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This Supernanny soap opera just won't wash

As so often, our top soap opera is bang on the button.

Children's minister Beverley Hughes announces a national academy to teach "parenting practitioners" how to pass on naughty-step nostrums to beleaguered mums and dads. In the same week, Coronation Street dispatches Gail Platt to a parenting class. Blimey. You could almost suspect the Government of giving Granada a three-month warning of its initiatives.

Gail Platt's first class was pretty dramatic: they had to make non-verbal noises expressing their feelings about being there, and no one blew a raspberry. Gail did a sort of closed-mouth scream. She was then asked to discover, through role-play, exactly what it is that ails her relationship with truanting son David. Those of us who pay proper attention to the series may suspect that it has something to do with her whining all the time, throwing out her second husband, shacking up with a serial killer, followed by a violent Scottish reflexologist, over whom she brawls in the street with a stout taxi dispatcher. Or it could be her permanent preoccupation with torpedoing the boyfriends of her teenage, single-mother daughter, even the one who isn't gay but merely climbs out of a lavatory window to escape his own wedding day.

I doubt most practitioners would need a Beverley Hughes-approved training programme to spot that David's best option is to join the Foreign Legion until his mother and sister regain control of their hormones. But it brings the matter of professionalised parenting classes into relief. I have known people who liked them; others who fled the first session. I have observed informal and local support systems such as Home-Start, and the rather splendid arrangement in Newcastle whereby local GPs prescribe a "community mum" to pop round and play with the children of depressed mothers, while putting the kettle on and chatting about the way "family life can get you down, pet, but it's not your fault".

The thing that strikes me most forcefully is that the support that parents appreciate most is the friendliest and the most informal. A class full of laughs, or a home visitor who doesn't think she's Supernanny, fulfils the role of the best parenting aid of all: a friend in the same boat. I have always held that the best present you can give any pregnant woman is an introduction to another pregnant woman who lives on the same street.

The front-line battles of parenthood bring us some wonderfully ill-assorted friendships and valuable insights into other people's ways of coping. The school gate and the PTA bring even more. I learnt more from other parents - and teachers - than I ever did from reading textbooks or could have got from a formal (and potentially compulsory) government-inspected class.

So it'll work, but only if the first thing this cadre of parent trainers learn is how to be nice to people - good company, interested listeners, funny, slow to judge and happy to admit their own failings. It might just work. Probably not for Gail Platt, though, who will most likely meet another serial-killing reflexologist at the class and end up back in the soup.

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