Comment - Parenting lessons are pregnant with social possibility

22nd January 2010 at 00:00

A recent Daily Mail front-page article vociferously decried proposed government plans to make parenting classes compulsory for all children from the age of 14. The article quoted "experts" warning that this could lead to an increase in teenage pregnancy by making it more acceptable and would encourage more teenage girls to become young mothers.

I beg to differ. For once I think Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, has come up with a good proposal. Because this is not about sex education, or encouraging our children to become sexually active at an increasingly early age. It's about teaching them what the responsibilities of caring for a child for upwards of 16 years are about, not just the prospect of a dewy-eyed young mother cooing over a tiny baby.

A few days later another item appeared in the same newspaper revealing new facts about the poor speech capabilities and understanding of children starting nursery school, basically caused by bad parenting techniques. This article blamed the habit of sitting toddlers in front of the TV instead of talking to them, mentioning that this was a problem across the class structure.

We know that the Government is committed to giving all children equal educational opportunities, but it is also widely known that children aren't "equal" from the day they begin their formal education, because the vital early years development can vary so much according to the input from parents and from family lifestyles.

Hardly any young people, once they have left school, will ever feel the need to use a quadratic equation for the rest of their lives. But the majority are going to become parents and, in our fragmented society, many will take on the role of parent with children who are not biologically theirs. Recent NSPCC statistics show that up to 32,000 children are in danger of abuse at any time in the UK. Of the cases that hit the headlines many involve the mother's boyfriend, who clearly has little regard or understanding of the needs of the child whose home he has casually moved into. All pupils receive extensive careers advice and support, but it amazes me that we give them no instruction or preparation for the one job most of them will undertake for a substantial part of their lives.

If they are lucky enough to live in an area where there are sufficient midwives, pregnant women can attend classes that prepare them for childbirth and neonatal care, such as bathing and feeding. But after that we expect new parents to develop skills by some sort of osmosis, and reactively offering support to families once they are seen to be failing is not the way forward.

If we are ever to turn these issues around, if we are ever to give children from deprived backgrounds a true equality of opportunity, if we are ever to break cycles of deprivation, abuse and cruelty, then surely teaching young people how to be good parents is paramount? Getting the next generation of parents to understand the importance of this mammoth role they are undertaking, the need to nurture each individual they bring into the world, not just physically, but emotionally, socially, and educationally, are some of the best lessons they can learn.

When GCSEs first came into being, I taught child development under the home economics umbrella. Long before computerised dolls who cry until they are attended to came along, I simply took a tape recording of a crying baby into the lesson and played it constantly. Towards the end of the lesson I would ask the pupils how it made them feel - and how would it make them feel if it happened throughout their favourite TV programme, or through the night when they had to be at work next day. Responses varied, but it certainly didn't make any of the teenagers want to rush out and procreate.

Good parenting classes aren't just about changing nappies and feeding babies. They can look at the costs of bringing up a child, the impact on the social life of young parents, the benefits of a stable family unit, and the need for children to be properly stimulated and properly prepared for starting their education, during those vital years when the parents are the most important factors in a child's life.

Done well, parenting classes could make a huge difference to the future of our society and, done well, they could be one of the best advocates for contraception among young people that we have.

Julie McGowan, Co-founder, Is It? Theatre Company, South Wales.

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