programmes (and in any case, the website itself ‘scores’ some programmes better than others), so it’s probably more sensible to give a qualified recommendation to the information. And it’s also true that where programmes have been demonstrably effective in some circumstances, they aren’t necessarily transferrable to different circumstances (new locations, different communities) or scalable to work with greater numbers.

There needs to be scope for innovation; scope for small, focused local programmes which are showing impact in the community where they developed and which develop strength, resilience and better parenting capacity within that community itself, even if they aren’t replicable or transferrable elsewhere.

But – as @bengoldacre pointed out on Twitter yesterday:

Parenting programmes work.

And that’s certainly true of some of them. So, yes, I must acknowledge that in this tirade!

Wrongness: It’s not a response to poverty

There’s a real problem with the way this Government repeatedly chooses to characterise people who are poor as troublesome. In developing its thinking on the so-called ‘Troubled Families’ programme, the Government used indicators of deprivation as the basis for calculating the likely number of families it would want to local government to work with and immediately made a strong, but unjustifiable association between those factors and delinquency. 

Another Tweetmate, @langtry_girl asked the very reasonable question:

If a family is unable to feed / clothe its children due to loss of income to a combination of cuts / job loss / loss of hours etc. do they need parenting classes / social services intervention? Or do they need the context of their parenting to change? Not every parent unable to provide, unable to cope, is a bad parent. 

To which the answer must be: No. Parents who can’t afford basic essentials don’t need parenting classes, they need support – of a financial or similarly practical kind. Parenting programmes develop skills, attitudes and behaviours in those who participate in them. They don’t cure poverty. But nor do these classes and programmes necessarily need to be seen as a response to ‘bad’ parenting. They should be seen as a resource, without stigma, for all parents in all social classes and communities.

(Having said that, social work with families isn’t all about ‘intervention’ in a punitive sense. In many cases social work involvement with families can and does help in really practical ways to mitigate the impact of poverty. So I’d want to avoid thinking of social workers as some kind of ‘bad cop’ to the soft, fluffy parenting classes ‘good cop’.)  

Possible Wrongness: It will lead to a massive increase in Child in Need / Child Protection referrals 

Lots of commentators have picked up on this, including both @ProfSueWhite and @langtry_girl in yesterday’s Twitter exchanges. The possibility arises from the dual problem of many experts not being real ‘experts’ (just know-it-alls with a particular brand of smug, middle-England, judgemental do-goodery in ample quantities) and the fact that being poor is not the same as bad parenting, but our politicians like to forget that and conflate the two.

Entering the home of someone facing real disadvantage for the first time, its easy to be appalled at the lack of ‘things’ that those of us who are more fortunate take for granted. And when confronted by behaviour that we ‘diagnose’ as bad parenting – particularly disorder, indiscipline, squalor, hunger, it is easy to assume that we have uncovered bad parents who need to be corrected, told what to do, and from whom compliance must be demanded; that they are “made to do the things we need them to do”, perhaps. Safeguarding children is everybody’s business, and sometimes parenting experts (with or without the inverted commas) will find things going on in children’s lives which absolutely do merit referral to statutory services. But it’s possible that we’ll be seeing a whole load of distress flares sent up by well-meaning but confused people who have confused “wouldn’t happen under my roof” with abuse or neglect. 

In my area we will be watching this with interest. Parenting and family support already forms part of our prevention and early intervention work. If the new forms of parenting support are properly integrated with other early intervention activity this could become a well-managed and proportionate pathway to additional support for vulnerable families. However, there’s no doubt that if things go wrong there’s plenty of scope for what @langtry_girl calls:

…an increase in referrals to welfare agencies of children through no fault of their families. […] this together with cuts to budgets means we are going to face a perfect storm of overstretched services, traumatised children and sky-high harm thresholds.  

But what about the right stuff?

So, let’s get past the wrongness, and look again at the rightness. There are some problems and prejudices of existing programmes. For example – tweetmate @JulieAnon made the point that the parenting classes made available at her children’s primary school ran during the school day and therefore weren’t available to working parents. This may have been straightforward thoughtlessness or bad planning, but equally could be partly an all too common conflation of lack of work with irresponsible parenting. In other words, parents who are in work are parenting just fine; only the “feckless” need help. Where it exists this prejudice is not only really ugly and judgmental, but it stands in the way of people who need help seeking help. Familes don’t want to be stigmatised by their attendance or involvement in parenting classes – on this Frank Field (someone else I very rarely agree with!) is right.

They “should be seen as something normal to do, rather than remedial, or something only for low income families”.

We all sometimes need additional support for (or challenge to!) our parenting habits. All of us have something to learn. Advice, help, classes and programmes should be available to parents from every kind of family and at times and in places which work for them. If Government’s focus and funding can make more parenting support available and lead to the creation of programmes which are flexible and responsive to parents’ needs, this will help. 

It’s a waste of money – parents who need help will ask for it any way

Many who decry the current proposals say this. Parenting classes are an unneccessary interference in people’s lives and people are perfectly well able to seek help when they need it. Up to a point this is right. It’s true that some parents can, and will, ask for help when they need it, but many others don’t. Some don’t know how or where to find the support that they need. Many are afraid to ask because they fear being judged. Some at the very edges of despair are afraid that involvement with any kind of professional family support will lead to them being assessed as unable to care for their children and their children being taken into care. Universal availability of high quality parenting support starts to break down these barriers. No one should be forced into mandatory classes, (unwilling and resistant learners will resent the obligation and are likely to learn very little), but making support freely available for all families from pre-birth throughout every phase of children’s lives – and particularly at crucial transitions, such as entry to school or transfer to secondary school; times of family crisis, such as bereavement, separation or divorce; or unusual challenges, such a caring for a child with significant additional needs – should work, over time, to reduce the number of families who actually reach crisis point and have a need for a statutory professional intervention, whether that’s social work, education welfare, youth justice or other services. 

It’s all just common-sense, isn’t it?

This is related to the above. We learn how to parent from our own parents. They did a good enough job with us, so we can now just pass this onto our children, cant we? Parents who find it difficult to manage their family life are inadequate / uncaring / feckless / just not trying hard enough. If you can’t handle your children, you shouldn’t have had them in the first place. We don’t need parenting classes, we just need fast-track child protection procedures and a no-nonsense response to the underclass. 

Oh if only it was a simple as that! 

Every week my colleagues and I work with parents who – at this particular time and in these particular circumstances – can’t cope with their parenting responsibilties. They come from all walks of life. Sometimes their difficulties are small, and can be easily overcome. Parenting advice helps to put those difficulties in perspective. Sometimes the challenges are huge; families are on the brink of a statutory intervention and the support provided must be matched by a challenge to those families to take all the necessary action keep their children safe. We look at their difficulties and the risks and vulnerabilities they face and we seek out their strengths, what will contribute to their resilience and what we can build on.

For some of these parents, they aren’t close enough to their own parents, siblings or extended families to be able to learn from them and seek their support; for some, everything they learned in their upbringing was sorrow and pain – they know they don’t want to replicate that in their own lives but they don’t know how to avoid it; for some, there is super support, the extended family rallies around, but the problem they face in the here and now is one that none of them has experienced before, and they are all at sea and rudderless. Practitioners who have seen and supported in all sorts of situations can help these families.

And so can other parents. One of the great outcomes of the best parenting programmes is their propensity to create self-supporting communities of parents who learn together and then support each other as they face new challenges. We start to recreate “the village” we know it takes to raise a child.

What does ‘good enough’ parenting look like?

We may be worried that our children are not listening to us, but we can be sure that they are watching.

If they see us willing to learn, they will be willing to learn. If they see us acknowledge our mistakes, they will be willing to acknowledge their mistakes. If they see us resolve problems without resorting to anger and violence, they will have other strategies when fists fly. If they see us do the things we have to do, before the things we want to do, they will find self-discipline, rather than needing to be cajoled or coerced. There’s a place for parenting programmes to guide us if we find any of this hard. Be honest! Don’t we all, sometimes, find this hard?

If our children see us try, and fail, and try again, harder this time, then they will have the courage and resilience to do the same. If we stop doing things for them, or doing things to them, but learn and grow with them, then as authoritative parents we will be providing the balance of nurturing and boundaries, kindness and firmness that they – and we – need.

It’s called love, isn’t it?

Everyone in “the village” needs it. And you can’t get a voucher for that at Boots. 





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