Strong families make for happy people. I always subscribed to this sentiment, even though, or maybe because, my own parents had divorced. But ask me how to strengthen a “troubled” or dysfunctional family and I would have been at a loss. I was absolutely sure, however, of what wouldn’t work: parenting classes. They were unacceptable interventions into hearth and home, the tools of statist ideologues and social engineers.
They were not for ordinary parents – and, in particular, they were not for Catholic parents. We can rely on our tight-knit families, values-laden upbringing and schools to raise model children. We know what to do when little Mary bops her younger brother on the head to get at his ice cream. We know what to say when little Benedict is caught cheating in his exam. Don’t we?
Last year I had a Damascene conversion. I was visiting parenting classes up and down the country as part of a research project. I interviewed 70 parents who attended these classes: some were disadvantaged, others middle class; some Muslims, others totally secular. Some were forced to take parenting classes by their GP or teacher because of trouble at home; others were there out of choice, concerned over a relationship with a child – or just desperate to be the best parent they can be.
Aren’t we all? Yet when expecting a baby, while everyone enrols automatically in antenatal classes, once the babe is in our arms we think we should master parenting independently. This expectation places a huge burden on new parents. Those I met confessed, almost without exception, to feeling tremendous pressure about being good at mothering and fathering. Sharon Lawton, one of the parenting classes’ “facilitators”, told me: “It’s like being given the picture of what a puzzle will look like, once completed; but then being told, ‘it’s up to you to go out and find the pieces.’”
For many of the parents I met, their own family had afforded them no role models whatsoever. They had some idea of what they wanted to achieve with their own children, but as they would themselves admit, over and over, they needed help to do so. Thankfully, the “practitioners” who led the parenting groups were nothing like the child-snatching, know-it-all social workers of my imagination. These women (they were all women) sat beside parents and gently nudged them to see the consequences of their actions: “If you yell at your son, he will yell at his classmates. If you ignore him, he will act up for some attention.”
This kind of advice was never presented as a diktat, or a rigid prescription of how to raise your kids. Parents, in describing their group facilitators, spoke of their “encouragement”, “help” and “steering” – rather than of their imposing a particular format on their relationship with their children.
But it wasn’t just the practitioners who made the parenting classes so valuable for the parents I met. Their “classmates” made for a group dynamic in which confessions came naturally, if not always easily; and useful corrections were made – based on parenting experience. The group, usually of six to 10 predominantly mothers, seemed always to make friends. Loneliness and isolation, I learned from my interviews, are the twin scourges of parenting in 2017. I was struck by how few of these mothers and fathers could rely on their own parents or an extended family. For many, their mother was fortysomething and out at work, or lived in a different city. In any case, their mothers had lost touch with their daughters when they didn’t get on with the new man (or sometimes men) in their life. Their father had been either absent or abusive. The parenting skills groups provided an alternative to the broken, the missing or the long-distance family network.
But if the parents I met were unanimous in their enthusiasm for the parenting classes, they were as one in complaining that these classes were far too brief. Most courses last eight to 10 weeks. To truly absorb their new good skills and habits parents needed longer; and to fully forge friendships and build an alternative network, they would also benefit from more exposure to the group.
This is why – together with Juliet Neill Hall, the inspirational children and families strategic lead for Surrey County Council – we came up with a scheme to extend existing parenting classes. We would introduce a local trained volunteer in the classes, who would sit beside the parents through the usual 10 weeks. Then she or he would lead the team into less formal group discussions that might meet at someone’s home or in a church hall.
The group would use material prepared specifically for us by Family Links and Gary Lewis, headmaster of the extraordinarily successful Kings Langley School in Hertfordshire. Gary, who happens to be Catholic, has been working with his school parents on sessions that feature the kind of moral dilemmas facing parents every day – from 10-year-olds being bullied to teenagers answering back disrespectfully. From the response he has received, parents are eager for more of these sessions.
Surrey County Council plans to pilot our National Parenting Trust scheme across its districts next autumn. Like us, they believe in strengthening families – for everyone’s happiness.
Cristina Odone is the director of the Legatum Institute