Parenting, the flip-chart way
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Maria, small and feisty, is in full flow. She is telling a circle of mothers at a parenting class in Camden, north London, how tough it is to resist the demands of her 10-year-old daughter for a mobile phone and access to the internet. “I tell her that to be different is not bad, but she says most of the kids in her class are on Facebook,” Maria explains.
“My husband is laxer than me, he would give in and buy her a phone, but I remember that when I was growing up what counted was hanging out with my brothers, not having the latest gadgets.”
Around the room in Argyle primary school, near King’s Cross station, a circle of heads nods sympathetically.
Maria, a mother of four, is taking part in a pioneering pilot — a parenting class run by a company called Parent Gym and funded by the government.
Under the scheme, formally announced by David Cameron on Friday, families in three areas — Middlesbrough, Camden and High Peaks, Derbyshire — can collect £100 vouchers at Boots entitling them to up to 10 free parenting sessions by a range of providers. Classes will cover everything from sleep problems to discipline.
Can Parent, as the scheme is called, is designed for all families with children under the age of five and will be extended throughout England and Wales if it proves a success.
How do you teach someone to be a better mother or father? Last week the parents at Argyle school were being told of 99 ways to show their children they love them — laid out in a glossy Parent Gym magazine.
“I thought there was only one way,” mutters one mother as she contemplates a list of ideas, which include decorating children’s lunch sandwiches with animal faces (stick raisins and bits of carrot into the bread to make eyes and a nose).
Chris Pearson, a volunteer coach who has been trained in parenting techniques, coaxes the mothers to open up about their problems, with jokes and disclosures. Homework, she tells them, was a particular bugbear for her. As a working mother (her son and daughter are now grown up), all she wanted in the evening was a glass of wine and the chance to put her feet up for an hour. Instead she had to supervise prep sessions that often ended in tears with books flying round the room. “I was the first to cry,” she tells the circle.
There’s a lot of chat about fathers and how much (or little) they do. At one point several mothers start giggling when Pearson gives one a tiny star to stick on her husband’s coat for helping with the kids.
Good parenting — or lack of it — has stalked our politicians for years. Irresponsible mothers and fathers have been blamed for everything from illiterate teenagers to last summer’s city riots. Research says Britain’s children are among the unhappiest in Europe, with mental health problems at record levels. A recent survey by the Prince’s Trust suggested 19% of children were not even sure that anyone loved them.
‘The classes that do exist are for people with problems. That seems to me the wrong way of approaching it’It is not just members of the underclass who are failing their children. Last year St Paul’s girls’ school in London, one of the country’s poshest private schools, said it would hold parenting seminars
High mistress Clarissa Farr told her high-flying parents, who include lawyers and bankers: “We’re deceiving ourselves if we think we can bring up our children through an iPhone.”
A book out this month entitled Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting by Noël Janis-Norton, a former teacher, carries a tribute from the Oscar-nominated actress Helena Bonham Carter, a mother of two. She said Janis-Norton’s parenting tips had taken “the stress” out of her family life. “I’ll probably live 10 years longer,” she quipped.
All these efforts to boost our child-rearing abilities are not without controversy. Last week Cameron’s parenting project attracted unwelcome publicity when a newspaper reported that Parent Gym, one of the 35 organisations appointed to run the pilot parenting classes under the government’s tendering process, was co-founded by the multi-millionaire Octavius Black, a contemporary of the prime minister at Eton.
Last week Black told The Sunday Times that far from being a moneyspinner, Parent Gym is a charity, a philanthropic offshoot of his company Mind Gym. While Mind Gym sets out to improve people’s performance at work, Parent Gym tries to do the same at home. It has been running classes across London since 2009, long before Cameron’s announcement last week.
Black said he created Parent Gym after a chat with his wife, the barrister and former Tory parliamentary candidate Joanne Cash, who felt there was a “need for parenting classes across the country”.
“Bizarrely, when you look around, there are no parenting classes unless you want to watch Supernanny,” he said. “The classes that do exist are for people with problems. The council will say, ‘The father of your child is in prison, so you will attend a parenting programme’. That seems to me the wrong way of approaching it.
“There is no correlation between the quality of parenting and wealth. There are great parents at all levels of the social scale and there are parents who could do better.”
What makes for good parenting? Black says that although his own childhood was “very happy” — his mother was a JP, his father was in advertising — he is keen to bring up his children differently. Setting boundaries and a routine are important, so is “one-to-one time and the amount of time you spend talking to a child”, he booms.
He also mentions “secure attachment parenting” — child-rearing that depends on rather a lot of contact between parent and child in the early years. Can you really teach people how to be better parents? Yes, Black says firmly. He has been practising Parent Gym techniques with his 21-month-old daughter. “She can say, ‘Sit there, Daddy’,” he says proudly and she “sleeps from 7pm to 7am”.
For some mothers Cameron’s project is not ambitious enough. Dilara Begum is a mother of eight who started going to parenting classes in east London to help deal with her six-year-old, who was throwing tantrums in shops.
He responded to the reward chart and list of rules she was advised to pin up on the wall but Dilara would like the classes — for parents with children under the age of five — to be available for parents of teenagers, too. Her biggest worry is her 16-year-old: “He mixed with the wrong kids and hung out with boys stealing bikes. He got caught and the police gave him a warning.”
Black wants to recruit enough volunteers to run his own Parent Gym classes nationwide so they are as much a part of family life as antenatal appointments. It’s a contentious idea — but then there are an awful lot of worried parents out there.
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