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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 23:17 GMT
Learning how to be a good parent
By Sue Littlemore
Social affairs correspondent, BBC News

Parents using building blocks
Parents on a course get down to some serious role-playing
The government is about to launch a 30m training academy for professionals in England who work with families with problems.

Ministers aim to make a parenting course available to anyone who wants one, the hope being this will result in fewer children veering into anti-social behaviour.

Any parent knows that the question, "How do you make your child do what you want?" is not so simply answered.

And if your child regularly displays extremely disruptive behaviour you will undoubtedly feel exhausted, defeated and hopeless.

At a parenting class in Basingstoke, Hampshire, are five mums and a dad who are all either victims of domestic violence or step-parents of children who have witnessed a lot of it.

Having seen such horrific regular abuse between adults, the children themselves have picked up the violent behaviour.

Some are so aggressive and dangerous that the parents have actually asked social services to take their children into care.

Yet the group is celebrating. A chart is held up, marked out with a grid dividing the hours after school for one week into individual boxes.

Sarah Verney
Sarah Verney: "A job worth training for"
Most of the boxes have stickers and written comments of praise. Each sticker represents an hour of good, co-operative behaviour by one boy under 10 who is normally very violent.

That this sticker chart is regarded in the class as a small miracle may seem ridiculous to the outsider.

But for the mother - who is utterly chuffed with herself - it means she has learnt to spot things her son does well then praise and reward him - hence the stickers - instead of being in a constant battle.

It means her son has begun to know what it is like to feel approval and encouragement and the stickers have worked as an incentive for good behaviour.

His mother has had a week where she has tasted success.

For someone who is, in effect, in hiding after her violent ex-partner promised to send a gang out to find her, the feeling she can be a good parent and in control is a massive confidence boost.

As the lesson continues the course leader, Sarah Verney, expands on this week's theme: "How to give effective commands."

Her messages are backed up by video examples and class discussions, and contributions are set out on a flip chart.

At one point Ms Verney tips a bag of coloured building blocks onto the carpet for a role-play exercise.

Here is a summary of some of the messages conveyed to parents during the three-hour session:

  • However resistant your child is, don't be reluctant to give commands - children feel safer when they know there are boundaries
  • Reduce the number of commands to the necessary ones
  • Be clear in your instructions. "Be careful," for example, is vague
  • Give your children a reason to obey. For example: "Once you have tidied up your toys we can read a story together "
  • Warn your children if you are about to expect them to break off from an activity. For example: "When you have finished that drawing, we'll go to the shops"
  • Speak calmly and politely to convey your authority; a whining "Please pick up the towels" is less likely to work, and getting angry should not be necessary
And when none of this works? Ms Verney comforts her class by quoting research which suggests even the best behaved children only obey two out of three commands.

There will be some who feel all this should and does come naturally to a parent. Ms Verney is adamant that assumption is wrong.

"How many of us drive and how many of us took driving lessons? We could have just been handed the keys. I think it's more effective to go on a course.

"Even people in high-flying jobs go on management training. It doesn't mean they're bad at their jobs.

"It means they're worth training because the company believes in them, and if parenting is to be the future of this country, I think it's a job worth training for."

This particular course involves a weekly class over three months. It is one of two run in Hampshire by a small charity, The Hampton Trust, which specialises in supporting families where there is violence.

You can send me on a parenting course any day
Jessica Senior
Although it is parents who attend, their children are the focus.

Professor Stephen Scott from King's College, London, advises the government on dealing with anti-social behaviour and is a great fan of parenting classes.

He says research suggests a child with a severe behaviour disorder will cost the taxpayer ten times more than the average child by the time that person reaches the age of 27.

Parents are often referred to the Hampton Trust courses by social workers. Some ask to go. Others are sent by the courts.

Each course costs the charity about 18,000 to run which works out at about 250-300 per child.

Ultimately the government's aim is to ensure parenting classes are available to anyone who wants them.

Ministers believe support should be there not just for extreme problems but for any parent who wants a bit of advice.

But there are critics whose message to the government is: "This is none of your business".

Claire Fox, director of the think tank the Institute of Ideas, believes generally parents know best and when they do not she insists the state does not know better.

The institute brings together parents who are interested in the politics around the family. One member of that forum is Jennie Bristow who is mother to a one-year-old and a three-year-old.

"Parenting isn't a skill that can be taught and learnt, it is an emotional spontaneous relationship that develops between parents and children in a very private context in the home and should be left that way," she said.

"I also think that parenting classes are based on a very arrogant assumption that someone with a degree in child development is better placed than you are to tell you how to bring up your own child.

"I don't think that is true and I think it represents a very dangerous attempt for the authorities to get into the most intimate areas of our family life."

Value for money?

The government is spending at least 30m on a training academy to equip more professionals to deliver parenting classes.

Is this a good use of public money and is this sort of state interference in family life appropriate?

Much might depend on the quality of the training, the calibre of the people trained and the effectiveness of the methods taught.

However, Sarah Verney is convinced that, in principle, it is right to intervene.

"When things go wrong they expect the government to pick up the pieces and if the government wants to set up a scheme to prevent the problems before they start, I think that has to be a good thing."

And in the words of one of Sarah's students, Jessica Senior, whose three-year-old now kisses her instead of kicking her and cuddles her instead of swearing at her: "You can send me on a parenting course any day."

Of course not every parent has a success story and, as with all these attempts to change behaviour, the most needy are usually the hardest to reach.

And that will be the biggest challenge for everyone involved in the government's aim to help many of us become better parents.

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