Can parenting be taught? – The Guardian

I remember cursing Philip Larkin. “They fuck you up your mum and dad,” his famous line rang in my head as I looked down on my daughter, asleep in her cot. What if I did just that? Ahead lay years of potential challenges – school bullies, exam stress, drugs, eating disorders – when a few ill-chosen words or actions from me could doom her for ever.

How could I guard against this? The books I had bought gave conflicting advice. I knew parenting classes existed, but dismissed them as a way for the nanny state to interfere in family life. In any case, I didn’t want to admit my struggles.

If I had been more honest all those years ago, I would have discovered that I was not alone. Many parents are scared of failing their children – and, sadly, their fear is not unfounded. Stress and anxiety are commonplace and self-confidence rare – especially among young girls.

Parents have a lot to learn, then. But how? I researched parenting classes on behalf of the thinktank the Legatum Institute, and I came to the conclusion that I had been wrong to write them off. I visited classes in England and Wales, offered by different providers, from charities to private companies, and funded by different sources – private companies, local authorities and local churches. I interviewed 70 parents, some of whom had been forced to enrol in the classes; others who had elected to attend. All, without exceptions, felt that the classes had helped them.

Cristina Odone with her daughter Izzy



Cristina Odone with her daughter Izzy, 13 … ‘I dismissed parenting classes as a way for the nanny state to interfere in family life. In any case, I didn’t want to admit my struggles.’ Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

The questionnaire I used was simple and could have been answered in a word – but my interviewees regaled me with personal stories, some shocking, some sad, others humorous. I interviewed a father who felt his parenting class had been a lifesaver when his wife left him and their three toddlers for another man. I met a mother who had such bad postnatal depression that she arrived at the first parenting class with slashes on her face from self-harm. In Bradford, I interviewed a group of Muslim mothers who said that their aim was to ensure that their children had a better relationship with their fathers than they had had with their own. I interviewed a mother who refused to have sex with her husband until he agreed to attend the parenting class she was finding so helpful.

“It is particularly difficult for fathers to reach out for help,” Tommy Newman, a 36-year-old who attended Lighthouse Kidz in north London, told me. “We are expected to ‘man up’ rather than admit to not being able to cope.”

Mothers also often find it hard to ask for help. While we are ready to do so when we are expecting a baby – with as many as half of mothers-to-be enrolling in antenatal classes – once the child is born, we seem resistant to learning how to raise it.

One reason for this is that the government promoted parenting classes as an initiative for “troubled families”. As a result, classes now carry a stigma. Another reason is that many family campaigners see poverty as the cause of poor parenting – or, as one put it to me, parents don’t need a parenting class, they need a washing machine. However, the parents I interviewed wanted support instead. The loneliness and isolation that they – especially younger mothers – described, had affected their wellbeing and their confidence. “I must be the only mother who feels like this” was their common fear. The relief, when they discovered in class that everyone felt equally at sea, was immense.

“It’s all about relationships,” says Sharon Lawton, who runs parenting classes for Hertfordshire county council. In her experience, parents felt the greatest benefit lay in the support network found within the group. When the classes end (usually after 10 weeks), she said, “They tell me they feel bereft: how can I practise what I’ve learned without the group?” She said a few start WhatsApp groups, swapping worries and advice.

Parents’ isolation is understandable: extended families are a thing of the past. A group facilitator I met at a children’s centre in Hampshire had been working with parents for more than 20 years and said that, in that time, only a handful had been able to rely on their mothers or other family members for support.

This means that facilitators in parenting skills groups play a crucial role. Their guidance is often the only steer that parents receive. Nor do they just give advice on how to deal with schoolroom bullying and when to ban screens; some of the practitioners I met teach parents about nutrition, benefits and debt.

Given their influence in parents’ lives, facilitators could be bossy and prescriptive, and get away with it. But as Lawton stresses, “the best practitioners know not to be judgmental. Parents don’t want to feel talked at, or told how to do things.”

Juliet Neill-Hall, who has run parenting classes in Cornwall and is now strategic lead for children and families for Surrey county council, defines the facilitators as modelling “the social behaviour that research has shown is most likely to promote children’s long-term emotional stability: this is the authoritative style – warm and responsive with clear expectations and boundaries.”

Neill-Hall stresses that “Parenting classes emphasise the importance of discussion, negotiation and compromise in all relationships, not just parenting. And of having play and fun together.”

Without exception, the parents I interviewed said they would recommend a class, and had noticed an improvement in their children’s behaviour and in their relationship with their partners. The community at large benefits as well: parents are at their most receptive when they think their children can benefit – so the parenting classes are a way to spread the social glue that is celebrated in political rhetoric.

The only criticism that parents raised against the classes was that they were too brief. “It is unrealistic to expect that a parenting class can embed good habits in the space of a few weeks,” Neill-Hall agrees. “For many, this is their first exposure to positive parenting skills – and they’ll need support through the learning process.”

Which is why Neill-Hall and I have come up with the National Parenting Trust (NPT) to extend parenting classes run by Family Links beyond the usual eight to 10 week duration. The NPT will introduce into an existing class a local volunteer mentor who, once the official course is over, will lead parents into weekly (or fortnightly) group meetings. Here, they will have a conversation structured around material prepared for us by the charity Family Links. Gary Lewis, headmaster of Kings Langley school in Hertfordshire, will collaborate on the project. The NPT “bolt on”, which might use a children’s centre or a church hall as a venue, will last for as long as the group sees fit – possibly many years, in some cases. The volunteer can talent-spot a parent within the group to take over from them in leading discussions. The designated successor will enjoy a boost to their confidence – and, in turn, help to expand the network of local connections.

In September, Surrey county council will pilot the project. Parents who participate in the pilot won’t pay for the NPT, but future participants will be asked for a discretionary contribution.

I think the NPT will help families. And if, in any way, there’s a time when parents can read Larkin’s verse about mum and dad without wincing – I’ll be happy.

For more information on the NPT, go to parentingtrust.org

Cristina Odone is a director of the Legatum Institute

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