It seems that everyone believes that parenting classes are wonderful idea - except for the parents. The Tory government's free parenting classes - titled CANparent classes -initiative is not exactly a major success. Recently published figures by a report evaluating the scheme indicate that only 2% of eligible families have opted to join. This scheme, which boasted that it would promote 'parents as nation-builders' offered mums and dads vouchers worth £100 of parenting advice and expertise. As parents voted with their feet, providers of such 'expertise' were left with very little to do. At least one provider has pulled out of the scheme.
Research supporting parenting classes is constantly in search of an argument. Following the tradition of policy-led research the interim report justified the CANparent scheme on the grounds that surveys indicate that there is a real demand for parenting classes. As proof it cites research that states that 70 per cent of parents 'think being a parent is harder now than for earlier generations'. However these surveys can be seen as marketing exercises designed to create a demand for parenting classes. When confronted with the question 'do you think parenting classes are a good idea' most adults will feel under pressure to create the right impression and answer in the affirmative.
The authors of the interim report intuitively grasp that despite such positive replies support for parenting classes is fairly feeble. That is why the interim report explicitly argues for the need 'to increase demand (desire for parenting support)'. Apparently one way of increasing demand for parenting classes is by not calling them by their real name. The interim report indicates that providers 'thought that the use of the terms "parenting classes" and parenting programmes" were off-putting to parents'. It concludes that the 'overall brand marketing should avoid these phrases'. Improving branding appears to be the way forward for a scheme in search of participants
As it happens parenting classes are a waste of time and money. It is far from evident what constitutes parenting expertise or how the 14 organisations running the classes for CANparent gained their authority to instruct mothers and fathers on how to bring up their children.
Not a skill
The parenting programmes promoted by government are based on a mixture of prejudice and the pseudoscience of so-called parenting research. Such 'research' is underpinned by a fundamental transformation in the meaning of parenting, which has been turned from a relationship into a skill. The core assumption in the government's proposal for parenting classes is that childrearing consists of a set of practices that need to be learned by mothers and fathers. These practices are depicted as skills which can be taught by those who have the requisite professional qualifications.
No one could dispute that childrearing is something that is learned by mothers and fathers. Every human relationship involves a continual process of learning and gaining an understanding of the other person. Parents need to learn how to engage with the imagination of their child, how to stimulate her and when and how to restrain her from doing something harmful. Successful parents learn on the job. However, the really useful lessons we are learning have little to do with abstract skills, but rather are about understanding the relationship we have with our children.
The question is not whether parenting has to be learned, but whether it can be taught. Not everything that has to be learned can be taught. Parenting cannot be taught because it is about the forging and managing of an intimate relationship. And it is through the conduct of that relationship that people develop the insights and lessons suitable to their lives and conditions. One reason why professional intervention into family life is unlikely to have beneficial results is because each relationship contains something unique, which is only grasped by those involved in it.
As it happens, the claims made by parenting experts are more than a little overstated. Parent Gym, the company running the government's drive to train parents, claims that its methods are 'proven to increase parent's skills and confidence and so improve the behaviour and well being of children'. And what's the proof? You guessed it- yet more answers to interview questions. Apparently 100% of all parents who were interviewed two months after they completed the programme reported that their relationships with their children had improved. Whatever such interviews reveal they provide little insight into any causal link between parent training and the long-term development of a child.
Of course it can be argued that, okay, there is little positive evidence that parent training works, but what's the harm? Some mums I interviewed who participated in training schemes told me they benefitted from the experience, at least in the sense of having an opportunity to discuss their lives with a sympathetic group of people. Yet while they felt the training had some therapeutic benefit, they were hard-pressed to describe any way in which it had changed their children's lives. I am in no doubt that they would have had a similar experience if they had joined a local group of mothers run by their peers.
However, the project of transforming parenting into a skill does have negative and potentially harmful consequences. When human relationships are recast as skills to be managed by professional trainers something very important happens in the way we conduct our personal affairs. As I argue in my study Paranoid Parenting such policy interventions cultivate a kind of learned helplessness among parents. Through exaggerating the complexity of child-rearing, parenting experts contribute to the eroding self-reliance of modern mums and dads. Inevitably, the principal outcome of such interventions is to distract parents from learning from their own experience. And yet learning from experience is the key to developing the confidence for making those crucial judgment calls that confronts parents on a daily basis.
Frank Furedi's Moral Crusades In An Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal has just been published by Palgrave.