CHILDREN / Can you learn to be a good parent?: TV programmes, books and support groups all offer advice on parenting. Deborah Holder asks if it's really necessary

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THE BABY is bored and screaming, the toddler is doing something alarmingly quiet in the bathroom and the 14-year-old has just stormed out into the night. It's dark outside and you have no idea where he's going. If only you hadn't forced that confrontation about ducking school . . . but how else were you going to get him to talk about it? Before you just felt worried. Now you feel even more worried - and guilty, too.

As if adolescent tantrums weren't enough, parents are now coming under fire for many of the nation's ills. With warnings that the national crime wave is fast approaching tidal proportions, the public wants blood. The pressure is mounting to find a scapegoat.

A recent report by the Family Policy Studies Centre (FPSC), an independent research body, points the finger at parents. Crime and the Family: Improving Child-rearing and Preventing Delinquency links teenage offending with a number of factors, including poor supervision, neglectful or erratic discipline and parental discord. (The report does point to other problems - poverty in particular - but economic policy is, it says, outside its scope.) 'The power of parents in a crime prevention context,' it claims, 'is at its greatest before the children reach the age of 10.'

What has gone wrong? Are today's parents less competent than the generations which went before? Have they lost essential skills? The authors of the FPSC report want to put parent education on the national agenda, and they support groups like Exploring Parenthood and the Parent Network (see box). But can parenting be taught, or is it learnt by trial-and-error and somehow muddling through?

'The whole issue is very confusing,' says Sandra, the 23-year-old mother of a toddler. 'I read all the usual books - only it's never that simple. I got family advice in abundance whether I wanted it or not. They said: 'That child needs a bloody good smack,' and the books said: 'You must reason with your child.' I had no experience of babies. I think Emma was the first I'd even held.'

At one point Sandra was living in a hostel for single mothers, and felt unable to cope. But she couldn't bring herself to call an advice line or seek counselling. 'I felt ashamed,'

she says. 'I believed I had a special set of problems that no one else would understand, and that there was something wrong with me.'

Sandra's experience is by no means exclusive to young single mothers. Martha, 33, and her husband, Mike, encountered all kinds of unanticipated problems. 'One of the worst times was when I had my second baby and faced the jealousy of my first,' says Martha. 'I felt so guilty. I couldn't give the new baby the one-to-one attention I'd given the first, I could no longer give the first the attention she'd got used to. No one was happy. I found myself sneaking into the hall to cuddle the baby so the other wouldn't be upset. A friend said it was like having a husband and a new lover.'

Her husband also feels he could do with informed advice. 'It's not so much the practical things, but issues like whether to smack; how to explain a death in the family; whether to let boyfriends stay over; how to keep your temper when they're still weeing on the floor at two; how to get a bad eater to eat without making mealtimes an emotional battleground. I feel these things have wider implications, and I need advice on what they are.'

Parents who feel inadequate about how they are dealing with a crisis need help in coming to terms with their feelings. Jeanne Le Bars, of Exploring Parenthood, points out that guilt is an occupational hazard of parenting. 'The burden is now enormous. We know so much more now, and parents expect a lot from themselves. There is a huge pressure to get it right.'

Among the services offered by Exploring Parenthood is a free telephone advice line. This puts worried parents in touch with an appropriate professional within 48 hours of their initial call. 'It's expensive to run but vital,' says Jeanne Le Bars - especially at a time when the queue for NHS counselling or therapy stretches round the block.

The anonymity of a phone line attracts a broad cross-section of callers. What Exploring Parenthood is offering, Le Bars stresses, is not a crisis line but a chance to talk things through. 'This year,' she says, 'coping with adolescents is a consistent theme - getting the balance right between freedom and discipline. The essence of the advice we give is 'Negotiate'.'

Despite the relaxed approach of groups like Exploring Parenthood, there will always be those who won't pick up the phone. Asking for help means acknowledging that you have a problem, or your child has - something not everyone is able or willing to do.

Some parents may prefer to learn from television, recommended in the wake of the FPSC report by shadow home secretary Tony Blair. He pointed out that there were many TV programmes telling you how to prune your roses, but few on how to bring up children.

The BBC education department has been beavering away for some time, waiting for the rest of the country to catch up and latch on to the value of parent education. Recent programmes include What Shall We Tell the Children? (advice for parents on how to discuss sex with their children), Family Affairs (a daytime magazine programme for parents and carers), Nanny Knows Best (advice from an old hand) and Play It Safe (on preventing accidents in the home). In the pipeline are new TV and radio shows covering everything from first-aid in the home and surviving teenagers to what to expect in the first six months of a baby's life.

The BBC's director of education, Dr Eurfron Gwynne-Jones, is realistic about what TV can and cannot achieve. 'It can do some of the things,' she says, 'but it certainly can't do all. You can reduce the isolation of the parent at home with a new baby, and increase awareness of what to look out for. Allowing for individual differences, there is a pattern you can illustrate - and you can give confidence.'

Judith Banbury, the BBC's education officer, is involved in finding out what the public wants. She enlists the help of 'focus groups' which bring together parents and representatives of organisations such as the Playgroups Association. 'People seem to like ordinary people's experience,' says Banbury. Viewers and listeners prefer to hear something an expert would say from an ordinary mother with a name like Mavis Smith. Banbury believes this is to do with the guilt factor again. 'If you have ordinary people saying: 'Yes, my child was badly scalded,' it's somehow reassuring; it's something all parents have thought about.'

Celebrities are also effective as a means of catching the casual viewer and giving a programme authority. This may explain the across-the-board appeal of Family Affairs, presented by Gloria Hunniford and Caron Keating - who, by virtue of being mother and daughter, come across as ordinary people with experience and real stories to tell.

Anybody who's anybody in parent education seems to end up quoting Gillian Pugh and Erica De'Ath, experts in the field. 'Parenthood today is a demanding, stressful, lonely and frustrating experience; and if society continues to put high expectations on parents, it must also provide sufficient support systems to enable them to fulfil their obligations with knowledge, understanding and enjoyment.'

Pugh and De'Ath argue that policies are needed that will enable all families to enjoy a basic level of income, giving them some genuine choice in how they live their lives and bring up their children. 'Our main recommendation,' they stress, 'is that parent education should be available to all who wish to take advantage of it.' Words written almost a decade ago, but still very relevant today.-


EXPLORING PARENTHOOD, Latimer Education Centre, 194 Freston Road, London W10 6TT (081-960 1678). Offers workplace counselling, runs parent groups in the community and through schools, and provides a free advice line on the above number. This puts worried parents in touch with an appropriate professional within 48 hours of their initial call.

PARENT NETWORK, 44-46 Caversham Road, London NW5 2DS (071-485 8535). Operates through self-help groups run by parents for parents.

Crime and the Family: Improving Childrearing and Preventing Delinquency is available for pounds 12.95 from the Family Policy Studies Centre, 231 Baker Street, London NW1 6XE (071-486 7680).