Signing up to a parenting class is an idea that might cause some people to baulk. Despite most of us parents freely admitting in a casual way that we’re figuring things out one step at a time, the suggestion we actually need to be taught how to do this stuff is likely to ruffle feathers.
However, a new study from King’s College London suggests lessons in parenting could end up saving a fortune in social costs, not to mention improving a lot of people’s lives. The paper looked at how parents’ relationships with their children – when they’re unsure of where to draw lines, behaviour-wise, or simply unwilling to do so – can have massive knock-on effects
“A young person’s relationship with their parents is sometimes called an attachment,” says Professor Stephen Scott from KCL. “Are they there for you? How much can you trust them? Can you talk to them, or are they just not interested? Do they just start shouting at you? And being more secure in your attachment is associated with better behaviour.”
Children were interviewed about their relationships with their parents, and then the researchers looked at how much cost each child in the study had generated in terms of public services – whether that was special meetings at school due to being upset, or social services, or even involvement with the criminal justice system. Researchers controlled for antisocial behaviour, gender, social class and income, and even after all that, found that a child not having a secure attachment to their parents accounted for a significant difference in cost.
There was also a marked difference between how much people with good relationships with one parent and those with good relationships with both cost. The study found young people securely attached to their mother cost £6,743, while those insecurely attached cost over £10,000. Those with secure attachments to their fathers cost £1,353, while those without those attachments cost almost £14,000.
In order to build a secure attachment, Professor Scott endorses a parenting system he calls “love and limits”, in which parents, rather than getting angry when children misbehave, should simply explain what needs to happen and what the consequences will be if it doesn’t. The aim is calm, clear communication about where the limits are.
This it isn’t about screeching at your children to keep them in line, he says, but exerting ‘benign authority’ and being firm but measured. Any consequences – early bedtime, taking phones away, and so on – should relate to the behaviour, not the relationship.
“Children respond well to this,” says Professor Scott. “And it isn’t just about their behaviour – they do better in school as well, partly because they’re happier, so learn better, but also because you can get them to sit down and do their homework rather than just playing video games.”
He insists that children feel more secure working within clearly defined limits – that a child whizzing around on a BMX at midnight on a school night is unlikely to be enormously happy. And, while it doesn’t always follow that a child with behavioural problems grows up to have further behavioural problems, 90% of ‘delinquents’ were troubled at the age of seven.
So, working on where to draw the line, and learning to be consistent and communicative, is essential. but that’s not to say it comes naturally. “There’s that old adage about washing machines and video recorders coming with instructions, but you have a baby and there aren’t any,” says Professor Scott. “Before I had my children we were taught lots about what to do before they were born and not a lot about what to do when they were screaming all night.”
And, while ‘parenting lessons’ might get people’s hackles up (one HuffPost reader responded to a query about the idea with “What a load of rubbish!”) it’s all about how it’s framed, he says. “I’m not going in and saying ‘Hello, I’m Professor Scott and I’m here because your child might become a drug dealer,’” he says.
“But when we’ve gone into schools and said, ‘I know your child can be a little bit uppity sometimes – would you like to know how to help them be better adjusted, in a way that will track them all the way to further education?’, we’ve found two thirds of parents end up turning up physically to learn.”
Scott suggests the earlier parents are supported in this way the better – and that there could be benefit to teaching people about it long before they’re having children. “You could go back as far as secondary school, with children thinking about what it’ll be like looking after a baby when they get around to it,” he says – even suggesting these lessons could even be part of PHSE.
If taking a few pointers early in your child’s life (or even before they turn up) can have knock-on effects as dramatic as it sounds for your relationship and their future, it sounds pretty great – less like parenting lessons and more like a basic guide to making everyone’s lives easier and more pleasant.