Parenting classes: support or interference?

23 May

There has been considerable reaction to the Government announcement last week, that a new scheme to provide parenting classes for mothers and fathers of children under five is being launched as a pilot in a number of areas of the UK.

The classes, designed and run by a number of different organisations, will be available on production of £100 vouchers distributed through Boots stores.  As a ‘non-stigmatised gateway’ to a help and support, this is not a terrible idea.  David Cameron was quick off the blocks with the ‘this is not the nanny state’ comment, just in case critics took the ‘Government interference in private life’ line, which, of course, many have since followed.

The reactions have resulted in a support vs. interference debate which is a bit empty.  Those who are on the ‘support’ side can cite evidence that parents do actively seek help, and surveys that show that they would like/would have liked more.  Those on the ‘laissez-faire’ side say that most people have done, and continue to, manage fine and should not be subjected to some State-sponsored version of the ‘correct’ parent, and should simply trust their own judgement.  In fact, of course, elements of both sides are true: many parents do want a bit of extra help in dealing with the trials of parenting or with particular aspects of children’s behaviour; on the other hand a plethora of professional exhortations on the subject can be bewildering and confusing, and encourage a sense of apathy or hopelessness.

However, perhaps there is a parallel between sex education and parenting classes which might lead us out of a sterile polarisation of these two positions.  In favour of sex education we have the argument that ignorance around sex can lead to all sorts of difficult outcomes: unwanted pregnancy, sexual diseases, sexual exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful.  If we enter sexual activity with understanding and knowledge, we can then use contraception, protect ourselves from infection and respect our own and our partners’ bodies. The State does not care what kind of sex we actually have, as long as it is consensual, involves people over 16, and we know where to go for assistance if any of the negatives do happen.  Similarly, the long arm of the State need not literally reach into the living room and tell us exactly what to say to or to feel towards our children, but it may, through funding of parenting support, provide some evidence-based insight into aspects of behaviour and conflict management, indicate pitfalls to avoid, and places to seek additional help where appropriate.

There are issues in assessing the effectiveness of parenting programmes – how well various approaches work for whom is not perfectly analysed as yet – but we do know enough to provide constructive guidance in areas that can be fraught: e.g. avoiding harsh discipline, rewarding good behaviour, being aware of the impact of parental conflict on children; reinforcing rather than undermining your partner’s parenting.  There are valid questions raised by sceptics of the scheme about ‘reach’ – will these classes get to the parents with the most to gain?  However, the same points could be addressed to sex education, and I don’t see anyone credibly suggesting that we should just leave young people to work it out for themselves as people have always ended up sleeping together – that would be fucking stupid.  Let’s not parent stupid by default either.

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