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Parents 'powerless to bring up their children'

Families feel they have lost confidence in their child-rearing skills

Ned Temko and Denis Campbell 12th November 2006

Many parents have lost confidence in how to bring up their children properly and feel inadequate, isolated and unsupported in coping with the pressures of modern family life, the government has warned.

Mothers and fathers often feel 'disempowered' as parents, and find it particularly difficult to enforce rules so their child does not misbehave, according to Beverley Hughes, the Minister for Children and Families.

In an interview with The Observer, Hughes voiced alarm that parents have much less faith than previous generations in their abilities to raise and guide their children, and wanted help to deal with their conduct.

'I've talked to a lot of parents and one thing that has really struck me, and this is across all social classes, is a sense of lack of confidence around the parenting role - and particularly around setting boundaries for children,' she said.

Hughes will announce plans tomorrow for a new National Academy for Parenting Practitioners to provide useful, reliable advice to parents and children's experts on what has been proven to work, which will start work in autumn 2007.

Many parents clearly wanted help in 'understanding their children's behaviour' when difficult situations arose, she said, adding: 'Increasingly what many parents say they want is help with feeling comfortable with their own authority with their own kids, and being able to set down boundaries and stick to them.'

Many parents watch television shows about child-rearing such as The House of Tiny Tearaways to pick up tips on how to handle aspects of their children's behaviour because they feel unequal to the task, she said.

'I find them as fascinating as everybody else. That speaks to this lack of confidence. What should I be doing? How can I control this three-year-old? In some ways it's astonishing. But it's there and we should be responding to it,' said Hughes, a former probation officer and lecturer in social policy.

The minister identified a weakening of inter-generational family ties, an increased number of women working and greater pressures on children as key factors behind the widespread loss of confidence among parents.

'Many parents in the past had a lot more support from families. Families were closer. They had their own

mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, around them. And the speed of change, and the pressures - both on today's parents and on the children they're trying to bring up - are probably different. So you've got less support for parents from their families and at the same time a rapidly-changing world with lots more challenges in it than there were, and I think those two things come together quite potently for many parents now,' said Hughes.

Mary Macleod, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, a leading charity and think-tank on children's issues, said Hughes had highlighted a growing trend.

'Many parents tell us that they feel less confident at raising their children than they think their own parents were, and they feel that they are scrutinised and judged as parents in a way that has not happened before. It's a common feeling,' said Macleod. 'From surveys we have done and discussion groups we've held with parents it's clear that quite a lot of parents don't feel confident about their own abilities.'

Many were anxious about the safety of their children and how to get them through the teenage years without them getting into trouble, she said. They also worried about pressure on the family through children growing up too soon, peer influences and judgmental stuff about parents in the media.

Parents also resented the fact that they only got help from official agencies to deal with their children when, for example, a son or daughter truanted from school repeatedly or got into trouble with the police, Macleod said.

Hughes, who will make a keynote speech on family policy tomorrow when she addresses the FPI's annual conference in London, stressed that the state cannot get too involved in the rearing of children.

'Only parents can parent,' she said. 'It is not the Government's job to tell parents how to nurture their children. When you're a parent you don't want to be told what to do - whether by your mother-in-law, a health visitor, and certainly not by the state.'

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