Sophie's mum found being a parent `the hardest job in the world'. But then she went to classes specially created for people like her. Nicholas Roe reports
It seems a bizarre way to save the world. We're in a stark, modern room with garish cartoon animals daubed on the windows and toys littering the floor. Eleven mothers in their twenties and thirties are sitting in the middle on black plastic chairs, swapping kiddy anecdotes.

"My eldest slept for four hours last Saturday; it's blown my mind," says one.

"Using Thomas the Tank engine duvets has helped," offers another.

Saving the world? It is, if you believe that child-rearing holds the key to a bearable future - and most of us seem to. That's why Labour recently pushed the whole subject of parenting farther than ever before into the political arena by offering the prospect of parenting lessons for all, should it gain power.

And in this bare room at the antenatal department of St Mark's Hospital, Maidenhead, in Berkshire, the future is already with us. In a pilot project run by East Berkshire Community Health NHS Trust, mothers are being offered formal classes - for the first time by any statutory body - not simply how to care for their children, but also how to raise them.

Questions: Lisa won't eat her potato and demands a banana instead. What do you do? George wants to unload the eggs from your shopping basket. Do you let him? Suzie cries when she should be sleeping. Do you run in, or let her blub?

Traditionally, parents have faced such problems by applying a vague mix of instinct and memories, good or bad, from their own childhoods. Here, they become matters of cool academic study for a total of 160 parents (mostly, alas, mothers) attending 20 classes run by the East Berkshire trust.

The trust is offering classes because people want them, never mind the fierce, defensive pride that normally protects parenthood from outside influence. "Our staff say that more people are asking for advice, and they believe that dealing with the issues in groups is better for the parents," says Roger Davidson, a spokesman.

He adds, tellingly, "The trust has also seen a significant increase in the numbers of children with behavioural problems referred to our adolescent mental health service. Psychologists report that parents don't usually come for help until there is a severe problem. The parenting courses could help prevent some of the difficulties."

And if you want to understand what brings parents into the classroom despite attitudes that commonly view child-rearing as an innate skill, you should listen to Rachael Ellerker.

Rachael was one of East Berkshire's first parent students in the initial pilot study last year. Now aged 42, she gave birth to her daughter Sophie almost four years ago following five years of fertility treatment, and she is illuminatingly frank about her own experience: "I really didn't want to leave hospital after giving birth, because there was always help at hand," she recalls. "If Sophie cried, there was someone to help. But at home we were on our own with this tiny little thing to look after. It was completely daunting.

"Parenting is something you are just landed with. It's the hardest job in the world and yet you just do it without training or knowledge. I didn't need help bringing her up. I did the course because I wanted to know more. Because forewarned is forearmed."

So here we are in this room. No one says they have a "problem child"; most admit only to the kind of difficulties all parents suffer: a son or daughter who won't sleep or eat, who whinges, or won't play nicely with friends. Earlier I had spoken to a mother from a previous course whose child had pulled hair from her own head until she developed a bald patch, but she was unusual.

Self-help accounts for about half the course. The rest is formal, and hard to summarise. There's a book, written by Michael and Terri Quinn (seven children, degrees in community development and family studies). There's also a video: parents and children enacting problems, with the inevitable question: is this the right way to handle that situation?

The central philosophy is that if you react to bad behaviour you are rewarding it. Contrarily, most of us leave our children alone when they are being good. Lesson to kids: if you want attention, be naughty. Lesson to parents: don't make a drama out of a crisis, and remember that your children also exist when they're quiet.

Obvious stuff? "My husband thinks it's all a bit wishy-washy," admitted one mother. "His own father was in the Army and I think he would opt for stronger discipline."

But most of those taking part were glad to have the obvious underlined: "There's a feeling that a lot of it is common sense, but you sometimes need someone to point it out," said Rachael Ellerker. "Awareness seems to be the key word. Be aware of what you are doing and saying. For instance, I don't say, `You're a naughty girl' any more, I say `That is naughty'. It sounds namby-pamby, but it does work."

That's the nub, of course. Critics claim that parenthood cannot be taught, but these parents insist that it can, and in doing so they add convincing weight to Labour's plans for a national system of child-rearing classes. These are claims, of course. But below are some specific problems which mothers on the course say they have solved by attending classes. Parents who believe in the "innate" system of child-rearing may like to take note:

Rachael's three-year-old daughter wouldn't eat. Her parents made a song and dance about it - "so she did it every time". Answer: "We said, `OK, if you don't want it, don't have it'. We found it worked miracles. We have not had a problem since."

Judy's eight-year-old daughter wouldn't get out of bed in time for school. Answer: "Someone on the course said they'd had this problem, and they let them choose their own alarm clock and put the child in charge of getting out of bed. I did it, and it worked. She chose a Mickey Mouse clock, and I said, `What time do you think you need to get up?' She said seven-thirty and just set her alarm. I think she felt I wasn't dictating."

Tahea's 18-month-old son cried when he was put down for the night. "Every night for one-and-a-half years he just wanted to come into bed with us." Answer: "On Saturday night we let him cry for half an hour, then he went to sleep. We had let him cry for15 minutes before; it just wasn't long enough. I'm elated at the moment. I've had four nights' sleep without being interrupted."

Jane tried "slowing down" and found that her son became happier: "At the supermarket I used to throw him in the trolley and run round. This time he walked round and helped me. He hasn't stopped talking about it. He is a lot more relaxed. Makes me feel better, too. He isn't tugging at my leg the whole time."

Lorna's oldest son played up at night while she was trying to get her youngest children to bed. Answer: "I listened to a mother with four children who used half-an-hour of play time for her eldest before bed. I tried that with my son. He's sleeping now, and doesn't cause a fuss."

Many parents may have solved similar problems without any help at all, but that's not the point. The aim of the course is to head off future conflicts. Study, they insist, speeds the process of discovery.

I asked course leaders Jan and Paulene how their philosophy - thinking rather than reactive - might have dealt with a problem featured in the recent newspaper story of a child at play group who bit his playmates.

They offered three solutions: isolate the offending child on a "naughty chair"; take him straight home; and make a great big fuss of the victim. To the visitor, it sounded like pure common sense. But perhaps that's the point about saving the world