Teaching parents how to parent: essential interventions or government meddling?

Teaching parents how to parent has many positive outcomes, but it doesn’t mean people are going to like it. Flickr/Russ Robinson, CC BY-SA

The idea of teaching parents how to parent makes many of us uncomfortable. However, educating parents is a positive step towards a society that provides all children with the best possible start in life. It is also better for the economy in the long run.

State interventions in the home: unwelcome meddling?

Parenting programs are a touchy subject for many people for a range of reasons. For those who advocate greater personal autonomy and distrust the state, parent education can be seen as the epitome of unwelcome government meddling in private family life.

The strength of opinion in such matters is extraordinary: witness the fierce debate in response to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ call for physical punishment of children to be made illegal in Australia.

The growing vocalism and influence of parents about the religious content of education in parts of the USA is further testament to the way state involvement in questions of child-raising can be viewed as trespassing on the sacrosanct rights and freedoms of the individual to parent in the way they see fit.

People often see government involvement in parenting as a risky business, but when we look at the evidence, refusing to intervene is more costly for everyone.

In Australia parents can access a range of support services that aim to build capacity and resilience in families rather than solve problems on their behalf.

Clinics to help manage toddler behaviour, sustained home-visiting programs, telephone support lines and residential services all play key roles in educating parents. They involve close, tailored support for families who seek out help, not one-size-fits-all compulsory classes for the masses. They are not always cheap, but can be hugely cost-effective when done well.

A focus on the formative years

There is no doubt that children’s experiences in their first few years have a profound influence on development, achievements and opportunities later on. Early intervention exploits this in order to break cycles of disadvantage, targeting efforts at the time when small inputs can have large and long-lasting effects.

A review through the Centre on Children and Families at Brookings in the USA found that the relationship between parenting and a child’s chances of doing well came through “loud and clear”, with traceable impacts on school achievement, teenage pregnancy and crime.

In the Harlem Children’s Zone, parents can attend “Baby College”. The “graduates” report an increase in activities known to support child development, such as daily reading.

Changes in parenting behaviours can boost social mobility by mitigating the effects of income disparities and reducing the “inequality gap” for child development, according to studies funded in the UK by the Economic and Social Research Council. If all parents who do not currently read to their five-year-old children every day were to do so (mirroring the outcomes of Harlem’s Baby College), this would reduce incidence of socio-emotional difficulties in that age group by 20%.

A review for Greater London Authority in 2011 compared the $125,000 cost to the public for each child who develops severe conduct disorders, with $1,000 per head on parent training programs that can reduce the incidence of such problems in the first place.

A 2012 policy brief for the European Expert Network on Economics of Education (EENEE) by James Heckman identified the 0-3 years of age period as the most effective in terms of return on investment in support given for disadvantaged children (followed closely by efforts that target ages 4-5).

The economic returns are greater than those for remedial strategies later in life, such as adult literacy programs and convict rehabilitation. Between $2 and $17 can be saved for every $1 spent on effective early childhood interventions, based on figures published by the RAND corporation.

What’s involved in parent education?

Educating parents is not about experts giving a diverse group of parents a universal recipe for good parenting. In Australia, services supporting parents with young children are expected to work in partnership with families. This means helping parents to explore a wide repertoire of parenting strategies to find approaches that suit and work for them.

Some people are rightly concerned that parent education is tantamount to one group (often middle class and white) in society telling others what works best. However, Paul Tough, who authored a book about the Harlem Children’s Zone, went through Baby College several times, and found that the tutors were very much “on the side” of the predominantly African American parents who attended.

In Australia, state-of-the art training has been made available through the Family Partnership Model. This is a collaborative approach developed by the Centre for Parent and Child Support in the UK. It helps child and family health professionals develop supportive relationships that enable families to meet their specific goals.

We can’t let unease about state intervention in family life get in the way of what is the most socially and economically effective way to tackle disadvantage. The real political problem with early intervention is that the benefits may not be seen within an electoral cycle.