Back to school for mum and dad

Labour's Jack Straw wants politicians involved in parenting. But, Jack O'Sullivan asks, does the nanny state really know what's best?
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The Independent Online
Jack Straw's idea that the state should be telling parents how to look after their children will raise a few wry smiles. Who said the "nanny state" was dead? The Shadow Home Secretary would like the courts to be able to order the parents of delinquents to be properly trained in their caring craft. He also called for a voluntary network of parent advice groups to be established for the rest of us.

Yet the state is in no position to point the finger at poor parents. It is, after all, the worst parent of all - talk to a few children who have been in council care and you will often get a tale of misery that can compete with life under the most Dickensian parents. And who trusts guidance from politicians, a group whose failure to regulate their own hours in the House of Commons mark them out as some of the worst offenders in absentee parenting?

Indeed, when politicians start talking about improving families, you wonder are they really just privatising their own responsibilities. You also wonder are they really committed to providing the cash resources for childcare and shorter working hours which would really improve the lot of children. This is, after all, the week in which the Government registered its implacable opposition to a 48-hour working week, a limit which would have direct bearing on how much time fathers, in particular, can expect to spend with the children.

Labour is more pro-family than the Government, supporting paternity leave and the 48 hour limit. But would Mr Straw back the radical measures adopted in Scandinavia, which give men and women lengthy parental leave during the first years of a child's life?

There is also the question of which model of parenting ought to be adopted. Should we, for example, rely on the authoritarian views of Aristophanes? In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher declared: "Come listen now to the good old days, when children, strong to tell, were seen not heard, led a simple life, in short, were well brought up."

Perhaps John Wesley divined the secret. "In order to form the minds of children," he said, "the first thing to be done is to conquer their will ... The parent who indulges it does the devil's work ... Break his will now, and his soul will live, and he will probably bless you to all eternity."

Or was the advice in The Lady a century ago closer to the mark? "One of the most important and beneficial habits that can be taught a child in early life is to keep its mouth shut when sleeping, and indeed at all times, when eating or speaking."

The trouble is that fashions in child-rearing change at an extraordinary rate. In this century, Jean Piaget's identification of the stages of childhood development, combined with Freud's view that childhood experience profoundly shapes the adult, have made child-rearing a delicate and complex task. But opinions about how to go about that task have varied wildly even in the past few decades, from Truby King in the Forties and Fifties, who counselled against spoiling a child ("The boy who is picked up and fed whenever he cries soon becomes a veritable tyrant") to Benjamin Spock, who cautioned against the damage that children suffered if they were not cared for at all times (he is still being psycho-analysed in New York at the age of 93).

Where, for example, should parenting instructors stand on the question of disciplining children? There has been a fashion since the Second World War of relaxing the rules that children had been required to obey. But there is now a backlash led by writers such as the Australian expert, Christopher Green, author of Toddler Taming, calling for tougher controls. Christina Hardyment, the controversial British author of Perfect Parents, is part of a new wave of thinking which challenges recent theories in favour of more traditional, less indulgent parenting.

Yet, despite all the disagreement about the best forms of parenting, there is little dissent about either its importance or difficulties that many families face in raising their children. To this extent, Jack Straw has caught the mood of the times. Parents want more knowledge.

It is, however, quite hard to find anyone to talk to. Ante-natal care in this country is good. GP clinics and the National Childbirth Trust offer good courses in preparing for birth. But it is very difficult to find a parenting course. Between the ages of one and five, when children start school, most parents are virtually abandoned by support services.

"Once you have your baby, you find yourself saying: `Oh God, what do I do now?' " says Hetty Einzig, Development Officer of the Parenting Education and Support Forum.

But parenting courses are beginning to be established around the country. In prisons, for example, they are the most popular courses among young men. Schools are experimenting with training teenagers to care for children. "Little Moss Lads Learn To be Dads," was how one local newspaper reported a pilot scheme in Greater Manchester schools, run by The Children's Society. In five schools, 14-18-year-olds have been debating issues such as different forms of corporal punishment, the problems for children of separation and how they feel about how their parents deal with them. .

Annette Mountford , executive co-ordinator of the Oxford-based Family Nurturing Network, runs a 15-week prog- ramme for families referred by teachers or social workers. It specialises in "positive parenting", offering alternative forms of control to corporal punishment and shouting. "Typically, the parents are desperate. They don't know what to do because the kids are running rings around them," she says.

Parents learn how to present a child with a choice. "Say a child is fighting. You present him with a choice. He can play or he can carry on fighting. If he carries on fighting then he has to take two minutes' time out. It might be sitting on the step. It might take an hour to get him through the time out, because it only starts when he is quiet. But in the end, it's effective. It distances the parent and the child in the heat of the moment. The parent can deal with the child with dignity rather than hitting him or going out of control."

Mrs Mountford argues that "it would be better if we could get to families earlier and prevent them getting into this downward spiral. If we can deal with children when they are four, we can turn them around quickly. By eight or nine they are very distressed."

Pippin, a charity which for the past two years has provided free advice classes for new parents, is beginning to fill this gap. "All the research shows that parents are facing a great deal of stress," says Penny Henderson, a group facilitator for Pippin, which wants the NHS and councils to fund its services.

"Geographical mobility means that few parents have extended families close by or the experience of being around children as they were growing up. If you have been a computer operator for 10 years or a prison officer or a seaman, you might not have spent a lot of time with children. You may have forgotten the drudgery of caring for them 24 hours a day or never even known it."

The changing fashions in child-rearing can also cause difficulties, she says. "Two parents may find that they have been brought up with very different techniques of child-rearing. So they need to sort out what to do. If they themselves had a difficult time in childhood, if they did not have their needs met, then they may need help. When the baby cries, for example, you may be tempted to shove the bottle in its mouth because you may not be able to bear the unreached half-memory of your own neglect."

Pippin's philosophy is based on the ideas of Daniel Stern, who last year published The Motherhood Constellation. It argues that pregnancy and the period immediately after birth offers a unique opportunity for a mother to deal with problems arising out of her own upbringing which can get in the way of providing good care for her child. The same may well be true for fathers.

What distinguishes all these courses is that they are non-didactic, a point Mr Straw should take on board. They tend to be more concerned about giving parents new ways of thinking about their craft, rather than laying down a fixed path. The childcare specialist, Penelope Leach, demonstrated the dangers of rigid systems when she wrote: "Rearing a child by the book - by any set of rules or pre-determined ideas - can work well if the rules you choose to follow fit the baby you happen to have. But even a minor misfit between the two can be a misery."

The other characteristic is that these courses do not stigmatise parenthood as some sort of pathological condition responsible for all the country's woes. One fear is that Jack Straw, in his zeal to be seen tackling crime, will lump the blame on parents.

He is right to see a connection between crime and parenting. A forthcoming paper by David Utting of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies the following family factors as producing a greater risk of delinquency: poor supervision, harsh or erratic discipline, absence of a biological parent, siblings or parents in trouble with the law, and low family income.

A support programme for low-income mothers in New York involving home visits by professionals giving advice on health, nutrition, child development and parenting, reduced delinquency among the children considerably when compared with the matched control group.

But if Mr Straw allows parental instruction to be meted out as a punishment to the parents of delinquents his action could have disastrous results. Parental advisors could be stigmatised, just as social workers have become stereotyped as the last group of professionals that parents in difficulty would consult.

Mr Straw's interest in parents is welcome - they need it. But blaming them for all ills is a dated and unhelpful strategy. As David Herbert points out in Setting Limits, Promoting Positive Parenting, it was an ancient Egyptian inscription, 6,000 years ago, which first bemoaned: "Our earth is degenerate. Children no longer obey their parents." Hopefully, Mr Straw will have a more progressive attitude.

Parenting Education and Support Forum: 8 Wakely St, London EC1V 7QE.

Pippin: `Derwood', Todds Green, Stevenage, Herts, SG12JE.

Family Nurturing Network: Unit 12F, Minns Estate, 7 West Way, Botley, Oxford OX2 OJP.