How do you entertain a grumpy three-year-old? My strategy is generally: (a) panic; (b) rustle about in my bag for some breadsticks or – if she’s lucky – a colouring book; (c) hand over my iPhone and let her watch some cartoons – all the while worrying I’m stunting her brain development.
My friend, however, has a different strategy. One morning we were enjoying a coffee when, to distract her three-year-old daughter, she serenely reached into her bag and handed her a sheet of paper with six or seven three-letter words on it and a red pen. She then proceeded to read the words out at random, while her daughter correctly circled each one. It was impressive. I was horrified.
I’d never considered doing similar activities with my own daughter, just four months younger. Although we read to her before bed each night, I’d always assumed formal reading and writing was just something she’d pick up when she went to school. Perhaps I’d got it terribly wrong.
About a week later, when dropping my daughter off at nursery, I was handed a leaflet about parenting classes. Like many mums, no one taught me how to raise my children – I’ve simply muddled by on instinct and the odd book. But perhaps there’s a more evidence-based way to raise happy and successful kids. Maybe I needed to enrol at Parent School.
© Thomas Slater
Trends in parenting have waxed and waned over the years. Although once upon a time, new parents simply fell back on the wisdom and experience of their extended families, doctors started getting involved from the late 19th century onwards. Today there’s no shortage of Supernannys, paediatricians and psychiatrists serving up often conflicting parenting advice. New parents can choose any number of approaches: attachment parenting, minimalist parenting, Tiger Mom parenting.
Even politicians are getting in on the act. In 2012, UK Prime Minister David Cameron launched CANparent, a heavily subsidised network of parenting classes that aspire to teach us all how to become better parents. Parenting has become a public issue, which means it’s now eating up public funding.
All of this begs the question: which approach is best? Whereas many parenting trends reflect the opinions of a single psychoanalyst, paediatrician or nanny, CANparent’s providers claim to draw upon the latest scientific research about how children develop and say their strategies are “proven” to make a real, positive difference to families. Others, meanwhile, claim that such evidence-based parenting policies are based on distorted science and undermine parents’ confidence in their ability to raise their children.
“It transforms the meaning of family life,” says Jan Macvarish, who studies the impact of neuroscience on family policy at the University of Kent. “It says ‘we will be able to measure the quality of your family life by the intelligence or emotional intelligence of your child’.”
Cameron’s intervention in this most personal area of family life came in response to a report published in 2011, entitled Early Intervention: The next steps. On its first page sits an image of a healthy three-year-old’s brain and, next to it, a brain approximately half the size labelled ‘extreme neglect’. The report’s message is simple: “Many of the costly and damaging social problems in society are created because we are not giving children the right type of support in their earliest years, when they should achieve their most rapid development.”
The report goes on to cite several scientific findings, such as the fact that a child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years. And that while babies are born with 25 per cent of their brains developed, their brains are 80 per cent developed by the age of three. “In that period, neglect, the wrong type of parenting and other adverse experiences can have a profound effect on how children are emotionally ‘wired’,” the report says. “This will deeply influence their future responses to events, and their ability to empathise with other people.”
It makes scary reading for parents like me who have largely muddled through their children’s early years. My kids, now four and two, have probably passed this key window of intervention. If I’ve been doing things wrong, it may already be too late.
Yet many neuroscientists query the significance of this ‘critical’ window of development – or whether it even exists at all. “It may be important to intervene early because the early years come first and may influence later experiences, but later experiences can be very influential in affecting both behaviour and brain structure,” says Sir Michael Rutter, professor of developmental psychopathology at King’s College London.
That said, why not start early – particularly if you can train parents to be more effective over their entire parenting career? There’s no denying the gulf that exists between the achievements of children from rich and poor areas by the time they start school. For instance, according to the UK’s Department for Education, in 2013, 52 per cent of all children reached a ‘good level of development’ at age five, compared to 36 per cent of children from poorer backgrounds who were eligible for free school meals. It’s a similar story in the USA. “If you look at overall measures of numeracy and literacy, what you see is a huge gap between kids from families in the top and bottom fifth of the income distribution,” says Greg Duncan of the University of California, Irvine, who studies the links between poverty and child development. What’s more, this gap widens as children age.
It may seem logical, then, to look to the quality of a child’s parenting to explain it. Maybe these infant ‘underachievers’ simply need better stimulation or more rigid boundaries.
© Thomas Slater
One solution proposed by the current UK administration is parenting classes from birth – not just for poor families, but for everyone. “We know that the single most important factor in a child’s development is the quality of parenting, yet babies don’t come with instructions included,” says Vera Azuike of CANparent. “Everybody could use a little extra advice or support, but it has to be the right advice.”
Predominant among the classes offered by CANParent are those provided by an Australian company called Triple P (the Ps stand for ‘Positive Parenting Program’). Founded by clinical psychologist Matt Sanders, its original focus was helping children with aggression problems through a series of home visits and interventions drawn from social learning theory – the idea that children develop their model of values and behaviour from what they see and experience around them.
Triple P claims to be one of the few parenting programmes that’s scientifically proven to work, having helped hundreds of thousands of families in 25 different countries to deal with issues ranging from temper tantrums and disobedience to bedtime dramas and teenage rebellion in the 30 years since it was conceived. Today it’s a private company, managed by the University of Queensland’s technology transfer arm, although Sanders – who directs the University’s parenting and family support centre – remains actively involved.
“There are some key principles that we think are very important to children’s development,” he says. “The first is that kids grow up in an interesting and engaging environment with age-appropriate things to keep them busy. The second is that children will do better in a world of encouragement and positivity rather than criticism and putdowns. The third principle is really about boundaries and limits setting; parents should have clear ideas about what they expect of their children, and there should be consistent and predictable consequences if they break those boundaries.”
Triple P doesn’t offer any classes on teaching your three-year-old to read. It does, however, offer a smorgasbord of other parenting interventions, from one-to-one sessions designed to help families experiencing serious difficulties to group courses and one-off discussion groups, covering issues such as developing good bedtime routines and managing fighting and aggression.
I enrol on a two-hour discussion session entitled ‘Dealing with Disobedience’ at a Children’s Centre in Redditch, Worcestershire. Before going, I ask Sanders what he thinks I’d get out of attending a Triple P class. “More than anything else, I think it would give you time to pause and reflect upon how you are dealing with issues with your kids,” he tells me. “It would enable you to think about the kind of skills, behaviours and values that you want to promote to your children and provide you with a toolkit for accomplishing that.”
I arrive, eager to learn the secrets of good parenting. The session is being held in a government-funded Children’s Centre in the middle of a large council estate. My first surprise is that many of the 12 parents in attendance already have multiple children – some of them teenagers. One of them is Rachael Kelly, 35, a mother of five from Redditch whose children range in age from nine months to 14 years. Surely if anyone knows how to parent, it’s her. But she tells me she’s hoping to get some new ideas: “Every parent hits a brick wall at some time or another,” she says. “Children are unique, and they all respond to things differently.”
After introducing ourselves, one of the first exercises we are asked to do is list the problems we have faced as parents over the past month. I tick ‘complaining or whining’, ‘demanding things’, ‘answering back’ and ‘tantrums’. We then talk about reasons why children might be disobedient. I underline the section in my handout about tiredness or hunger being common reasons for disobedience – it strikes me that most sulkiness occurs when my kids have just come home from nursery or after they’ve woken up. Next, we are asked to look at a list of common ‘parent traps’ and tick those that might apply to us. I tick six of the boxes, including ‘giving attention for bad behaviour by arguing or negotiating’ and ‘ignoring good behaviour’.
Our instructor explains the importance of praising children for doing the right thing, as well as pointing out when they’ve done something wrong. “Often you get what you praise for,” she adds. I’m encouraged to think of behaviours that I could look out for and celebrate, such as kindness, tidying up or simply playing quietly together. We’re also taught about setting limits for our children and backing those instructions up with consequences. Triple P advocates the use of ‘time out’ – taking your child away from a troublesome situation, possibly to their bedroom or another room, and having them sit quietly for a short time.
None of this, frankly, is rocket science. The threat of time out already looms large in our household, although I hadn’t come across its gentler cousin, ‘quiet time’, where your reaction to disobedience is to make your child sit quietly near the activity they were doing for a couple of minutes while they reflect on what went wrong. Even so, I leave the session feeling uplifted. Talking to other parents reminds me that these issues are common, and makes me think I’m probably not doing such a bad job. Also, as Sanders suggested, taking two hours out of my usual routine to reflect on the values I want to instil in my children, and on how to achieve this, feels as though it was a valuable investment.
© Thomas Slater
Several days after my course, I put my new parenting skills to the test. I take my two children to a local toddler group and my daughter hits the ball pit, showering multicoloured balls around the room. It looks like great fun, but as she meanders off to play with a large plastic kitchen I remind her that she needs to tidy up afterwards. I am ignored, so I try backing up my instruction with some quiet time: I ask my daughter to sit with me, and I describe how tired it makes me feel always having to do the tidying up. I beseech her to help me; I even suggest that we turn it into a competition, and it works. Soon all the balls are tidied away, and I thank her for working so hard. Although I feel like Supermum, it also feels a little bit contrived. Still, my daughter seems happy, and she responds to the additional praise with a big smile and a “thank you” in return.
I call up Rachael and ask how she’s got on. She recounts a similar experience of using quiet time to emphasise the need to share a garden swing. She’s also taken a tip from a session on promoting good bedtime routines, constructing a chart to remind her son of what he needs to do before bed and in what order. “It is working brilliantly,” she says.
Both of us feel a renewed sense of confidence in our ability to parent, and it seems we’re not alone. A pilot trial of CANParent in the London borough of Camden, Middlesbrough and High Peak in Derbyshire reported that 91 per cent of those who attended classes said they had learned new parenting skills, and 84 per cent said they felt more confident as a result. Seventy-five per cent thought their relationship with their children had improved.
All the same, I wonder if parenting classes are really the solution to social inequality that some – including the UK government – would have us believe, especially considering that just 4 per cent of eligible parents took up the offer of subsidised classes during the CANParent trial. Presumably anyone signing up for parenting classes is already motivated to try to improve their parenting.
A week later, I attend a conference in Bristol where a number of parent class providers are setting out their stalls to the local authorities that commission (and pay for) their services. Although each of the providers is trying to hype up their unique selling point, as I work my way around the room I hear the same strategies repeated again and again: firm boundaries, loving and responsive care, positive praise.
Like Triple P, most of these programmes draw on social learning theory as their base, with a smattering of attachment theory – the idea that a strong emotional bond to at least one caregiver is critical to personal development – on the side. Their founders tend to be child psychologists, keen to put their theories about how to get the best out of children into practice. But there’s also a financial incentive: an eight-week Triple P course costs a local authority approximately £250 per parent, while the Solihull Approach’s online course, which is marketed directly to parents, costs £39.
Most claim empirical evidence that their interventions work, but some are more evidence-based than others. Sanders cites a recent study that measured outcomes from 16,099 families who had participated in a Triple P programme: “We found significant positive effects on child social, emotional and behavioural problems, plus significant effects on parenting practices and satisfaction,” he says. “These are persistent effects that don’t disappear once the parent has completed the programme.”
It sounds impressive, and Triple P can indeed cite hundreds of other scientific studies, including randomised controlled trials, the gold standard for evaluating how effective a drug or intervention is. Often, though, these studies have relied on parental reports of child behaviour, rather than independent assessment – and if parents are feeling better, they may rate their children’s behaviour as less troublesome. The evidence for Triple P providing lasting benefits is also stronger for children with more serious behavioural problems, whose parents receive more intensive parenting support, than for the everyday child on the street whose parent attends group-based classes like I did.
Other scientists have raised concerns about a high risk of bias and potential conflicts of interest in many studies that have investigated Triple P. “We found no convincing evidence that Triple P interventions work across the whole population or that any benefits are long-term,” wrote the authors of a recent analysis that compares previous studies of the programme.
But Triple P isn’t the only parenting programme with such methodological issues, adds the report’s lead author, Philip Wilson at the University of Aberdeen: “In general, studies of the effectiveness of parenting programmes have been small, underpowered and have had methodological problems.”
That’s not to say they don’t work. But if parenting classes are supposed to be a prescription for a better society, perhaps we should be demanding the same standard of evidence as we do for new drugs. “There is a real need for head-to-head comparisons of different parenting programmes which are adequately powered to see if there is any real benefit,” Wilson adds.
I think back to my own Triple P experience. I certainly feel like I’m putting more effort into how I interact with my children. Even if it makes no difference to their long-term academic or social development, it’s difficult to see how this could be harmful. But it’s also true that I might have reaped similar benefits by going to a coffee morning and swapping tips with other parents.
And the very fact that I had to seek expert advice to confirm that I’m good enough at parenting troubles some sociologists. “It worries me how many of the things that we all do naturally – reading, relaxing, cuddling, singing, talking to our children – have been repackaged in a commercialised and expert-led way,” says Macvarish. Although what we’re doing is probably no different to what our own parents and grandparents did when we were infants, we’re no longer just doing it to provide comfort or entertainment; we’re also doing it to stimulate their brains.
For some of us, that added sense of purpose can bring anxiety. I’ve certainly had moments where I’ve wondered if I’m doing enough cuddling, singing or reading with my children, or whether I’m somehow stunting their brain development by letting them watch more than an hour of television.
However, most of the experts I speak to reassure me that what comes naturally is probably more than enough for most children. As Claire Hughes, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge, told me: “The difference between being an adequate parent and Supermum – well, it’s diminishing returns, frankly.”
© Thomas Slater
According to Hughes, the children we really need to be thinking about are those “facing toxic levels of stress, and whose parents are unable to provide support because they are facing their own health problems or other concerns”. By placing such a strong emphasis on parenting, are we leaching resources away from other social issues that need to be tackled to really close the gap between rich and poor kids?
“Partly what parents get from attending a parenting class is a sense of reassurance and the support and companionship of other parents, and that’s so important,” says Val Gillies at London South Bank University. “The problem comes if you present parenting classes as the key to social mobility.”
So if inadequate parenting isn’t to blame for the poorer academic performance of children from low-income families, what is? Gillies points out that family income and parental education have a far greater impact on children’s educational attainment and wellbeing than any particular parenting style. Money doesn’t just buy your children toys, books and a house in a good school catchment area; it can also buy museum trips and foreign holidays, which enhance children’s knowledge about the wider world.
“One of the roadblocks to literacy and more general achievement once kids get to school is the background knowledge that will enable them to understand what they are reading about,” says Duncan. “That kind of background knowledge is conveyed effortlessly in a lot of households with higher socioeconomic status.”
Education is another factor that often goes hand in hand with affluence. Studies have found that highly educated parents are more likely to read to their children, and use a wider vocabulary and more descriptive sentences when speaking to them. They are also more inclined to use mathematical language – terms like ‘more’ and ‘less’ or ‘half’ and ‘quarter’.
“Vocabulary development is critical for your ability to communicate, your understanding of the world and your ability to decode the meaning of novel words as you’re reading them,” says Fred Morrison, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “A child’s understanding of mathematical language may also influence their rate of mathematical development and achievement in late preschool and the early school period.”
Obviously, it’s easier to send mums and dads to parenting classes than it is to tackle inequalities in wealth or persuade parents to go back to college and boost their own education. Yet at least one study has suggested that when poorly educated young mothers return to school, their children’s academic performance – particularly their reading skills – also increases.
© Thomas Slater
In recent years, some American kindergartens have introduced a teaching method known as ‘Tools of the Mind’, which is specifically designed to foster a set of skills called ‘executive function’ in preschool children. “A good analogy is to an air traffic controller,” says Duncan. “It’s about being able to keep a lot of things up in the air at the same time, so it involves working memory, impulse control and being able to shift from thinking about one thing to another.”
Until recently, executive function wasn’t thought to kick in until adolescence; it certainly wasn’t something people thought you could train. Yet some recent studies have suggested that executive function is a good indicator of later literacy, numeracy and general personal adjustment.
In 2007, a study published in Science found that preschool children who completed a Tools of the Mind programme had higher levels of self-control than children who received a standard preschool education. One strategy that Tools of the Mind teachers use is engaging children in extended sessions of make-believe, where they are encouraged to plan scenarios that change as their play progresses and to swap roles.
High-quality childcare has been shown to balance out some of the effects of social deprivation. Nursery teachers are often trained in how to teach basic numeracy and literacy to young children, as well as helping them to solve problems for themselves using a technique known as scaffolding. “You might have a child who is completely unable to do a jigsaw, but when supported by an adult they can complete it,” says Hughes. One potential alternative to parent classes is to skip the parents and target the children directly, using methods such as Tools of the Mind.
Yet more recent studies have cast doubt on how much of a difference Tools of the Mind truly makes to children’s development. “If you really want to know what skills or behaviours best equip children to be successful at school, it’s not executive function; it is about getting along with others, and it’s concrete academic numeracy and literacy skills,” says Duncan. “It’s not a case of bringing three- and four-year-olds into a classroom and lecturing to them, but building structured learning experiences into their play activities.”
Of course, middle-class, well-educated parents like me seize upon statements like this, wanting to know: how do I do that? And yet many of the things proven to be associated with better early school grades – immersing children in language, talking about mathematical concepts, scaffolding – are things we’re doing already. “Kids from middle-class families are generally supported to fulfil their potential, whatever their genetic tendencies,” says Adam Perkins, a personality researcher at King’s College London.
Even so, middle-class parents aren’t perfect. If parenting classes have taught me anything, it’s the value of paying attention to your child – even when they’re being good. All too often I’ve caught myself using this kind of quiet time to check for emails or read Twitter, rather than taking an interest in what my children are doing. It’s a bad habit I’m trying to change.
I decide against writing out three-letter words for my daughter to recognise, at least until she shows a genuine interest in reading for herself. Instead, I carry on much as before: asking my children to describe leaf shapes when we go for walks, singing songs about numbers and reading them a book or two at bedtime.
Although most of us worry from time to time that we’re not being the best parents we could be, I’m inclined to believe that we don’t need experts to tell us how to raise our children if we’re honest about our anxieties and prepared to swap notes with other parents. In 1946, paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock wrote the Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, which remains one of the bestselling books of all time. Its opening line: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”