Parenting: a life-course approach

Clare Simpson opens this essay collection by making the case for a national parenting strategy which creates the conditions for parents, and their children, to succeed.

The Scottish Government wants to make Scotland the best place in the world to bring up children (The Scottish Government 2011). So, right now, just how close are we to that target?

A poll of the Scottish public carried out by TNS-BMRB for Parenting across Scotland found that 50% of the Scottish public either strongly agreed or slightly agreed that Scotland is the best place in the world to bring up children'* (TNS-BMRB 2012). However, in 2007, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) placed the UK near the bottom of the league table for children's wellbeing (OECD 2007) (16th out of 24 countries); further analysis by Barnardo's placed Scotland even further behind (23 out of 24) (Barnardo's 2007). The bad news is that there is a long way to go. The good news is that there is considerable room for improvement and much we can do to improve children's lives and opportunities.

What does a national parenting strategy need to do?

A national strategy needs to:

  1. Value the importance of parenting and the important work parents do
  2. Ensure that parents get the help they need when they need it, through the principle of 'progressive universalism'
  3. Invest in the early years, and in particular, reinvigorate the crucial profession of health visiting
  4. Improve work-life balance and encourage shared parenting, by making workplaces more family-friendly and standing alongside a new childcare strategy
  5. Support parents to build their own communities of support through family centre and investing in communities

The importance of parenting

All too often, parents feel under attack by the media and judgement from other people. While the OECD tables and headline reporting paint a bleak picture of parenting in Scotland, they do not tell the whole story. The vast majority of parents love and want to do the best for their children, and very many parents in Scotland are already doing so.

With the right help and support, many more will be able to do so. Constant negative publicity about parenting, while many of the statistics are based on solid evidence, is debilitating for parents and undermines their best efforts for their children. Building a culture where we value parents and the important work they do, needs to be grounded in positivity and celebration so that parents feel supported and valued rather than constantly under attack. A national parenting strategy that trusts parents and believes in their ability to succeed is far more likely to engage parents, and to create the conditions for parents to succeed.

Help for parents when they need it

All parents need support at times, and some families need more than others. Some families may need extra help on a continuing basis, while, for others, circumstances such as separation, bereavement or child health, may create additional need at times.

When resources are scarce it is tempting to say that concentrating on the families with additional needs will save money. However, it is a fallacious argument. We need universal services - health in the very early years, followed by education - which support families and prevent problems turning into crises; make asking for help a routine behaviour for all families; and monitor children's wellbeing and health so that problems can be picked up early and specialist help offered. There should not be a tension between universal and targeted services - we need both, based on the principle of progressive universalism that identifies need and responds as early as possible, and provides additional help to those who need it (Marmot et al. 2010).

Families are not created equal. Many face extra pressure, for example, because of mental health, domestic abuse or substance abuse problems. With punitive welfare reforms imminent, helping parents on low incomes is especially critical. While evidence (Mountney 2012) shows that parents surviving on low incomes are not poorer parents, they do struggle against greater odds. No amount of parenting classes or other family support can make up for lack of money. Naomi Eisenstadt, first director of the SureStart programme in England, said of the focus on parenting programmes, I would rather put the food on the table. In the absence of any talk about paying the bills, this focus is disrespectful because it assumes that these are the problems poor people have, and does not recognise that the main problem poor people have is not having enough money (Guardian 22/11/11). Policy makers need to tackle problems arising from structural inequalities.

Investing in early years

There is substantial evidence that investing in the early years yields rich economic savings in years to come. The Scottish Parliament's finance committee and the Scottish Government's own economic modelling have shown the value of investing in early intervention in the early years. The early years are considered to be a significant time for brain development. But beyond the cold justification of economics and neuroscience, surely it is simply wrong that, by the age of three, large numbers of children in Scotland are already at a disadvantage to their peers?

Making sure that families have help around them in the early years is crucial. Health provides universal contact, initially, through GPs and midwifery services and then through health visiting. Polls by Ipsos MORI for Parenting across Scotland (Ipsos MORI for PAS 2008 and 2010) show that families in Scotland greatly trust health visitors and GPs. But with health visitor numbers falling (the average age of health visitors in Scotland is rising and fewer new recruits are being trained), the profession is in crisis. Unless action is taken soon, it will cease to exist. To be serious about improving the early years, pivotal professions need investment and reinvigoration. However, supporting the early years is not just about providing support in the early years. In particular, we need to look at how we support adult couple relationships; how we educate children; and how we support parents of teenagers. We need to educate children, the parents of the future, about relationships and emphasise empathy and kindness: the health and wellbeing strand of the Curriculum for Excellence offers an excellent opportunity to do this.

From day one, children see how their parents relate to them and to each other, so this needs to be as positive as possible. The chances of couples splitting up are significantly increased in the first few years after a child's birth. Whether it is about enabling couples to stay together or about making the process of separation and parenting apart as free of conflict as possible, evidence (Walker et al. 2010) shows that support for the adult relationship improves outcomes for families.

Negotiating the path to adult independence is frequently rocky for parents and teenagers. Even the best experience in the early years, does not guarantee a smooth transition to adulthood. Evidence from neuroscience (Society for Neuroscience 2007) shows that the teenage brain develops almost as dramatically as in the early years. However, although over a third of all calls to ParentLine are from parents of teenagers, there are very few services for them.

Enabling parents to work and have home lives

Parenting does not take place in a vacuum. The external environment has considerable influence and, in particular, family life is often a juggling act between home and work. Increasingly, both parents need to work to ensure an adequate income. The stresses of combining work and home life, coupled with soaring childcare costs (Daycare Trust 2012), are barriers to good parenting. While employment and parental leave are reserved to Westminster, much could be done in Scotland to make work a more family-friendly experience. A national parenting strategy needs to work with employers to encourage more flexible working and family-friendly policies, and must accompany a new childcare strategy that enables parents to work and to escape poverty.

Communities of support for parents

A national parenting strategy isn't the bludgeon of a 'nanny state': it is a tool to help parents to be the best they can be. Every family is unique, and parents are generally the people who know what's best for their own children. While health and education provide the all-important universal services, research consistently shows that parents rely most on informal networks. These communities need to be supported to flourish. Opportunities for parents to meet; support for local parent groups; and training from community organisers to build parental capacity are all important for building communities of support for parents.

Making Scotland the best place for children

There is a long way to go to make Scotland the best place in the world to bring up children. If the Scottish Government is serious about its intention, it needs to put its money where its mouth is and invest in families. It needs to work across government departments and ministerial briefs to ensure that it creates an environment in which families can thrive. Scotland's families deserve no less.

*125% disagreed; 20% neither agreed nor disagreed; 5% did not know.

About the author

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.


Barnardo's Scotland (2007). Index of wellbeing for children in Scotland. Edinburgh: Barnardo's Scotland

Ipsos MORI for PAS (2008). What parents tell us. Edinburgh: Parenting across Scotland

Ipsos MORI for PAS (2010). What parents tell us. Edinburgh: Parenting across Scotland

Marmot, M. et al. (2010). Fair society, healthy lives: the Marmot review. The Marmot Review

Mountney, K., (2012). Parenting on a low income. About Families. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University

OECD (2007). Doing better for children

The Daycare Trust (2012). Childcare costs survey.

The Scottish Government (2011). Financial impact of early years. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

The Scottish Government (2011). Renewing Scotland: the Government's programme for Scotland 2011-12. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

The Scottish Parliament (2011). Report on preventative spending. Finance Committee. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament

Society for Neuroscience (2007). Brain briefings: the adolescent brain. Washington: Society for Neuroscience

TNS-BMRB Omnibus (2012). Scottish Opinion Survey. February 2012

Walker J., Barrett, H., Wilson, G., and Chang, Y.-S., (2010). Relationships Matter: understanding the needs of adults (particularly parents) regarding relationship support, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University. Department of Children, Schools and Families