Policy panacea to cure all society's ills or the cause of them? Parents and how they parent have been under scrutiny in recent years. Parents get a negative press; overwhelmingly, that standards in parenting are declining. Is this the case? Or, in fact, is the job of parenting getting harder in an increasingly complex world? Whichever is right, both suggest that parents could do with more help.
The Scottish Government is committed to introducing a national parenting strategy and making Scotland the best place in the world to bring up children. If the government stated its intention to intervene in the economics of the country, to improve the nation's health, to prevent crime or to educate its young, people would regard these as natural functions of government. And yet, the very mention of a national parenting strategy, is likely to bring with it knee-jerk accusations of 'nanny state'. But supporting families is exactly about all those functions that we generally accept as being the job of government - rebuilding our failing economy, improving our health, preventing crime and educating children. We need to recognise the value of good parenting more and provide more support to parents before they fail rather than picking up the pieces afterwards. It is critical to the future of our country that we do so; beyond this, it is the right thing to do - Scotland's families deserve no less.
In order to encourage people to discuss, debate and contribute to the national parenting strategy, Parenting across Scotland, invited a wide variety of organisations and individuals to submit an article about any aspect of parenting. When we asked people for contributions, we did not know what to expect. What we got was impressive: passionate essays from people who really care about parenting and who want to see Scotland change how it supports families. They highlight the hot topics and also the many challenges to designing a more coherent approach to supporting families.
Although the subject matter in this collection is wide, it does not cover the full picture. Some gaps reflect the lack of services or inclusion in current policy thinking and research; for example, there are few articles about parenting teenagers (though a third of all calls to ParentLine are from parents of teenagers) and none at all about parenting in black and minority ethnic families. These are important topics for the parenting strategy.
Neither does the collection consider parenting in its wider context - it would have doubled or trebled in size. Parenting isn't a discrete activity isolated from the environment - where we live, how work is configured, the childcare available, and whether we can get on a bus with a buggy - the list goes on - all make a difference.
We did not specify topics for contributors and the submissions cover a wide variety of subjects including personal accounts of the pleasures and problems of parenting; the findings from research; and practical examples of supporting parents drawn from Scotland and abroad. All make a vital contribution to developing a national strategy. And together they provide a vision for the future.
Although we have presented each article as standalone, they are interconnected, and sometimes the same information is repeated by different contributors. Although we have grouped the articles into the six themes below, this is more to do with ease of reading than to demarcate articles. Many of them fit all the themes, simply because parenting cuts across so many aspects.
Being a parent is not about a set of rules to follow to produce a happy, well-adjusted young person. If it were, in some ways, it would be a lot easier. In others, it would be far less interesting. Whoever the parent is (and I include the state as corporate parent), families are essentially about relationships and how people relate both within their families and from them to the wider world. At its best, parenting is about love, kindness and caring. For many parents, particularly those in difficult circumstances, this is not easy to achieve and they may need extra help. This section looks at what it means to be a parent; being a father; how differing family backgrounds affect people; and how different countries help families.
With the Scottish Government considering a national parenting strategy, contributors discuss what needs to happen to make Scotland the best place in the world to bring up children. Children usually come with families, which is why 'getting it right for every child' generally means getting it right for every family. The critical place of supporting parents in children's early years; the state's role as corporate parent; and the importance of communication are all considered in the light of the proposed parenting strategy and better support for families.
The early years have received considerable attention as a critical time in child development and a vital intervention point for improving children's lives. Investing in the early years pays considerable dividends later on. While the early years can be difficult for parents, the teenage years throw up their own problems and many parents struggle to manage. Writers in this section look at the importance of these times in a child's life; the research findings; and effective approaches to parenting and family support.
Not all families have equal chances. In particular, children in families struggling with substance misuse, those affected by domestic abuse, and parents with mental health difficulties fare worse than others. More children are affected by a parent's imprisonment than by divorce. Evidence shows that parents on a low income are not worse parents, but they do struggle against greater odds, and with changes to welfare benefits, the pressures on low-income families are set to increase. As well as vital universal services in the early years, families with specific difficulties may need tailored or intensive help. The articles in this section consider the issues for, and ways of helping, families under pressure.
Over the past few decades, there have been fundamental changes to the family. Societal changes, such as the role of women, acceptance of difference in sexual orientation, and policy changes, such as to divorce and employment, mean that families are probably more heterogeneous than ever before. This makes it difficult to design policies responsive to families which are increasingly different, disjointed and yet intimately and complexly connected to other families. In this section, contributors cover the changing shape of the family (for example, lone parents and adoptive parents) and consider what happens when families separate.
There is much good practice already in Scotland which indicates how families can be supported. This section highlights examples from around Scotland including educational projects, psychology, parenting programmes, helpline practice and work with young offender fathers. Children's educational outcomes vary widely and are closely linked to their backgrounds. Parental involvement in their children's education can make a considerable difference. In this section, contributors consider how this might be achieved and describe various interventions designed to help with children's behavioural problems.
A parenting strategy has to consider parenting as an activity which takes place within and among families, but must also deal with the wider context within which families operate. It must create a society which is considerate of families and creates conditions in which families can thrive, rather than constantly struggle.
We hope that this collection contributes to the debate on Scotland's national parenting strategy; what it means to be a parent in Scotland today; and how we best support families.
We also hope it goes some way towards answering the question: Scotland: the best place in the world to bring up children?
Clare Simpson has worked in the voluntary sector in Scotland for over 30 years in organisations including Shelter, the Scottish Refugee Council and Citizens Advice Scotland. She has been project manager at Parenting across Scotland since 2008.