Parenting matters: On familial terms

Being a good parent isn't child's play, but with help you can be 'good enough'. By Diana Hinds
There can be no doubt that being a parent is an arduous and often stressful task, with sometimes not very much to show for it at the end of a long day. But there are - or should be - plenty of rewards, too: sharing, having fun, sudden moments of joy.

"I'm always disappointed when people describe parenting as a very difficult job, because that's so negative," says Eva Lloyd, editor of the Barnardo's report, Parenting Matters: What Works in Parenting Education?, and chief executive of the National Early Years Network. "It is challenging and demanding, but it should be enjoyable, too. If your circumstances are very difficult, it can take the enjoyment away, and I think that's so sad."

Looking at what parents are doing right, rather than simply focusing on what may be going wrong, is often the most effective way of supporting them. The Barnardo's report notes that more attention needs to be paid to "identifying the key skills that lead to successful parenting".

Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott's work stresses that we need worry only that we are, in his phrase, "good enough" parents, rather than castigating ourselves for not being perfectly "good". So what makes a modern-day, "good enough" parent?

"Listening to your children, and negotiating and valuing their role in the family," suggests Wendy van den Hendon, chief executive of Parent Network. "Also, allowing children to be children, and respecting what they need from parents, which is for parents to be authoritative but not authoritarian; parents and children are not equal."

"A good enough parent is one who can be flexible and consistent, and appreciative of the way children are trying to get along with us," says Eva Lloyd. "A good enough parent also recognises the individuality of each child, and that the same strategies won't necessarily work with all children."

"We must get away from the 'bad parent' idea," says Teresa Quinn, a Barnardo's scheme co-ordinator based in Nechells, Birmingham. "Parents who come on parenting courses see their children as a priority. They are very good parents, in my view, because they are committed to changing things, and willing to learn."

All parent educators need to remember that parental confidence is often a fragile thing, and that it is all too easy to "de-skill" parents.

"We mustn't ignore the very delicate and sophisticated interplay between parent and child that is there from birth," warns Eva Lloyd. "Both bring to the relationship an enormous programme of behaviour geared to making it work."

Parents who have tried parent education sessions or courses include those in very difficult circumstances (who may be referred for help by social services or health professionals), as well as those who are managing well but feel they might benefit from a few fresh ideas. But course organisers say that the difficulties parents report with their children are very similar across the board: discipline problems, children being defiant, fighting between siblings, children unable to concentrate, or unable to entertain themselves.

Professional middle-class parents with stressful jobs may find their households riven by rushing around and shouting, and find simple problem- solving, in relation to their children, surprisingly difficult, according to Annette Mountford, director of the Oxford-based charity, Family Links. "Often these parents need to learn better time management," she says.

Barnardo's, once renowned for its children's homes, now concentrates on working with families in their own homes and communities, especially those with young children, and the charity currently runs some 300 different projects nationwide. Many of its family centres in more deprived areas now offer parenting education courses with creche facilities, which parents can sign up for. The principles of "High/Scope", an approach first developed in the United States, informs much of Barnardo's work, including its Caring Start courses. This approach is based on the belief that children learn best from activities which they plan and carry out themselves and then reflect upon afterwards.

The courses for parents explain these ideas, and help parents to see the positive side of what they are already doing, says Margaret Beech, a High/Scope-endorsed trainer for Barnardo's in the North East. As she says, parents can get trapped into feeling they've got to be always in control of children, and the courses encourage them to give children realistic choices and, where possible, to build their sense of responsibility and involvement. Parents also often need help with being consistent, establishing boundaries which they can stick to, and finding alternatives to smacking and shouting when things get difficult.

"Parents are often quite nervous when they first come to the courses, and know themselves that things aren't going that well at home," says Beech. "But often they leave feeling more confident, and more aware of the things they have achieved."

The charity Parent Network was launched in 1986, and now has 200 trained "facilitators" (often parents who have done the course already) who run parenting education courses in England, Scotland and Wales, reaching about 2,000 parents a year. Until fairly recently, parents attending these courses have been predominantly middle class (and paying pounds 50 to pounds 100 per course), but now that the Parent Network course is accredited, it can be offered by adult education colleges, and is beginning to reach a wider social spectrum.

The Parent Network course is mainly skills-based, offering parents a package of strategies and techniques aimed at improving children's behaviour.

"We ask parents how they communicate with their children," says Sheila Munro, Parent Network training manager, "and often they come to see that the difficulties they are having are not just to do with children's behaviour, but arise out of the relationship between parent and child."

"Reflective listening" is a technique encouraged by Parent Network as a way of helping children to talk, particularly about things that are upsetting them. Instead of asking questions, the parent uses acknowledging statements to tell the child what the listener hears him saying, and how he seems to be feeling.

Working with parents and children through the context of school is the approach favoured by the Oxford-based charity Family Links, which has run projects in more than 70 schools, ranging from the independent sector to the most deprived of the state sector. The charity trains all school staff members to work with pupils, focusing on their good behaviour rather than their bad as a way of motivating them, and emphasising kindness, empathy and the importance of understanding your behaviour in relation to your feelings. Parents are invited to attend parallel 10-week courses covering similar ground.

"It's good to share problems and realise you're not the only one who doesn't always get it right," commented one parent. "We have lots more solutions now, and more fun."

What seems clear is that if parenting education is really to take off and reach more families, a diversity of provision must continue to be available, with more funding to generate growth. Parent education charities, cheered by the Government's recognition of their work, now wait to see what money will be forthcoming.

"There is a seed of change, and the idea of parent education is becoming more acceptable," says Annette Mountford, director of Family Links. "When these children grow up, I hope that going to parenting classes will be as normal as taking your baby to the clinic to be weighed."