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Parenting Classes: the Government Must Tread Carefully

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Your childhood has a powerful impact on the rest of your life. Just think of the rush of nostalgia you feel when you hear a song you loved as a kid, or the memories that flood your mind when you smell something that evokes your childhood, like a particular perfume or a newly waxed floor.

Every teacher, psychologist and educationalist will tell you that the first years of a child's life are important. Some say the first two years of life are decisive.

This does not mean that every child must be schooled, drilled and disciplined to make them model citizens at this young age. No, it means that in their first years children must be loved.

Now, the government proposes giving 50,000 parents with kids aged five and under lessons in parenting - a trial that could extend.

A few months ago the Centre Forum suggested parents should be given a five-a-day guide to parenting copied from the five-a-day guide to nutrition. Tips were: play with them on the floor; read to them, talk to them, act positively towards them, and give them a nutritious diet.

These are all splendid suggestions and if we are honest, we are probably all failing in one or other of these areas as parents.

Today's proposals, made by the coalition's Liberal Democrat children's minister Sarah Teather, echo the Centre Forum suggestions and include positive reactions and play. Trials will run with 50,000 parents in Middlesbrough, High Peak and Camden from the middle of next year.

Centre Forum suggested that dysfunctional parents could be subject to interventions and these 50,000 lessons could be a first step to in educating mums and dads in how to parent. Ideas for better parenting are probably a good idea, but parents tend to be as protective of their style of parenting as they are of their kids.

On the other hand, if they are honest even the most conscientious parents might think they could do a little more, and fall-down on the Five-a-day regime the Centre Forum proposes.
Notions of 'good' and 'bad' parenting are not limited to social class or income. Stereotypes of both wealthy and poor families with no time for their kids are familiar to us all.

In September, UNICEF pointed out that parents in the UK are caught in the endless cycle of work and squeezed time, often buying frivolous gifts for their kids out of a sense of guilt. They dubbed the 'materialistic trap', and Britain came bottom in a 2007 EU-wide study UNICEF conducted into child well-being.

What young kids really want is to spend time with their parents. The more time - quality time - spent the better which makes life that bit better for both parent and child - a virtuous circle that should be encouraged.

These classes could well have an impact, and work well for some. But lasting positive change needs to come from giving parents more freedom.

This means rolling back the burden of work a little and giving them the opportunity to spend more time together.

Despite changes to parental leave, allowing both mums and dads to share leave in the first year of life, there is nothing for subsequent years bar these 50,000 classes.

What we should push for is the opportunity to leave kids with the smell of cricket balls played with dad, or falling off a horse with mum - small things that linger in the mind forever and produce a smile every time they are recalled.

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