Author and TV parenting commentator Liz Fraser discusses the pros and cons of the government’s new parenting class scheme and wonders if those who need it most will benefit
Many parents today don’t live as people once used to, close to their mums or grannies who could pass on some wise words of experience or lend a seasoned, calm hand occasionally, are now drowning in a tsunami of worry (is he eating enough protein?), stress (work deadlines, bleeping phones, marital problems), guilt (I’m not a good enough mummy; I’m working and I should be with my baby), fear (what if I mess it all up and my child ends up in the Priory?) and a growing realisation that children don’t come with an ‘Off’ button.
Somewhere in all of this modern madness, instead of cooking a family meal we are making a dog’s dinner of parenting effectively. Cue a generation of children who have never heard the word ‘no’, don’t have a set bedtime, eat dinner in front of the telly instead of around a table, don’t read books, but listen to stories on an iPad instead, don’t climb trees but play for hours on games consoles because it’s ‘safer to be indoors’, eat processed, sugar-laden snacks instead of home-made dinners, and who can only communicate in text-speak.
Still smarting from last summer’s riots and with rising disruptive behaviour in schools and so-called ‘troubled families’ causing all kinds of grief for communities, the government has decided that something has to be done about this gargantuan lack of knowledge in how to parent well. It has launched a trial scheme to give parents of children under five a £100 voucher for parenting classes.
This all sounds like a fantastic idea at first glance, and parenting classes have been shown to help overcome some of the problems parents face. But here’s the problem: the parents who attend these classes are not the parents who really – and I mean really, desperately – need them. Anyone who takes the step to go to parenting classes has already realised that it’s important to be a good parent. This is 80 per cent of the battle won. The other 20 per cent – learning how to get a crying child to sleep, various methods in disciplining a naughty child, how to get their child to eat vegetables and so on – is just the icing on the cake, and doesn’t require parenting classes. You can learn all of this by engaging your brain and applying some common sense. There are books and websites full of tips and advice on a million things like this.
It doesn’t take £5million of taxpayers’ money to solve these problems. It takes a will to solve them, and most of the people who take the time (and can pay a babysitter – think about it…) in order to attend these ‘free’ parenting classes have that will already.
The parents who don’t care at all, who neglect, abuse or treat their children with complete disregard and a lack of any love, care or attention won’t go to the parenting classes, and anyway, they need much more than an hour on a Monday night discussing the Naughty Step. These people need some hope, self-respect, self-belief, a job and security. They also need a future that they believe in, and that they feel mentally and physically able to work towards. Depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, mental health issues, physical ill health and deep-rooted societal problems go hand in hand with the poorest parenting. Because in order to parent well, you have to be well in yourself.
I welcome anything that helps parents to raise healthy, happy, well-balanced children. And if the trial scheme launched by the government proves to help parents who were truly struggling, then it should of course be continued. But if it merely offers a friendly hand to families who needed a bit of reassurance and a few tips on how to deal with toddler tantrums then I’d far rather see the money go towards helping the desperate families who are struggling to get food on the table at all, and who need help to get a job, and a positive future. So let’s wait and see how the scheme works out. But let’s be very honest about whether it’s just a headline-grabbing gimmick, or really does address the problems of those families who need it the most.