The parents of Penzance

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Sue Palmer finds the very model of a modern course in "people skills" - designed to enrich family relationships - as she meets members of a Parent Link group in Cornwall I came because I could see and hear my mum in myself. I was telling the children off the way she told me off, and I'd hated her for it - she had a voice like thunder. I wanted to be able to talk to my children so they didn't feel 'told off'."

"I'm a single parent, there's just me, nobody to talk to about what I do. I wanted some sort of support from other people."

"I needed something, things were getting out of control. I seemed to be in the middle of it all, receiving everybody else's problems."

"I wanted to understand more about myself and about my child. When I joined a friend said 'Oh, I didn't think you had any problems' - well, I don't suppose I have any more than anyone else. But being a parent isn't easy, and I don't think anyone can think they've got it completely right."

These are some of the reasons which brought 16 mothers to a group called Parent-Link, which meets at Alverton Primary School in Penzance on Wednesdays.

When they joined none were sure what to expect, but after eight weeks they are impressed: all feel their relationships with their children are improving, and that the "people skills" they're learning are enriching all their relationships within the family and beyond.

They cite further bonuses as being increased self-awareness and the forging of friendships which they believe will last well beyond the course. As one mother put it: "I've found the whole thing much bigger than I thought it would be."

It might so easily have never happened. The Parent-Link leaflet arrived at the school in a plethora of mail and was nearly thrown out.

But Alverton had been running a course for parents on Helping Your Child with Reading and Writing which was ending, and the teacher in charge, Angie Butler, was looking for something to follow it up.

She mentioned it to headteacher Maureen Woodhouse, who remembered the leaflet in that morning's post, and they decided to find out more.

As a parent herself Mrs Butler knew the problems of bringing up children in a highly mobile society, without the strong family networks available to previous generations.

"Because of my husband's work we moved around a lot when we were younger. We had two children, and they practically never slept. We used to take photos of them if they went to sleep, it was so rare. I was at my wits' end, lonely and desperate."

She found support through a group called the Housewife's Register. She said: "Still, after 25 years, if I need someone to talk to I can ring one of them up and they'll be there to listen."

She could see immediately how Parent-Link could help not only the parents but the school. "Supported parents mean supported children. If we want to have super kids we have to consider the parents' needs too."

They decided on afternoon meetings for the group, when children are safe at school so there are no babysitting problems. Maureen Woodhouse also arranged weekly non-contact time for Angie Butler so she could attend the meetings.

This was an expensive investment, but proved worthwhile from the start, as the "Reading and Writing" parents provided a ready-made nucleus for the group. Several mothers said they might not have come if it hadn't been for Mrs Butler, whom they knew and respected. "And it's good it's held at the school: if it'd been anywhere else I wouldn't have bothered."

This helped solve a major problem for Kate Jasper, one of two Parent-Link co-ordinators for the Alverton group.

She says that although all the parents she's worked with have found the course worthwhile - "I don't think there's ever been one who had negative feelings once they'd started" - encouraging people over the threshold in the first place can be difficult.

Apart from all the usual problems inherent in getting something off the ground, there's the added worry that such a group may be stigmatised as just for 'failing parents'.

"Parent-Link is for all parents," she said. "We all fail to some extent and we all succeed. But everybody benefits from sharing experiences and learning new skills."

Like all Parent-Link co-ordinators, Kate Jasper was once a course member herself. She had read an article about Parent-Link's founder Ivan Sokolov.

He launched an organisation called the Parent Network in southern England in 1986, and thought his ideas might help her cope with the pressures of juggling two young children and a demanding job.

When the course was over, Kate opted to take the six-month training course necessary to lead a group.

She is enthusiastic about the skills she teaches and the way the groups work. Sessions are carefully structured, starting with discussion of how people have made use of skills learned the previous week.

Then there is a set topic for the week, with discussion and short exercises to demonstrate it. At the end of each session group members receive a booklet revising the main points about the week's topic.

Over the 13-week course, discussion covers areas such as parenting styles, listening skills, how to praise children and how to challenge unacceptable behaviour. Recognising that children are as ill-served by parents who act like doormats as they are by those who act like bullies, Parent-Link recommends assertive parenting, with the emphasis on gentle firmness, fairness and mutual respect.

The skill being reviewed at the eighth meeting of the Alverton group is reflective listening, a technique used by professional counsellors but just as useful in parent-child relationships. The group exchanges reports on how the strategies they learned at the last session have worked .

Everyone is pleased with the way their new skill has encouraged children and friends to work through problems for themselves and find resolutions. "After I'd listened, I felt really good, rewarded, that I'd given her what she really needed, not just jumped in and interrupted her train of thought."

It is clear that participation in Parent-Link does wonders for the self-esteem. These women are full of optimism for themselves and their children.

One mother said: "I was looking for answers. You start on this black and white road and it turns about a thousand shades of grey. But basically you've got the answers yourself. We're not on our own."

The parents of Penzance are enjoying doing it for themselves and Maureen Woodhouse has noticed the difference.

The meetings are completely confidential, so all she knows about what goes on in her school library every Wednesday has come from odd hints dropped by the parents.

But this has been enough to inspire her to join a Parent-Link group herself, with a view to becoming more involved with the organisation in the future.

"It is one of the most exciting initiatives I have ever seen. The parents are all gaining self-esteem, proud of themselves, proud of their children. One of them came to me and said it had changed her life. I think it's more than that: this thing could change our country."

* Parent-Link is a programmedeveloped by Parent Network, 44-46 Caversham Road, London, NW5 2DS Tel: 0171 485 8535

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