Parenting matters: Honey, I learnt about the kids!

New initiatives are increasingly emphasising the need for parent education and support. So why is asking for outside advice still seen by some families as an admission of failure? By Diana Hinds
Parent education, it would seem, is becoming fashionable. Not only is demand for parenting courses increasing across the country, but parent education is on the lips of government ministers as part of the drive to combat social exclusion.

The term "parenting" itself, a relatively recent coinage, implies that being a parent is a kind of craft, something that we can all learn and practise in order to become better parents. More than ever before, ours is a society which recognises that the quality of support that parents can give to their children is absolutely critical to their futures. Today, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will be the key-note speaker at a conference entitled Parenting Matters, organised by Britain's biggest children's charity, Barnardo's. Barnardo's will also publish its new report, Parenting Matters: What Works in Parenting Education?, and launch a campaign to highlight the need for parenting education to be available to all.

New Labour, meanwhile, is at work on a whole raft of policy initiatives aimed at bolstering the family unit. Its green paper, Supporting Families, launched by Jack Straw in November 1998, sets out plans for a new National Family and Parenting Institute to develop better parenting support, and a 24-hour parenting helpline to advise people and refer them to local sources of help. Sure Start is a new pounds 540m initiative targeted at young children and their families in areas of greatest need.

Reverend David Gamble, Barnardo's Chair Of Council and a Trustee of the National Family and Parenting Institute, says that the creation of the Institute "shows how important supporting families is to policy makers and to our whole society. The Institute will help us develop good practice and hopefully find ways to make it easier for all families to get the support they want and need."

The Government also envisages an expanded role for health visitors, involving a shift of emphasis from dealing with problems to preventing them arising in the first place.

"All parents need support with their children's health, education and welfare, and many also want advice and guidance on how to bring up their children," says the green paper. "However, parents do not want lectures from the state, or to be nagged or nannied. Except in exceptional circumstances, when the well-being of family members is at stake, it must be the decision of the parents when to ask for help or advice."

With backing of this kind it might appear that the concept of parent education is now well and truly rooted in our culture. But for many parents, the idea of asking for help outside the family is not necessarily something they feel comfortable with.

"The ordinary parent in the street still tends to look on parenting as a gift: you've either got it or you haven't - and if you haven't, too bad," says Tim Kahn, parent education specialist and author.

For many, too, there is still a stigma attached to needing family help or advice; a suggestion that yours is some kind of a "problem family" which can't cope on its own.

The truth is that parents have always needed to learn how to bring up their children, but in the past this could be done almost by osmosis, through the extended family or close community. Networks of this kind are harder to come by today, with more grandparents working and inaccessible. There are, too, many more single-parent families, and parents may easily feel isolated with their children, and lacking in confidence.

But the idea of attending a parenting class, where it's all too easy to imagine that you might be told you're doing everything wrong, is still off-putting to many parents. Even the term parent "education" can send the wrong signals, says Clive Miller, at the Office for Public Management.

"If we called it 'the trials and tribulations of being a parent, which we all share, and the help we need', that would be different," he says.

Recruiting parents is always the hardest task, say those who run parenting courses. Once people get there and find themselves chatting, relatively informally, with other parents who are having the same kinds of difficulties that they are, they often feel more encouraged.

Parenting education and support is currently offered in a range of forms, including one-to-one advice from health professionals such as health visitors, and in the voluntary sector, courses run by charities such as Barnardo's and Parent Network. Provision is patchy, however.

Clive Miller would like to see a big expansion of these services in partnership with local communities. In some cases, parents would need to be referred to professionals for help. But parents could also be trained to support others, "de-professionalising" the service where possible.

The Barnardo's report, Parenting Matters: What Works in Parenting Education?, edited by Eva Lloyd (now chief executive of the National Early Years Network), is emphatic that parenting support must be made accessible to all, and not targeted only at those in extremis. According to Liz Garrett, Barnardo's co-ordinator of policy and practice, if provision is universalised in this way, parents in the greatest need would feel more comfortable about seeking help.

Parent education is not a universal panacea, however. Barnado's report stresses that for those in severe circumstances, parenting education is only one of the tools needed to support them. Problems of poverty and poor education must also be addressed by the Government.

The report argues that the growth in parent education programmes in the UK needs to be accompanied by research into whether particular types of programmes are more suited to some parents than others. As the report states: "Parenting programmes do not work for everybody. Even in the most well-constructed programmes, up to a third of parents involved continued to report problems in their children after taking part."

There is evidence that group-based parent education programmes may be more effective than one-to-one work, especially when they focus on strategies to modify children's behaviour.

But Eva Lloyd is concerned that the kinds of family problems the Government focuses on should not be confined to those likely to produce extreme anti- social behaviour. "We are at risk of ignoring many depressed and stressed children in this country, in all social classes," she says.

Dr Sarah Stewart-Brown, director of the Health Services Research Unit in Oxford, argues that parent education needs to not only address behaviour management issues, but also foster emotional well-being.

"Parent education courses can be a way of enhancing the well-being of the family in general. Parents learn to relate to their children in a different way, and that makes them feel better."

Parenting Matters: What Works in Parenting Education is available from Barnardo's Publications on 01268 520224, priced pounds 10.