What chance Scotland?

Alan Sinclair asks what makes a good parent and how the state can help improve equality of opportunity and support families out of inter- generational failure.

What makes a parent a good parent? I put this question to a focus group of children. A clear answer came back: all parents are good. To come clean, the focus group was conducted in my kitchen at 8.15 over porridge and Cheerios with my two children.

'All parents are good' or, to be more precise, all parents love their children, is the message that comes from front-line social workers and my own experience of parents who are really struggling. While all parents may love their children, for many parents, the daily practice is ropey.

How can we help parents to be better parents? This question is the elephant on the table of political and social debate. For decades, there has been much talk and many initiatives to improve low educational performance and reduce violence and alcohol and drug abuse. These are all inter-generational failure by another name. So, what it takes to make good parents or at least less bad parents, needs to be addressed in political debate, in how we run our institutions, and how we run our own lives.

People or the state

If waving a magic wand would change deep cultural attitudes to children and introduce a better environment for parenting, I would wave it furiously. Good and bad approaches to parenting are contagious and run across societies. A colleague in her 40s who was born in Holland and spent the first half of her life there before moving to Scotland told me, In Scotland you tolerate children. In Holland we love them.

Debating and pleading helps but what will shift culture, is changing the values and processes inherent in our health, education and criminal justice services. This is not an argument for the state becoming the parent. We know, for example, from the Soviet Union's approach to families and from our own approach to children taken into care, that the state is a rank awful parent.

Where the state and its institutions should come in is not, except in extreme cases, to shoulder parents out but to support parents as they struggle through pregnancy and try to bring up their babies. All parents with babies are hungry for help, and some need more help than others. An example from a near neighbour, Holland, shows how, in a very practical and human way, the state can support parents.

Most babies in Holland are born at home. After birth, every day for a week, a helper comes in to look after the other children, make food, do the washing and advise on breast feeding or whatever.

A neighbourhood 'Consultatiebureau', the mother and baby well-being clinic, gets to know the mother and provides support up to school age. A nurse makes two home visits shortly after birth. The parent(s) and the baby visit the clinic on weeks four and eight, then months 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 14, 18 and then at age two, three and 3.9 years.

Clinics are staffed by doctors who attend to social and emotional development, motor skills, language and general health. Nurses provide consistent support, get to know the parent(s) and help with aspects such as baby care, parenting, feeding, toileting and sleeping. Walk-in surgeries and a telephone helpline provide back up. Close behind, is a reserve of speech therapists, psychologists, home-makers and social workers.

Several features are worth contrasting with Scotland. In Holland, support starts early and is available to all babies and parents. In Scotland, most parents see the health visitor for the last time at eight weeks, and have to fend for themselves thereafter. In Scotland, health of a baby is a technical issue. In Holland, they look at the whole child: their development, language, emotional life and how the parents are coping. In Scotland, we are stuck with a threadbare system and have been gradually diluting and undermining the role of the health visitor. Holland, over the past five years has invested in family centres to complement the work of the mother and baby wellbeing clinics so that extra support can be given to families with issues such as alcohol and drug abuse, depression and domestic abuse. Voluntary participation rates in Holland are high, and neither politicians nor people think that this system reeks of the Big Brother state.

Holland illustrates how a state, through its health (really a health and development) service, can work with parents to prevent problems from happening and growing arms and legs. Prevention and early intervention runs through the whole system.

What chance Scotland?

Politically in Scotland, parenting has been located in a blind spot. Problems have not been framed in the context of inter-generational failure. But, more people are now realising the benefits of good parenting to early years. Profound change most usually comes at a time of crisis. We are in an economic and financial crisis which is affecting every family in Scotland. Can new legislation on children's rights and legislation on children's services be a stepping stone and a new opportunity? Individuals and professionals are looking for a coherent picture of the society that we want to create; they want to be part of a forward march that rings true. Improving equality of opportunity by ending inter-generational failure through supporting babies and parents is a persuasive and practical message.

What is harder to explain to my children over breakfast is why some parents harm their children and we look the other way.

About the author

Alan Sinclair aims to stop society failing so many children. He divides his time between changing public policy on early years and parenting, providing business advice, taking on short-term assignments and being a non-executive director. He is an associate of the Centre for Confidence and has been a fellow at the Work Foundation. He recently completed a Churchill Travelling Fellowship looking at early years in Holland and Finland.


Sinclair, A. (2011). Early years and transformational change. Churchill Travelling Fellowship