Strong families make for happy people. I always subscribed to this sentiment, even though, or maybe because, my own parents had divorced. But ask me how to strengthen a “troubled” or dysfunctional family and I would have been at a loss. I was absolutely sure, however, of what wouldn’t work: parenting classes. They were unacceptable interventions into hearth and home, the tools of statist ideologues and social engineers.

They were not for ordinary parents – and, in particular, they were not for Catholic parents. We can rely on our tight-knit families, values-laden upbringing and schools to raise model children. We know what to do when little Mary bops her younger brother on the head to get at his ice cream. We know what to say when little Benedict is caught cheating in his exam. Don’t we?

Last year I had a Damascene conversion. I was visiting parenting classes up and down the country as part of a research project. I interviewed 70 parents who attended these classes: some were disadvantaged, others middle class; some Muslims, others totally secular. Some were forced to take parenting classes by their GP or teacher because of trouble at home; others were there out of choice, concerned over a relationship with a child – or just desperate to be the best parent they can be.

Aren’t we all? Yet when expecting a baby, while everyone enrols automatically in antenatal classes, once the babe is in our arms we think we should master parenting independently. This expectation places a huge burden on new parents. Those I met confessed, almost without exception, to feeling tremendous pressure about being good at mothering and fathering. Sharon Lawton, one of the parenting classes’ “facilitators”, told me: “It’s like being given the picture of what a puzzle will look like, once completed; but then being told, ‘it’s up to you to go out and find the pieces.’”

For many of the parents I met, their own family had afforded them no role models whatsoever. They had some idea of what they wanted to achieve with their own children, but as they would themselves admit, over and over, they needed help to do so. Thankfully, the “practitioners” who led the parenting groups were nothing like the child-snatching, know-it-all social workers of my imagination. These women (they were all women) sat beside parents and gently nudged them to see the consequences of their actions: “If you yell at your son, he will yell at his classmates. If you ignore him, he will act up for some attention.”

This kind of advice was never presented as a diktat, or a rigid prescription of how to raise your kids. Parents, in describing their group facilitators, spoke of their “encouragement”, “help” and “steering” – rather than of their imposing a particular format on their relationship with their children.

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