Good parenting: instinct or information?

Marion Macleod makes the case that investing in the workforce and changing our whole system so it works better for children and families should be at the heart of our parenting approach.

Parenting, and how to improve it, is the subject of current attention. Sadly, much of this interest has arisen from well-publicised 'failures' in parenting, resulting in the abuse and neglect of individual children as well as in systemic social problems, such as the riots and looting that spread across England last year. If we look beyond the sound bites and headlines, however, we can begin to understand the real problem. Many of the parents who 'failed' did not have the information and support that would have helped them give their children the right ingredients for an optimistic future. The difference is not usually between parents who are competent and concerned, and those who are feckless and malevolent, but between those who have known the right things to do to give their child a good start in life and those who have not.

So how do parents know the 'right things to do'? Most parents recall their own upbringing and replicate, adapt, or, in some cases, react against, it. Some seek out information, through 'how to' guides, television programmes, websites, and research. Many consult with family and friends or involve themselves in peer support groups. Few would 'instinctively' parent well without any of the foregoing. Parents who cannot or do not access these sources of knowledge are, therefore, less likely to be able to ensure best outcomes for their children.

The effects of change

Changes in Scottish society since the latter part of the 20th century have significantly affected family life. People are more mobile, thus less likely to be in regular and frequent contact with immediate and extended family. Fewer people have roots and sustained connections with the communities in which they live. Most mothers are in employment. The traditional supports and sources of information that helped many parents bring up their children have been eroded. At the same time, the demands and expectations on them have increased. What has also changed in recent years has been an increasing recognition of concepts such as inclusion, equality and opportunity, coupled with a general acceptance that they are both an appropriate locus of government policy and duty of public service providers. Helping parents to give their children the best start in life is now a commitment across the political spectrum. What is less evident is a clear understanding of, and commitment to, doing what is likely to achieve best results while using resources most effectively. This has led to a proliferation of projects, programmes and approaches, many of which have been embraced without unambiguous evidence of sustained positive impact on child wellbeing.

Learning from abroad

A constructive alternative would be to consider what can be learned from countries which achieve better outcomes for their children, socially, educationally and emotionally. Children in Scotland recently led a large European research project, Working for Inclusion (Children in Scotland 2011). It looked at early childhood care and education services across ten European countries, comparing how parents were supported and child wellbeing promoted. The findings unequivocally concluded that the countries where services were provided to all children and families, on a universal basis, achieved significantly better outcomes for their children than those which provided a 'patchwork' of services or took a highly targeted approach to intervention. The level and nature of staff qualifications and the associated pedagogical approach were also found to be important in engaging with parents and achieving the best for children. Integrated systems of early childhood education and care also attained better results than countries where they were managed and governed separately. The 'better results' are, furthermore, not marginal or insubstantial. They are both significant and impressive. Children do better in school, whole population health is better, there is lower incidence of crime, mental illness and drug and alcohol misuse and far less of a gap between the richest and the poorest in society. We would do well in Scotland to understand how workforce qualifications and experience, organisational structures and provision of services on a universal entitlement basis can help parents better and achieve more for children.

A valued workforce

If we start with the workforce, there are immediately obvious differences. In countries that do well, staff who work with parents and children are usually qualified to degree level. In several of the countries studied, a qualification in social pedagogy had the most common currency. Even where this was not the case, the content and underpinning values associated with social pedagogy informed practice. Thorough understanding of healthy child development, and how to encourage it; developing trusted and respectful relationships with parents; and reflecting systematically on personal practice were found to be key factors in bringing about good parenting and good outcomes for children. Scotland, in contrast, includes many of the lowest paid and least qualified members of its workforce among those who support parents and care for children; even our degree- level qualifications for work with children, such as teaching, do not include all the elements consistent with achieving good outcomes.

Of course, the regularity, consistency, continuity and frequency of contact inherent in universal provision means that relationships can be more readily formed and sustained. Thus, knowledgeable and skilled staff can build up a picture of family functioning, provide advice, information and support, deliver consistent high-quality early learning for the child, model 'good parenting' be alert to, and act on, any developmental concerns and, in a non-stigmatising and non-threatening way, guide and support parents in doing the best for their children. Children in Scotland's recent publication Young Children in Charge looked at the internationally renowned approach to early learning and child care developed in San Miniato in Italy (Bloomer and Cohen 2008). Parents are integrally involved with staff in promoting their child's development, but also derive significant peer support from other parents. An intrinsic objective of this pedagogical approach is to optimise the child's wellbeing, not just to address deficit.

Support in the round

Fragmentation and division of management and organisational structures would not, on the face of it, seem to be a critical factor in the extent of effectiveness of day-to-day work with children and families. Working for Inclusion found otherwise. Separating aspects of a child's development and experience - play, learning, health, care - does not encourage an understanding of the 'whole child'. It also increases the number of services with which a family will have contact while simultaneously reducing the capacity of each one of them to gain a full understanding of the child and family and to form meaningful relationships with them. Separating what we do with children from what we do with parents is another unhelpful division. In the nations in Europe which do well, support for parents is seen as an integral part of the supportive infrastructure for families, not a discrete area of activity. In Finland, each child has an agreed development plan, jointly devised by parents and professionals (Lindberg 2011). Universal childcare services will certainly allow more parents to enter the workforce, thus reducing the stress in families associated with poverty and disadvantage. Organised in the right way, however, it can tick many more of our aspirational boxes.

How can we in Scotland learn from the experience of others? How can we embrace the kind of policies and embed the kind of services needed to have well-supported parents raising healthy, happy children? Raising the skill level and knowledge base of our workforce would be a useful start. Providing degree-level courses based on the content of the social pedagogue qualification, as well as offering specific professional development opportunities for those in the children's workforce holding other qualifications would also be a positive start. This would enhance the capacity of our existing services to form positive and constructive relationships with parents and to offer flexible and personalised support. Working towards universal entitlement to childcare and family support services, with ambitious goals and interim targets, would also be a critically important element. Ensuring clear lines of accountability for implementation is, of course, a prerequisite of effective progress.

Changing the system

At the very least we should stop seeing 'parenting', and work with parents generally, as entities discrete from what we provide for children. It should be regarded as an integral part of what every child needs in order for them to do well. Investing in the workforce so staff are equipped to deliver the most positive outcomes and changing our whole system so it works better for children and families should be at the heart of our parenting approach.

About the author

Marion Macleod is Children in Scotland's senior policy and parliamentary officer. After graduating with an MA in Modern History from Glasgow University, she did a variety of voluntary and paid jobs before training as a social worker at Edinburgh University. She started her career with Lothian Regional Council, eventually specialising in planning and development of children's services. Latterly, she led on integrating children's services in Edinburgh and managed the Changing Children's Services Fund. Over the years, she has participated in various national networks on children's services and assisted politicians at local and national levels.


Bloomer, K. and Cohen, B. (2008). Young children in charge. Edinburgh: Children in Scotland

Children in Scotland (2011). Working for inclusion: the role of the early years workforce in addressing poverty and promoting social inclusion. Children in Scotland. See

Lindberg, P. (2011). "The early childhood and care curriculum for children under the age of three in Finland". Children in Europe Issue 20. Edinburgh: Children in Scotland