John Buckeridge on the power of positive parenting

A normal, sane person wouldn’t take a driving test without a course of lessons beforehand, or attempt an exam without going to lectures, reading textbooks and revising first. So why is it that most parents try to nurture and shape another human being with little or no previous training?

Before the birth of our eldest, Alice and I read books about pregnancy and birth and attended pre-natal classes. But apart from tips on how to push the baby out and then push the milk in, we knew very little. What about the months and years that follow birth? What about the tantrums, in toddlers or teens? What about establishing positive patterns? What about helping our children through puberty? What about considering our own good or bad experiences of being parented and how that might affect our parenting?

Over the past decade we have both attended a parenting course and Alice has subsequently led many more. Despite being a mother of two, a part-time teacher and juggling a busy schedule, she chooses to facilitate one or two courses of parenting classes every year. Recently, during a particularly full-on week as she was working late preparing material for the final instalment of a course on parenting teens, I asked her why she was pushing herself so hard.

She looked up at me with tired eyes. “Parenting courses have helped us both to analyse and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our own parenting styles, John. It’s helped us to anticipate potential conflict issues instead of always having to react to them, it’s helped us sit down together and discuss what our responses should be. We’ve benefited so much and reading the feedback forms from parents who attend the courses, it clearly helps them too.”

I nod, it’s true. It is worth it. Statistics from the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith MP, back calls to introduce more parenting classes. Duncan Smith recently highlighted one programme run by nurses in Colorado, which demonstrated that couples on the course were half as likely to break up as a control group who did not take part. What’s more, the children of these parents experienced a 79 per cent reduction in child abuse, over 80 per cent fewer adolescent convictions and nearly 60 per cent fewer behavioural problems.

This is one area where churches are taking the lead, with a quarter of English churches running parenting classes already, according to the Family Matters Institute. Our ‘Parent Power’ feature  this month explains more about the different programmes churches are running, and the positive impact on mums and dads. For a significant minority it is linked with an important step in their journey of faith too.

The government has allocated money to provide training courses for facilitators of parenting classes. Not before time. There is much lost ground to recover. Homes that are dysfunctional and fatherless are typical for many children growing up in the UK today. UNICEF’s 2007 report on childhood development claims that Britain is the worst of all industrialised nations, 21st out of 21, in which to grow up, far behind other nations in measures of poverty and deprivation, happiness, relationships and bad or risky behaviour.

There are big benefits when parents meet to talk, share problems and learn together in a non-judgemental and positive environment. Sadly, Christians are not immune to bad parenting, family breakdown, dysfunctional relationships – we all need help to become better parents, and as a society we need help to become more nurturing to children and particularly teens – too often tagged as ‘trouble’. What we do have is a faith that gives us a head start of God-given values and beliefs to provide benchmarks of love and laws, fun and forgiveness.