Working parents: Grown-ups can learn about kids' stuff

What to do if you lose control of your children? A parenting course may be the answer, writes Sarah Jewell
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The harmony of family life can disintegrate with alarming speed if children get the upper hand - as highlighted by tonight's Family Values programme on BBC2, featuring a family in crisis.

Miranda Swan, 38, a director of an advertising agency, knows all about it. She has twin boys of seven and a daughter aged five. Recently she and her husband went through a bad patch with the children, when they were shouting all the time and everything seemed "horrible and very hard work". She felt she was "a bad mother ... everything was difficult, especially with working full time".

Miranda realised that she needed help, and when a friend suggested going to parenting classes she decided to sign on for a 12-week course run by Parent Network, a charity that provides education and support for parents. The course teaches communication skills, and encourages self-awareness and self-confidence; Miranda soon found it stimulating and useful.

"There was one great exercise where you had to work in pairs and have a conversation with one of you kneeling on the floor while the other person was standing up; then our instructor would come and talk to the person who was standing up, and it was extraordinary how neglected and left out you felt if you were the one kneeling down." As a result of this Miranda decided to try bending over to listen to her children, and to make the effort "not to be distracted by other people talking to me".

One of the most thought-provoking things she learnt was that you don't have to be a "good" parent; you have to be a "good enough" parent. "We all have this idealistic view of what parenting should be like, and it can't be like that all the time."

Each week the parents were given exercises to do at home, and as the course progressed Miranda felt that her relationship with her children definitely improved: "I became much calmer and less likely to respond with a scream, less likely to act like a child myself. The shouting lessened, and as I behaved more calmly they responded to me in a nicer way."

Tim Kahn, who has been running parenting classes for Parent Network for 10 years, says: "Being a parent is becoming more and more complicated in our fast-changing society, and we need to overturn the idea that parenting is just instinctive; we need educational support." He thinks the key issue is getting parents to come to the classes; once they are in a group, "parents are usually amazed at how much movement they can experience with their children".

Parents have to be prepared to keep working at their new-found communication skills once the course ends, and, as Miranda says, "it takes time to unlearn the automatic shout or the automatic `no', and you only get out as much as you put in." Tim Kahn tells his classes at the end of the course: "You think you've got to the end but actually you are at the beginning", and he encourages parents to continue to meet in a support group or attend refresher courses.

For Miranda it was a valuable experience. "The course made me stop and think a bit more about how I was dealing with the household and the children and my husband, and it also made me decide to take half a day off work each week."

Parent Network (0171-735 1214); Mellow Parenting (0171-287 6295); Parent Effectiveness Training (01992 582451); the New Learning Centre (0171-794 0321)

`Family Values' is at 9pm tonight on BBC2.