How we can really help parents

This is a blog post about how I believe mistaken benevolence for parents inadvertently weakens their resolve – instead, we need to empower them with knowledge and aspiration for their children.

One of my own little mantras, conjured up over a few years of seeing how life pans out, is the more you help someone, the less they help themselves. When I see this in a school setting, I end up in a quandary over wanting to help because it is the right thing to do, yet at the same time knowing that a person or group of people is at risk of learned helplessness and dependency if they allow themselves to get used to said help. To some extent, you can see how possessing strength or expertise in any area of life would then be reinforced and augmented through practice because we all seek the happiness of helping others and then in tiny little ways we are all connecting and becoming more than the mere sum of individuals. It also makes more sense and increases our chances of survival if individuals specialise and become more efficient, therefore we have evolved to be this way: during groupwork, this is why some children end up doing all the writing, some do all the thinking/working out and others do all the colouring in! However, it seems some of us find it too easy to receive help and are not the most willing to help ourselves or others; children are no exception to this rule because they are fallible human beings in need of guidance. In fact, children probably are more at risk of this, aren’t they?

A classic example of this phenomenon occurs when the TA or the teacher works with children who are lower attaining and in need of a boost, re-telling what has just been taught and what they have to do and then providing the starts of sentences/scaffolds. It is good practice for the teacher or TA to base themselves with a group of children while the rest of the class is busy getting on with their independent work, yet the unintended result of all this good practice is that a core group of children could end up…

  • learning that they don’t have to listen during the input (because Miss will just give me a private tutorial after)
  • zoning out while the teacher gives instructions (because Miss will remember the order of everything)
  • not developing much needed focus and effort to remember key words, algorithms, procedures (because the hard part of starting anything will be provided by the adult)

Over the years, these thought processes could become habitual, their ‘dao’ so to speak. This is very difficult to change and I believe it is one of the reasons why, despite average or high KS2 SATs results, many children struggle when they start secondary school and are suddenly expected to work on their own. Nobody wants to be accused of being cruel and uncaring, so they do their utmost to care and help others despite the risk of learned helplessness. Deep down, we all know that the best thing is to struggle a bit, maybe make a mistake or two along the way.

It’s different for parents, right? One would assume that they are not at risk of learned helplessness because they are not children. Therefore, the best way to to help them cope with parenting and to be better parents is to, er, help them as much as possible? We’ve got all this austerity and Brexit going on, plus the mental health crisis and parents are really struggling. No wonder some children are coming to school tired, hungry, depressed and anxious! I wonder if some parents end up struggling because they’ve also developed some dependency due to receiving and then expecting so much help. Have you ever had the same thoughts? OK, you probably haven’t. In fact, you’ve mostly heard the opposite. ‘Parents need less help!’ is not exactly a message you would read in The Guardian.

Anyway (says she who still pursues this challenge to the status quo), society expects the educator to extend the caring and helping role to parents and wider family because, well, that’s one of the reasons we all pay tax. Politicians win votes over it and yet in a similar way to that child arriving in year 7 unable to start a paragraph, I think this contributes to a phenomenon whereby many parents inadvertently arrive at the front door of the primary school thinking that….

  1. many/most aspects of child development happen naturally and ‘when they’re ready’
  2. professionals will be able to step in to help when their child doesn’t develop x, y or z naturally
  3. children must be given voice and choice on everything right from the start
  4. children must only experience happiness and happy thoughts because that’s how happy adults are created

The above are mantras/rules of parenting showered upon the newly pregnant woman by professionals until all the wisdom and tradition of her ancestors is overwritten and she knows not to listen to granny who is advising her that little Tommy needs to learn that he can’t get his own way and that she really ought to get that bedtime routine going for the sake of everyone’s sanity, not least the health of the child.

For the new parent who has not been parented well herself, this is an unmitigated disaster. She needed to be empowered by the truth that it is only the survival instincts which come naturally and that everything else must be purposefully taught, modeled and then practised to the point of automaticity. That’s how we learn; it’s the same magic that happens in the classroom. Sleep hygiene is a great example of something that must be learned. Many parents are told by a kindly health worker that at some point their baby will automatically regulate his own sleeping ‘when he’s ready’ (rule 1 above) and to really drive the message home we have the added guilt trip of being made to worry that in ‘forcing’ a child to go to sleep at a certain time by saying ‘No!’ instead of using the modern wisdom of offering choices, they might cry a bit which of course breaks rules 3 and 4. Years later, they find themselves embroiled in increasingly lengthy and elaborate rituals that only they can do in order to get their child to go to sleep and stay asleep. Some give up along the way by either accepting a potentially marriage-wrecking solution of allowing the child to sleep in the adults’ bed for years while others just let the child be on an iPad till the wee hours. Years later, the parents are still knackered and never have time to really love and care for each other.

I think there is also a chance that many developmental problems 5 year olds arrive with at reception year could be attributed to one, some or all of the four modern parenting rules listed above. And then of course the state provides an enormous amount of help with all sorts of labels and diagnoses for the child thus facilitating a conveyor belt of state provided professionals and help into their lives. The EYFS framework is interesting in that it kind of cements this process: if you look at the modern parenting rules I have listed above, you can see them weaved into the narrative of the framework for early years practitioners to follow. Another great example: speech and language. Children need to hear the crisp enunciation of English language from an adult and then be expected to use it lots and purposeful parenting is basically the same as good quality teaching in this regard. Civilised conversation at the dinner table that includes the giving of knowledge and its associated vocabulary from the parent (rather than allowing the child to dominate) and sharing bedtime stories is a key factor in this process and yet parents are led to believe that their role in all of this is merely to wait for a miracle while their child plays on an iPad or tears around the playgroup screaming at the top of his voice. If you put 20 toddlers who can’t talk into a room together, the English language will not magically flourish (I disagree with Geary, as you know), but it’s OK because we have lots of speech and language therapists working with young children now. An official-sounding diagnosis of speech and language delay would surely reinforce any learned helplessness of parents, partly because it abdicates responsibility from the adult, who would impart the much needed knowledge, to the child with his mysteriously ‘unready’ brain. Further, in schools in areas of high deprivation where precious resources are being hoovered up in order to tackle speech and language delay, that means less time/resources for the teaching of phonics, which means whole cohorts are delayed in reading, which means fewer years to start to accumulate knowledge and vocabulary which means…….you get the picture. And how are all these children coping with the fact that they cannot use their words to communicate and play with friends? What might they use instead to communicate? Perhaps the root cause of the behaviour crisis in schools goes back further than we think……and there are of course plenty of professionals to help parents with that.

So, how could we really help parents? Many argue for more money for parents or for those Sure Start centres to be re-opened, but I think that the absence of Sure Start, even though we all agree it was pretty good, highlights just how much of the parenting role has been gradually transferred to the state and to front line public sector workers in general, necessitating the proliferation of all kinds of therapists and general help into families’ lives.

Instead of more help, I would argue that perhaps parents need to be empowered to help themselves. All that it would take is for them to turn to the wisdom and tradition of their parent ancestors rather than automatically follow the narrative described above. Parents need to know that:

  1. Parenting is something you can do, purposefully. Whatever it is you want your child to do or know, you need to teach (or model it to) them and expect lots of practice because pretty much nothing comes naturally*
  2. You are worth listening to, so please do not accept the soul-crushing reality of being routinely ignored. Make the decisions for your child and do not let them take over all the conversations. Learn to say no and mean it.
  3. Your child will never be truly happy if he grows up expecting you and the world to provide constant fun and entertainment as well as thinking he has a right to to act out (sometimes violently) whenever he doesn’t want to do something. True happiness comes from working hard and helping others and you can be pivotal in helping your child to learn that.

I’m not sure how exactly those messages could be conveyed or by whom, but anyway…..

Who’s with me?

*I just had to put something here about the ability to sit still and focus because I saw a comment on twitter about it. Many seem to believe that being able to sit still and focus is something that comes naturally and if a child cannot do that, then they need to be allowed to run around and do lots of different things until they’re ‘ready’ to learn to sit still and focus. Everyone seems surprised when these children become natural runners and flitters instead. I believe that just like everything else in life, in order to learn to sit still and focus, you need to be taught and then expected to practise sitting still and focusing lots in order to then become ‘good’ at it – just like we would need to practise sitting still and focusing in order to meditate. Those children who are miraculously and naturally ‘good’ at this are usually being taught and then regularly expected to sit still and focus at the dinner table and for their bedtime story by parents – I think we need to remember that, otherwise we risk disadvantaging disadvantaged children even more by attributing the ability to sit still and focus to some kind of natural force/ability/genetics or, dare I say it, God himself.



4 thoughts on “How we can really help parents

  1. I think the best thing educators can do is to focus on our job and let parents get on with theirs. The kind of routines each family has are meaningful to those within the family group, and I don’t think teachers should give an inch to govt./think tank instigated ideological discourses that suggest there is an optimal way of being a family. Schools, however, can helpfully think about the routines and rules we set, as well as space for professional judgments on case by case basis, in order to better educate (which of course is more than approaches that end up endorsing credentialism).

    Liked by 2 people

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