Authors: Eve Sullivan, Patrick O’Leary, and Anis Ben Brik.
Parents are under enormous pressure and, like it or not, they have become teachers, cafeteria workers, coaches and custodians for their children, at home every day. COVID-19 is changing almost every aspect of community life, but it will not alter the central role of parents in children’s lives.
Parents, according to Keri Rodrigues, founding president of the National Parents Union (United States – US), “are desperate to go back to work but at the same time terrified of this deadly virus.” Now is the time to improve support for parents.
As parenting educators we ask, What can we do right now that will have positive, lasting effects for parents? While social distancing highlights the isolation that many suffer in ordinary times, we also see numerous heartening gestures of empathy in this current crisis. Can the pandemic lead us to seek out and bolster empathy where it originates, in families?
Most parents do the best they can, but no one has a perfect childhood and every parent is imperfect. Parenting education and support help us do more of the good things we want to do and fewer of the harmful things we sometimes do despite our best intentions. Emotional struggles, in children and adults, whether current or past, mild or severe, framed by comfort or deprivation, persist unless we process them.
Parenting programs help us frame the struggles we experience and become the best parents we can be in three important ways:
First, they offer positive emotional support and social connections that diminish isolation and other under-recognized social determinants of health.
Second, they provide information about child development and appropriate expectations for each developmental stage.
Third, they model and encourage the physical behaviors and habits of speech that provide children support and guidance appropriate to each age and stage. These latter including responsive vocalizations, mutual focus and acknowledgment of children’s positive behaviors.
Many well-intentioned parenting education programs emphasize information and skills, neglecting the support for parents that we see as primary.
Parenting Matters, a 2016 report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, reminds us that parent-child relationships and the family environment, including all primary caregivers, “are at the foundation of children’s well-being.” A call for “universal, positive parenting programs and services” came in the 2018 Civil Society Declaration on Parenting, from the Doha International Family Institute in Qatar and presented at the United Nation’s Commission for Social Development last year.
None of us can give what we do not have. If we want to come through the COVID-19 pandemic with the least possible harm for our children, we need to focus on emotional support for parents. Parenting programs should, of course, be offered to parents of children from birth to age three. They must also be offered on a regular basis to parents of preschool and school-age children and to parents of adolescents. In short, parenting resources should be a universal offer.
This call must also reference a second pandemic: violence in our homes (child maltreatment and intimate partner violence) and violence in our streets (abuses of power by civil authorities). Such systemic ills existed before COVID-19 and will persist after the virus subsides, but these, too, can be substantially reduced by parenting programs that help families create safe environments for every child, in the home and in the community.
How can we create enough empathy, in this unsettled and unsettling time, to last us into whatever new normal awaits us when the pandemic recedes and eventually passes? Because working directly with parents can bring us closer to accomplishing Goal 3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages,” we believe that universal parenting education must be put at the top of our health care agenda. Parenting education can significantly improve the wellbeing of children in every corner of the world and the wellbeing of adults, too, across the lifespan.
We can come through this crisis stronger and more prepared for the next one if we work together to plan a better future for families.
Eve Sullivan is Founder of Parents Forum; Patrick O’Leary is Professor of Human Ecology at Youngstown State and board member of Alta Head Start, Host of Parents Forum Youngstown; and Anis Ben Brik is Associate Professor of Public Policy at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Doha, Qatar.
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