We assume that child-rearing classes are only for troubled families but everyone could benefit
The Unmumsy Mum Diary. The Bad Mother’s Diary. Hurrah for Gin: A Book for Perfectly Imperfect Parents. The titles tell a story of parental guilt and self-doubt that is common enough to have turned these books into bestsellers.
We all know what we want for our children: to be happy, confident, loving. But getting them there? Who can say whether it is best to adopt a firm disciplinarian approach or a caring-sharing, huggy-kissy one? Should we use naughty corners, or “time out”, or a “ban on screens”? Is a parent who demands all A-stars better than a parent who wants to be a BF?
I recently met a group of senior bankers to discuss mentoring for disadvantaged schoolchildren. Halfway through the discussion, Gary Lewis, the headmaster who transformed Kings Langley school in Hertfordshire from a sink comprehensive to an outstanding academy, said that parents need mentoring, too. He had been offering his school’s parents “advice evenings”, centred on a moral dilemma: “Katie has spent her pocket money but her best friend’s birthday is coming up. She asks you for £10 as a loan, what should you do?” When Lewis finished speaking, the assembled masters and mistresses of the universe fell upon him with a barrage of questions, concerns and dilemmas of their own. Mentoring of struggling children was forgotten as high-earning parents begged the head for more tips.
I doubt a single one of those parents knew about parenting classes. If they did, they will have assumed that they were for “troubled families” — but the truth is, even those who think they know what they’re doing need the support, skills and connections provided by such classes.
I have spent six months researching classes up and down the country for a report, Parenting Skills Classes: Transforming the Next Generation, published this week. Some of the classes I visited were government-funded, others were run by charities or private companies. Some included disadvantaged parents, others only Matthew Williamson-clad tiger mummies. But all confounded the prejudices I held.
Even those who think they know what they are doing need support
Couples expecting a baby will automatically enrol in an antenatal class, whether with the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) or the NHS alternative. But once they have filled the NHS’s little red book, with its record of height, weight and vaccinations, parents seem to think they must cope on their own. Admitting defeat at the hands of a pocket-sized tyrant seems humiliating; turning for help in dealing with a teenager’s traumas feels embarrassing. It doesn’t help that “interventions” in family life have become associated with sinister stories. Anyone who has had a record of addiction, depression, or who has merely argued loudly enough for the neighbours to complain, lives in fear of interventions by social services. Given that so many parenting classes are run by local authorities and include parents who have been referred by a GP, a teacher or the police, the “troubled families” label sticks.
It’s true that successive governments have invested in parenting skills classes as a means to combat anti-social behaviour. But plenty of private providers are selling classes to parents, and the fastest growing group among charitable providers is religious — both Muslim and Pentecostal Christian groups are now offering parenting classes.
The parents I interviewed described classes as life-saving, life-changing and fun. In the aftermath of childbirth, you don’t have to be among the one in ten mothers suffering from postpartum depression to feel low or lonely. Finding that other parents are cut off from the grown-up world, guilty about failing their children, overwhelmed by responsibilities, is comforting. The group dynamic acts as correction, too: admit that you snapped at your six-year-old and fellow parents will remind you about patience and self-restraint. It’s the principle behind the appeal of Mumsnet: pooling experiences for support and, sometimes, solutions. Parenting classes also offer facilitators who lead the group into reflection, confession and the resolution to do the best they can. I watched in awe as memories and aspirations were elicited from parents; open-ended questions resulted in an often poignant picture of how they had been raised and how differently they sought to raise their own children.
If the benefits of parenting classes are so obvious, why aren’t we all taking them? One challenge is that most of us wouldn’t know where to find a parenting class in our area. There is no central database — no one can even put a number on how many classes exist — so participants tend to come either through word of mouth or through referral.
The other problem is that they are far too brief. After ten weeks (the usual duration of a course) parents are just beginning to adopt the skills they have picked up and to forge proper friendships. Some classes set up WhatsApp groups to stay in touch while others try to meet informally. But to embed the necessary skills takes longer than two months.
To address this, I am founding the National Parenting Trust (NPT), a charity that will use local volunteers to extend existing parenting classes. Using material designed by the charity Family Links and Gary Lewis, the NPT groups can meet informally to continue learning and build friendships for as long as parents feel they need to. Which, from personal experience, may be for the rest of their lives.