Just as there are no easy answers as to how to bring up a child, there are none as regards the role – or not – of the state in providing assistance to parents.
Witness the controversy over SureStart children's centres: either a lifeline for hard-to-reach families or a service dominated by middle-class mothers who need it the least, depending on who is telling the tale.
The Government's latest efforts provoke similarly divided responses. There are two parts to recent developments. One is CanParent, a voucher scheme open to all for £100-worth of parenting classes covering topics such as nutrition and behaviour. The other is an NHS-run service offering parents of very young children information on everything from breastfeeding to post-natal depression.
David Cameron defends the plan from the inevitable charges of "nanny-statism" on the grounds that, although one must pass a test to drive a car, there is no such preparation for the impossible complexities of parenting. While well-worn, the argument is a reasonable one. It is hard to find any parent who was never bewildered, anxious and a potential beneficiary of authoritative and disinterested advice. There is also compelling evidence that the quality of a child's parenting has a huge impact on their development, both intellectual and social. And the wider aim of encouraging society to recognise the importance of parenting is, while nebulous, nonetheless worthy.
What neither CanParent nor NHS videos will do, however, is help with the more extreme cases of problem parenting. The most troubled parents – often young, single, and from highly chaotic backgrounds themselves – are not only unlikely to take advantage of what's on offer, but may not even perceive the need for it. Such an observation does not necessarily make the efforts worthless. But the Government must be clear about what its aims are and who the target market is.
There is a place for services aimed at helping all parents, and their children. What they must not be allowed to do, however, is divert either attention or scarce resources from those with the greatest – and most expensive – needs.