Parenting Education and Support, Keys To Family Well-being

A talk presented to the Vienna Committee of NGOs on the Family given by Eve Sullivan on November 23, 2009.

Thank you, Dr. Schwarz. Thanks to all of you for coming. I am very pleased to be with you today, as a mother and a new grandmother, and to speak about parents and parenting.

As I started to put down my thoughts in preparation for this lecture, I consulted with several colleagues. I asked Rae Simpson, program director for Parenting Education and Research at MIT, to tell me what, in her view, made a successful presentation. She said that the best thing was to get a new perspective on a familiar topic.

This is what I hope to offer you this morning. The title ‘Parenting education and support, keys to family well-being’ gives away my bias:  I believe that among the most important social services that a community can provide is parenting education and support — and these are too often neglected.

When I talk about these two activities, the first ‘education’ – intellectual – and the second ‘support’ – both practical and emotional in nature – I will often use the phrase ‘parenting services.’ I want you to remember that these two words stand for all three elements: educational programming, practical support and emotional support.

Before I give you an overview of the three points I intend to make, let me mention the context in which today’s discussion takes place, and it is a broad one. In the last three years the Committee has considered parenting issues in a number of ways: the situation of drug-addicted parents, families’ contribution to civil society, micro-credits and families, compatibility of family and professional life, and demographic challenges for families. Each of these topics is important but I believe that today’s topic can offer some new insights and that is why I asked to speak with you.

In the hour that we have together what I want to do is focus on services provided to parents and other caregivers in their parenting roles.

  • First, I’d like to tell you something about Parents Forum, the nonprofit that I founded in 1992, and describe where it fits in the larger landscape of parenting services.
  • Next, I will look at that landscape and consider the vocabulary we use to describe the many activities offered to and services provided for parents.
  • Finally, I want to propose to the Committee and its members an agenda for collaboration, data collection, research and advocacy to be carried out over the coming five years leading up to the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family in 2014.

To begin, let me tell you about Parents Forum and how I came to found it 18 years ago. You have probably heard the expression: ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ The origin of Parents Forum lies in some very challenging experiences: one of my sons, a teenager at the time, was experiencing difficulties both in school and out of school and his behavior was problematic to say the least.

The treatment program that his father found for us required a serious commitment from parents and for a period of almost two years I took part in twice-weekly program meetings. Also, for much of that time I hosted other young men from the treatment program in my home, as did the other parents in the group. In that process I learned some incredible lessons. Simply put, I became a different kind of parent. I am happy to say that all three of my sons are doing well today.

The communications skills and emotional awareness that I acquired through such distress inspired me first to found Parents Forum, with the help of several generous friends, and then to become involved in other organizations involving parents and parenting education.

So, what is Parents Forum exactly? The core is an agenda of eight questions about family life issues.

  1. What do you like about your family?
  2. What concerns or troubles you about your family?
  3. How do you express concern to a family member?
    How do you ask for and give advice and/or help in your family and community?
  4. What are your household values?
  5. What are your household rules?
  6. What happens when someone joins your family?
  7. What happens when someone leaves your family?
  8. What changes have you experienced recently?
    What changes do you expect in the future?

These questions, along with exercises presented in our interactive workshops, form a curriculum that fosters honest, respectful and caring communications in families. In our small-group workshops, facilitators model and teach effective communication skills. Our goals are to be more responsible in our families and more involved in our communities, as we learn to work through the conflicts and strong feelings that arise in family and community life.

That’s a tall order, obviously! However, there are many like-minded individuals and numerous agencies with similar purposes and, without a doubt, there is plenty of work for all of us.

In my own community I have been part of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Family Literacy Collaborative for over ten years. Shortly after founding Parents Forum in 1992, I heard about the U.N. International Year of the Family, went to Montreal for the closing meeting of that celebration, and ventured further afield to become involved in the International Federation for Parent Education, based in Paris: FIEP (in the French acronym) is part of this Committee. More recently I became part of the National Parenting Education Network, NPEN, in the U.S. and now somewhat reluctantly, I consider myself a parenting educator, although I prefer to be seen as a parent advocate.

Our organization collaborates with local groups, also, and I will mention only three: the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, like Parents Forum, was founded in difficult circumstances, and, also like us, is a positive and preventive grass-roots program worthy of replication. The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood founded in the year 2000 is dedicated to ‘reclaiming childhood from corporate marketers.’ A new kid on the block is the recently organized Good Men Project, offering ‘real stories from the front lines of modern manhood.’ Each of these initiatives, in a different way, supports parents.

This brings me to the second part of my remarks, the larger landscape of parenting services. What do parents need to succeed? And what do the people who help parents do?  Various phrases describe these activities and services.

  • family support
  • strengthening families
  • parent advocacy
  • parent development
  • parent education
  • parent engagement
  • parent involvement
  • parent leadership
  • parent peer support (this is allied to the mutual help domain and clearly where Parents Forum fits)
  • parent support
  • parenting coordination
  • parenting resources
  • parenting orders

The meaning and tone of each of these phrases is slightly different. Would you rather have education? Or support? Would you prefer to be offered services? Or resources? Would you rather be asked to become involved? Or engaged? If your child gets in trouble with the law would you rather be subject to parenting orders? Or be required to have supervision from a parenting coordinator?

Some of the phrases above are linked to health care, some are more aligned with educational systems, in particular, the effort in public education circles in the U.S. at any rate, to get parents to take a greater and more effective role in educating children. Some of the phrases relate to a child’s special circumstance, for example, parent advocacy often centers on a child’s disability or learning impairment and the need for compensatory services.

The challenge, in the experience of many parenting services providers — at least in the U.S. and I would guess in other countries too — is how to convey a positive message of parenting education and support as a social service that should be available to all, affordable by all, and used by all.

Issues of social class and culture play a role both in the provision of services as well as in how they are perceived and received. I thought, on first entering the program that helped my son and our family, that because I had been to college I would be able to ‘get it’ quickly, to be in and out of treatment in a few months. As I mentioned earlier, it took nearly two years for us to learn the lessons we needed to learn.

Parenting educators are well advised to monitor their own attitudes as well as those of the parents they wish to serve. Providing a service to individuals who are either unwitting – do not know they need help – or unwilling – know they need it but resent having to get it and are resistant – is indeed a challenge.

Let me ask you a few more questions: Would you choose to attend an activity for parents according to your gender — a fathers group, for example, or a group for nursing mothers — or according the age of your child — parents of toddlers or parents of teens — or an activity related to special circumstances or life stage that you find yourself and your children in — parents of children with a certain disease or developmental issue, parents who are married or those who are divorced, grandparents raising grandchildren, parents themselves suffering a certain disease, or parents who have lost a family member?

An easy, but inapt, characterization of the phrase ‘parenting education and support’ that I heard at one point is that parenting education is for the well-to-do and the smart, those who can afford to spend money and time to prepare to be parents, and that parent support is for everybody else, presumably the less well off, the not so smart and the poor whom we have always with us.
I argue that high educational attainment and/or material success is no guarantee of strong parenting skills and that low educational attainment and/or lack of material success is no predictor of weak parenting skills. I believe that all parents, rich, poor, better educated, less well educated, need and can benefit from both education and support.

We have to acknowledge that most parents have their children’s best interests at heart — and in mind — most of the time. And most parents do a great job, often despite severe challenges. Day-to-day demands of life, however, can distract or deter even the best intentioned parent from behaving in positive ways toward their children. Then there are special circumstances affecting parents as individuals: physical or mental illness, addiction, the necessity to travel long distances for work or absences due to military service. These also hinder parents’ effectiveness.

So, back to the title of this talk:
I’d like to tell you why I picked the phrase I did from the list of terms above as the title of this talk: parenting education and support.

  • Parent education (without ‘-ing) is directed at the person, putting the person down and giving the impression that he or she is less capable that he or she ought to be.
  • Parenting education (with ‘-ing’) focuses on the process of raising children and, ideally, this phrase helps those who work with parents remember that their job is a collegial one. While mothers and fathers certainly need special insights and skills to do the job of raising their children and some of these insights and skills will be new, the people who receive parenting education are adults and should be treated as independent, capable and caring people.

Of course parents do not always behave as such! So, on to the next term I chose: ‘parenting support.’ I admit that ‘support’ implies that something or, in this case, somebody is either falling down or at risk of falling down. Here is where we as parents need to realize that we — and our children — can benefit if we get support of various kinds at various stages of our children’s development — to keep us and our children from falling down. Let me read to you the definition of parenting education from the website of the National Parenting Education Network, NPEN, on whose board I serve:

“Parenting Education is a process that involves the expansion of insights, understanding and attitudes and the acquisition of knowledge and skills about the development of both parents and of their children and the relationship between them.
Parents are those who are so defined legally and those who have made a long-term commitment to a child to assume responsibility for that child’s well being and development. This responsibility includes providing for the child’s physiological and emotional needs, forming a loving emotional relationship, guiding the child’s understanding of the world and culture, and designing an appropriate environment.”

Let’s step back and ask who provides parenting education and support at the present time? There are over 50,000 parents programs in the U.S. alone. What does this vast parenting education and support landscape look like? There are nonprofits, or NGOs, that offer parenting education classes; there are for-profit parent training companies, some of which are very aggressive in preying on parents’ insecurities; and there are government programs, some in the public health arena, some in early care and education and some in formal education. A major challenge in finding words to describe what parents need — and what parenting educators and parenting support programs provide — is that the field crosses different disciplines.

So, before I close the vocabulary lesson and go on to talk about some ideas I want to propose to you, let me add one more note about the way we talk about what we do. In the U.S. at least, there a common practice of saying ‘families’ instead of ‘parents’ in talking about services for parents. I want to share my understanding of why this practice arisen and tell you why I think it should end.

Part of the reason for saying ‘families’ instead of ‘parents’ is that parents do ‘fall down’ on the job and when they neglect or harm their children, protective services for the children are absolutely necessary. So, someone other than the child’s biological parents has to step in. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, foster parents, older siblings, adoptive parents, tribal elders, may be called upon to take on the parenting role. The sad result is that child welfare advocates, perhaps despite their best intensions, have created an adversarial situation where services for parents come with an implication if not a clear connotation of negligence or violence on the parents’ part.

Besides the fact that many people besides biological parents take on the work of parenting, the perception is that raising children is basically a private undertaking and that government involvement would be an invasion of privacy or at the very least would represent interference. There is no clear line between what parents do with and for children and what public, private or civil society sector agencies do. The increase in home schooling, at least in the United States, I believe, is an indicator of parents’ desires to take a larger role in, or perhaps simply take back responsibility for, their children’s education and upbringing. The charter school movement in the U.S. is another indicator of a return to greater parental responsibility and community involvement in children’s education.

Under the U.S. Government Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), one of the eleven HHS ‘Family of Agencies’ is the Administration for Children and Families. The description of its mandate does not even use the word parents! It reads:

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is a federal agency funding state, territory, local, and tribal organizations to provide family assistance (welfare), child support, child care, Head Start, child welfare, and other programs relating to children and families. Actual services are provided by state, county, city and tribal governments, and public and private local agencies. ACF assists these organizations through funding, policy direction, and information services.

You can see, in the above paragraph, that the focus is almost exclusively on children. Of course we are parents because we have children, but if we do not explicitly say parents we miss the concerns and needs of the adults in the family. If the language we use is unclear, if the focus is almost exclusively on the child and not on the parent, how can we as parents not feel marginalized? I would like to see programs that are already serving parents and those seeking to increase or improve their services to parents to say the word ‘parents’! Could the U.S. Administration for Children and Families be renamed: Administration for Children, Youth and Parents?

So, let me recap the first two parts of my presentation on parenting education and support as keys to family well-being (and, yes, I am willing to say the word family).

When we talk about ‘parenting education,’ we recognize that it is intellectual: parents must have — or acquire — both an understanding of child development and an appreciation for best practices in parenting at different stages of that development.  This knowledge, the thinking and understanding part, needs to be accompanied by acquisition of skills – the doing part – and here is where ‘parenting support’ comes in. Parents need practical support to develop the skills to do what will best help their children learn and grow. But parents also need emotional support to help manage the sometimes perilous roller coaster of fears, doubts and insecurities that they or their children may be on at any particular point in time.

Understanding the complexity of parents’ needs should not discourage us from addressing them. Rather I hope it will spur us to take a broad view and a long view and find better ways to meet these needs both at the local service level and at the national and international policy level. I will mention some research on parenting services and their effectiveness and then make a few proposals for the Committee and Committee’s member agencies’ consideration.

Mary Crowley, a fellow board member of the International Federation for Parent Education, and former head of Parenting UK, urged me to mention the work of Prof. Charles Desforges. Desforges stresses that simply getting parents in touch with schools and involved in helping their children with schoolwork is fine but is *not* the key. The most powerful positive influence on children is “at home good parenting” and what he means is parents listening and talking to their children.

[The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment: a Literature Review Dfes 433 by Prof Charles Desforges and Alberto Abouchaar 2003]

Desforges writes:

“At-home good parenting has a significant positive effect on children’s achievement and adjustment even after all other factors affecting attainment have been taken out of the equation. In the primary age range the impact caused by different levels of parental involvement is much bigger than differences associated with variations in the quality of schools. The scale of the impact is evident across all social classes and all ethnic groups.”

In addition to speaking with Mary Crowley, I asked Anne Robertson, head of the U.S. National Parenting Education Network for her views on the present state of the field. She has studied demographic shifts in the U.S. in the last 30 to 40 years where schools have been consolidated and our population has become increasingly mobile. These shifts have undermined what was a traditional, middle class expectation of parents being involved in their children’s schools. In response to this, for example, in Head Start, there has been a call for increasing (or restoring) parent involvement in early childhood programs and in schools. This dynamic may not hold in Europe and the developing world, Robertson says, where there may be less mobility and a clearer understanding of the complementary roles of parents and teachers. Teachers and parents in the U.S. probably *both* feel overwhelmed and see the other as needing to do more.

I will share with you three recent and distressing news stories regarding children’s well-being that relate directly to parenting issues:

  • First, Reuters reported, on February 14th of this year, ironically Valentine’s Day, that a panel set up by the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine found ‘the cost of mental illness, substance abuse and behavioral problems among children and young adults in the United States is $247 billion a year in treatment and lost productivity alone.’ This is a staggering sum, in addition to the accompanying untallied emotional distress.
  • Next, the journal Pediatrics, in July 2009, reported that educational programs for new parents on the risks of shaking a baby fail to include fathers, yet fathers are 70% of the perpetrators. Father should be included, obviously.
  • Finally, The Economist, on September 5th of this year, described the findings in a report ‘Doing Better for Children’ published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD. The most troubling, to me, is that the U.S. has one of the highest levels of spending per child but among the worst outcomes in terms of child well-being. While some countries may need to spend more on services to children and their parents, all of us need to figure out how to support services that do the most good. In effect we need to spend or invest more strategically.

The cost of doing little or nothing to support parents is clear. Mary Crowley, again, sent the following ballpark estimates from a study by Dr. Stephen Scott, at the London School of Economics in 2002: The cost ‘to the public purse’ of a child with no specific disorder?  7,000 pounds. The cost of a child with conduct problems? Nearly four times that: 25,000 pounds. The cost of a child with a diagnosed conduct disorder? Ten times that: 70,000 pounds.  Note that the costs mentioned are for public expenditures and do not include the investments by parents in food, clothing, travel, entertainment or other not so incidental expenses.

The assumption that parents can take care of themselves simply because it is the parents’ job to take care of children is a dangerous one. We are at a time in our history where we can and must look at family life issues in a different way and respond in a different, more positive way to the situations families find themselves in. Parenting education and support is key.
How do we move forward with a common understanding and language in order to set a sensible agenda for our work? I believe that we need to survey parents about what they need and want. At the same time we need to survey parenting educators about what they see as successful in different settings and with different populations.

The Vienna Committee has a long history of thoughtful and thorough action in this domain. I brought with me the 1994 Guiding Principles on the Family along with the 2003 report ‘Major Trends Affecting Families’ by Amr Ghaleb, former head of the U.N. Programme on the Family.

I want to propose to the Committee and its member agencies an agenda for collaboration, data collection, research and advocacy. We might call it ‘Putting Parenting First.’ It could build on the considerable good work being done all over the world in three general areas:

Some work, ‘on the ground’ as the expression goes, is in programs that involve parents where they live and work and, sad but necessary to say, where they are incarcerated. Parents Forum for several years gave workshops in a Massachusetts correctional facility for men. This work was by turns heart-breaking and incredibly uplifting. We need to know who is doing what with and for parents and how parents rate the programs.

Other work is being done in the academic world to evaluate program curricula and evaluate program presenters. The results of this research deserve wider circulation. Again a note from Mary Crowley on evaluation: A good facilitator or presenter is more effective, even with a not so good curriculum, than a poor facilitator, even with an excellent curriculum. The experience and empathy of the presenter is key to any program’s success with parents.

Finally, there is policy work, both in government and business circles. I will mention one effort with which I am familiar in the United States. The Partnership for America’s Economic Success has a task group ‘Invest In Kids’ which seeks to educate business leaders on the importance of investing resources in early childhood programming. They are, thankfully, open to considering advocacy for parenting programs also.

We know intuitively — and I hope I have given you some convincing arguments to support the assertion — that if we want kids to do better we need to help parents do better. We need statistics to support this, but data can be dull!  I’d like to share with you a word about Gapminder. Gapminder has taken data from over 212 countries and 200 years and brought them to life! This is only one of many on their website, which I urge you to visit: http://www.gapminder.org/videos/200-years-that-changed-the-world/ (4 min.)

Gapminder is a non-profit venture promoting sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels.

Can the Committee collaborate with Gapminder, assuming that we have or can get good data from a significant number of parenting programs in enough countries to be statistically significant, to show the value of putting parents programs at the top of the social service agenda, where I believe they belong?

Another partnership we might explore is with the Alliance for philanthropy and social investment worldwide in the U.K.  Alliance Magazine this month (November 2009) completed an essay contest on the topic “As a philanthropist, how would you spend $10 million to combat global warming?” I would like to see an international essay contest on the question: “How would you, as a philanthropist, invest $10 million to better prepare, educate and support parents for their most important job: raising children?”

If I were entering that contest today I would call for three things:

  • a social marketing campaign over five or ten years to create a positive perception of parenting services as essential for everyone raising children,
  • development of behavioral economics strategies through health care, insurance and tax policy that would, first, encourage parents to access the services they need, when and where they need them, and would, second, give the many excellent parents program providers appropriate pay for their expertise and time,
  • and, in coordination with the above two initiatives, a sequence of meetings, at local, national, regional and international levels, to consider principles, practices and policies that will improve the lives of parents and in so doing enhance the health, well-being and success of our children.

Those are a few of the thoughts that came to mind as I wrote this talk for you. I am sure that together, the Committee, along with member agencies, including FIEP, and other national organizations such as NPEN (National Parenting Education Network), can over the next five years leading up to the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family in 2014, develop and address a substantial agenda of activities that will serve our common mission. There is certainly plenty of work for all of us!
I look forward hearing your comments and very much appreciate your kind attention.


These remarks are offered through Creative Commons with an ‘attribution – non-commercial – no derivatives’ license. You can share them with others under the following conditions: (1) you credit the author Eve Sullivan (2) you do not sell the work or otherwise use it for commercial or professional purposes and (3) you do not alter it in any way.


Eve Sullivan is the founder of Parents Forum, a volunteer program of parent peer support and she works as an editorial assistant a physics journal at MIT. She has a Master of Arts in Teaching in French from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and has taught English as a Second Language in Cambridge, Mass. as well as in Tunisia and Portugal.

She is mother of three grown sons and author of Where the Heart Listens, a handbook for parents and their allies in a global society. The third edition of this handbook is to be published in December.

She serves on the council of the National Parenting Education Network in the U.S. and the board of the International Federation for Parent Education based in Paris.