Children’s Commissioner and FRSA Maggie Atkinson looks at how we support parents in meeting the individual and social need for them to support and nurture their children?
The question of how we – and in particular the state - supports parents in ‘doing their job’ has always been a contentious one, hitting as it does questions of private and public responsibilities. This question lies at the heart of a new report, The Home Front, which has been funded by our office and authored by a team at Demos, and launched by the Deputy Prime Minister this week.
My office’s decision to fund this work was firmly rooted in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which has much to say about the family. The Convention, signed by the UK in 1991, is at the core of my remit as Children’s Commissioner and underpins all the work of my office.
In working to protect and promote children’s rights as enshrined in the UNCRC, we have been considering the importance of family life and parenting as set out, for example, in Article 5, which describes families’ rights and responsibilities in guiding their children, or Article 12, which states that children have the right to have their voices heard and views respected: even, or especially, within the family context. Importantly the Convention also talks about parental responsibilities, and their right to be supported by Government (Article 18), and the need for State parties to make decisions that are in the best interest of children (Article 3).
The Demos work is a serious piece of research that will stimulate discussion. It draws on evidence from the macro level of the Millennium Cohort Study with its data on thousands of families and in-depth ethnographic research based on time spent living with families to see what obstacles they faced. What this later work in particular showed was that children have strong and considered views on what makes good parents. They do not ask for the latest toys but are thoughtful about how parents can provide them with the love and support they need.
It confirms what families (and those who work with them) intuitively know: that children are at the heart of families, and meeting their needs is key to understanding many of the decisions parents make. We wanted to see how we as a society could support parents to do this. The report makes a number of recommendations on how existing community support - ranging from primary schools to health visitors, from flexible working for parents to social networks – could be better integrated and utilised in meeting the needs of children.
The report does not say that parents living in poverty are bad parents: it does however show that living in poverty makes parenting even more difficult due to added financial and time pressures including those in the large number of those in in-work poverty.
Whether parents are single or together, stability and consistency for children are key if they are to thrive. We need to acknowledge that there are times when most parents could use someone to turn to for good advice in how to achieve this. The Home Front shows that health visitors are in a uniquely good position to fulfil this role, to check and help parents where (and only where) that is needed.
It takes a community to raise a rounded child. Community support and social networks play a vital role in parenting. The report shows 27 per cent of parents find the lack of a community support network the biggest obstacle they face as a parent: this was a higher proportion than those who identified the biggest problem as the relationship with their partner (22 per cent). We need to look at ways this can be improved from supporting community organisers to mentoring and involving parents in services where they can meet others.
Work is one of those important areas where families face difficult decisions over time and money. What we know from this research is that when decisions about flexible working are based on the needs of the child, the family as a whole benefits. The lesson from this is that we have to look at ways of working that allow parents to share responsibility and provide children with the support parents want to give.
The complexities of parenting cannot ever be completely captured by research nor by one short article. But I hope this gives a flavour the main report and begins to focus on some of the changes we should be looking at. The report affirms the need to listen to the voice and experience of children and young people and for good evidence based dialogue about how we as a society – government, professionals, communities and indeed RSA Fellows – can support parents and families.
For a full copy of The Home Front, please visit the Office of the Children’s Commissioner website. You can also follow Maggie Atkinson on Twitter.