14/08/2014 16:48 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Can Parenting Classes Help You?

Can parenting classes help you?

It's almost a year since David Cameron got all excited about the difference parenting classes could make to family life and even to society as a whole.

Launching the initiative last May, he put his money where his mouth is, offering vouchers to parents in three pilot scheme areas for a range of classes.

Yet whilst attending an antenatal class to learn about labour and birth is commonplace, signing up for parenting ones to cover the 18 years afterwards appears much less so.

Often, it seems, parents only sign up when they reach crisis point. This was certainly the case for Janey Fraser, author of Happy Families, a new novel with parenting classes at the heart of the plot.

Janey researched the subject in some depth as part of the writing process and says:
"I signed up for a parenting class because I was at my wits' end with my then 15 year-old son."

Other people she spoke to went as they had similar problems, although some just wanted to be forewarned and forearmed in case their children started to become 'challenging' later on.

When we asked around to try and find parents who'd been on a class, we found it relatively uncommon and started to wonder why. Simply finding the time might well be the issue.

Mum-of-three Kerry does have troublesome phases with her two grumpy pre-teens and tantrummy todder and likes the idea of a class but says "I'm not able to commit to doing several weeks' of a course. They're when I'm at work, in the evening or at weekends, so who looks after the children then?"

The difference is that with an antenatal class, as a first time parent-to-be who isn't actually one yet, you've a lot more leisure time on your hands. Post-birth, maybe we're simply too busy juggling family life to spare the hours involved and can find more efficient ways to get the advice we might need - via the internet and books, or even doing the old-fashioned thing of calling the grandparents and asking them what to do.

Yet fans of classes say they offer so much more. For Susan, mum to two and step-mum to another, the social aspect of the classes she attended was one of their most valuable aspects and set them apart from just reading Supernanny's latest book or the like.

"One of the best things about it was the open discussion where we could say 'my child does X and it drives me mad' and hearing others say 'mine does that too!' Swapping successful ways of dealing with this and knowing it's not just you helps."

Janey agrees and found the presence of other parents was part of the appeal of the classes she attended. "They are better than parenting books because of this. You've got real people there who set off lively discussions. You can get as much from them as you do from the official tutor."

She did however struggle with the other parents hearing all her woes. "At the first class, we were asked to say what we wanted to get out of the sessions. I made the mistake of going first.

"I told them about my son's home-made tattoos and said I needed help with persuading him not to have more. I also told them how he refused to get off the computer until 3am, despite me getting tough. And I confessed I'd written his English essay because he couldn't be bothered."

"Everyone was duly shocked. Their own problems were very minor like answering back. I felt like the class dunce. I later came across one of the mothers at a dinner party. I felt awful,
knowing she knew all about our family problems..."

Indeed the very nature of classes - with other parents there - is exactly what puts some off.

Emma, mother of two, has considered the sessions that run at her children's school but says, "I don't want to air my dirty laundry in front of a load of mums I'll see the next morning."

If you can put aside these concerns though, according to fellow journalist and mother of two, Heidi Scrimgeour, gems can be found which make a noticeable positive impact on family dynamics.

"I had a real eureka moment while doing a role play in which I was my son who was about six at the time, and the tutor, Kitty, played me.

"We were going through various scenarios at home, which were driving me mad. I was finding his behaviour so challenging but by literally trying to step into his shoes I experienced a complete about-turn in my feelings towards him.

"I suddenly understood his behaviour and that became a turning point which helped our relationship."

She adds: "I'm practically evangelistic about the courses now and strongly feel they should be accessible to every parent! It all genuinely changed my mothering and our family life, to the extent that the most oft-repeated phrase in our house between my husband and I during difficult parenting moments is: WHAT WOULD KITTY DO?"

As you might expect, some classes are better than others. Anyone in theory can set one up so look for an experienced trainer - typically they should have a strong background of working with families, such as via being a qualified child psychologist or social worker.

Try and assess what the classes will cover and whether the general ethos fits with yours. This should be apparent from the course materials but if not, perhaps call and have a chat with the trainer before signing up.

Even on the best courses, not everything will feel relevant. Janey picks up on this: "On the expectation front, I think you can come away from some sessions feeling you've got something out of it but also come away from others, feeling it wasn't so good that night.

"I still use some of the 'lessons' I was taught several years on and not just with my children. Some of it even works on my husband!"

Janey Fraser's novel Happy Families will be published on April 4th

The courses Heidi Scrimgeour attended were run by BabiesKnow.

What do you think? Have you, or would you, attend a parenting class?