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Time for Parenting...

...because raising children is a full-time job

June 2000 Newsletter

Day Care: The True Story; Women @ the Millenium; After School Clubs; ParentChild 2000 Conference

ParentChild 2000 Conference

Billed as "the first international symposium on early years development, learning, childcare and parenting", the ParentChild 2000 Conference took place over three days in April at the Business Design Centre in Islington. It was organised by the new National Family and Parenting Institute in conjunction with the Parenting Education and Support Forum.

Full Time Mothers took a stand at the conference, where members were on hand to give out material and answer questions about our work. In addition, committee member Sarah Douglas-Pennant attended some of the conference sessions as a delegate, and now gives us her account...........

Having to select a few talks to attend from the huge number on offer was difficult; I opted for those on family policy and parenting programmes. Reading through my notes afterwards, the striking thing that comes over again and again is the importance of relationships: parent-to-parent, parent-to-child, parent to the outside world. Supreme above all others is the attachment of the infant to the mother.

To become successfully attached, a mother often needs support in acquiring sensitivity to her baby's needs. Crucial is her ability to hear - and respond to - the signals sent by her child. In being heard and responded to, the infant knows itself to be nurtured and in communication with its primary carer, which is wholesome, natural and right and enables the child then to grow and develop normally.

In problem cases, it is helpful to the child if the relationship between the parents is supported, and if their own capacity to communicate with and be sensitive to each other is improved. Parenting classes which tell parents what to do are nothing like as effective as programmes dealing with relationships and sensitivity to the infant, the benefits of which are found to last many years into the child's future.

There was much emphasis on attachment. Attachment is, I think, easier understood by the effects of the lack of it, because it is by its absence that we notice its importance. A baby is born with an inbuilt ability to communicate. Mothers normally have an instinctive response to their child's needs. But in our Western, industrialised, highly-pressured society, we have moved a long way from ideal natural conditions for child-rearing. The multi-generation family, where good examples abounded, is rare now.

Many mothers need help to learn to hear their child's messages aright. The baby who is responded to and whose needs are answered has fundamental proof that he is loved, and that his communications are effective. He has made his first good relationship. He also understands the world to be a good place.

Not so the baby who is not responded to so well. He learns that his mighty efforts to transmit distress are apparently ineffective, and that the care he receives is arbitrary. Small wonder that the person he grows up to be does not form good relationships easily, having no pattern to build on, does not respond well to others ( typically figures in authority) and has little concept of the effect of his actions on others.

So it is very clear that the child who has a good and steady bond with a committed mother, who responds well to his needs and communicates her love to him, has an enormous advantage in later life. A child who lacks that bond, whose mother is not "there for him" (whether physically or mentally) is at much greater risk of dysfunction.

What can be done to improve the prospects of those children whose maternal care is lacking? Here are some of the views put forward by the psychologists and researchers whose talks I attended:

Begin before birth ....is the recommendation of Dr Mel Parr of PIPPIN (Parents In Partnership Parent infant Network) Pregnancy is a vulnerable time, when a mother needs strong attachments herself. Her own uncertainties can surface in questions like Who will support me? How will I manage? Will my baby love me? Will my partner love and support me?

PIPPIN begin their parenting programmes at the ante-natal stage, continuing to 3-5 months after birth, trying to help mothers gain confidence, reduce their anxieties, and become more sensitive to baby. Research from the USA shows that the benefit of early days support lasts well into the childrenŐs lives - even a small amount of support given to high-risk families helped secure attachments to develop. A recent US study claims every $1 spent on preventive measures saves $17 on later intervention (not to mention later suffering).

Relationships are the key to success ...said Eva Lloyd of the National Early Years Network. Studies show that it is the strength of the parent-child relationship which determines the child's later success in school and in life generally. Education and support visits, or parenting programmes telling parents what to do, have relatively little effect. What does work is a parenting programme that deals with relationship-building and increasing sensitivity to infant needs.

Bad boys need good mothering ...was the message brought by Dr Kathy Silva, Oxford Professor of Educational Psychology. Dr Silva talked about the problems of "oppositional defiant disorder", the term coined for naughty, negative, touchy behaviour, more often found in boys than girls. Boys exhibiting such behaviour will often go on to become problem adolescents and become part of the youth crime figures.

Children of this kind are often found to be dominating their parents, who are worn down by their children; they are often inconsistent in their attitude to discipline, and behave harshly out of frustration. Mothers of problem children rarely justify a command; mothers of non-problem children tend to do so. Mothers of problem children fail to respond to those children or relate well to them. Actitivies end up being child-driven, because the mother has lost the initiative.

If a mother can first establish a strong bond with her child, she can get the child on her side, and can convince him that he is safe in her hands. The child needs to believe that his mother will keep him safe and has his best interests at heart A child who lacks that faith is impossible to lead and to discipline.

Dr Silva praised the Webster-Stratton Programme, designed to help train parents of problem children. Based on behavioural training for mothers, it aims to build the self-confidence and dignity of parents. Often it includes help in general adult "coping skills" and problem-solving; the mother's increased confidence is passed on to the children and disobedience decreases.

The negative effects of non-maternal care ..were raised by Professor Jay Belsky, who holds the chair of psychology at Birkbeck College, London. Discussing early child-care and socio-emotional development, Belsky said that in two large studies of more than 1100 children in the US, it had been found that more time in care, low quality of care and multiple care arrangements increase the risk of insecure infant-mother attachment - especially when maternal sensitivity is low.

Both studies also show that more time in care over the opening years of life predicts less harmonious mother-child interaction patterns and higher levels of problem behaviour. The smaller study shows that the adverse effect of time in non-maternal care on problem behaviour may be seen by observing parent-child interaction processes at home.

A lot of time spent in care = less harmonious interaction processes = higher levels of problem behaviour. The larger study shows that where quality of substitute care is low, children's social and emotional development and relations with their mothers are all undermined.

These investigations suggest, said Belsky, that multiple features of non-maternal care must be considered in order to understand its impact, including quality of care, quantity of care, and stability of care. Results also raise questions about the rapidly changing child-care scene in the UK, which is getting more like the USA with more and more children being placed in non-maternal care (often of doubtful quality) at younger and younger ages for longer periods of time.

What are the implications for parenting policy? Evidently a proper understanding of what makes for a securely attached child is vital to all policy decisions, whether by government or within the family. But to provide mothers and their infants with the necessary emotional security to develop and sustain these attachments, it seems two major shifts in current "family policy" are required.

First, there should be incentives to marry before raising a family, because it is clear from the evidence reported above that too many mothers lack security in their relationships when they most need it. To create widespread acceptance of lone parenting and insecure co-habitation is to perpetuate the cycle of vulnerability for both mothers and children.

Second, mothers need to be supported in caring for their own infants rather than encouraged to part with them. Continuing emphasis on paid work and daycare provision shifts attention from much-needed mother-and-child support. Sadly, such policy shifts seem a remote prospect.