WHEN Victor became sole carer for his children two years ago, he struggled to cope with the demands that brought. After much searching, he found the help he needed at the local Children and Family Centre, and from there went on to join a local dads’ group and attend a parenting programme. Victor says it has transformed his family life “If it wasn’t for the help we got, we wouldn’t be where we are now”, he says.
Victor’s is not an uncommon story and that’s why the Scottish Government’s plans for a National Parenting Strategy are so important. By focussing on parents, MSPs have the chance to improve the life chances of our children and create a brighter future for families.
But why a National Parenting Strategy and what should it look like?
First, the why. It’s quite straightforward really – because parents need help. You could say it’s about helping people like Victor, but that would make out that Victor is somehow different. He isn’t – we’re all like Victor. Parenting is the most rewarding and important job any of us will ever do but it can also be the most difficult. Parents want to do the best for their children but everyone struggles at times. Whether it’s money, relationships, bullying, or those challenging teenage years, all parents need support.
Add to this the fact that Scotland consistently comes near the bottom of OECD tables for child wellbeing and the case for a National Parenting Strategy becomes even more urgent. We must do the best for Scotland’s children simply because they deserve no less. But beyond this, money invested in families pays rich dividends in terms of preventing social problems further on down the line, in services as diverse as social work, health and justice. Helping families is about investing in Scotland’s economic recovery.
So what’s needed in a National Parenting Strategy?
A National Parenting Strategy must provide a guaranteed minimum entitlement to support to all families in Scotland, and extra help for families who are particularly vulnerable. Parenting is a journey and parents can experience difficulties at any point, so there needs to be assistance available all along the way.
But parents have to know where to go for help.72 percent of parents say they wouldn’t know where to find help with that figure rising to 84 per cent in deprived areas. That has to change. Parents need to know where they can get support when they need it, and have to feel that it’s OK to ask for help.
The early years are well recognised as a key time in children’s lives, making it essential that parents get the help they need at this important stage. The Scottish Government is committed to a new generation of Children and Family Centres, and these will be an invaluable resource to families who need a helping hand.
Health visitors play a crucial role in helping parents in the early years. In an Ipsos MORI poll for Parenting across Scotland, nine out of ten parents said they “found the health visitor’s advice reassuring”. Yet the health visiting service in Scotland is a profession in crisis: health visitor numbers are falling and the average age of a health visitor is 55. We need a re-invigorated health visiting service that provides regular child health checks and ensures that support is available to parents.
Parents need good-quality, accessible, affordable and flexible childcare to allow them to take up opportunities in employment or education. This is particularly true for parents of children with disabilities. More must be done to help parents wanting to return to work or education to access appropriate childcare.
Relationships is another area which a National Parenting Strategy must address: they are, after all, what families are all about. Whether parents are together or apart, their relationship is instrumental in shaping what happens to their children. Children should be educated about positive relationships in schools. Relationship support for parents needs to be in place to help them stay together when that’s what they want and where it’s possible, and when it’s not to assist them in finding ways to successfully parent apart.
Another crucial stage is the teenage years. The majority of calls to Parentline are from parents of teenagers. However, there are few agencies which the helpline can refer callers to, as services for teenagers and their parents are few and far between. While investment in the early years may prevent some of the problems, the teenage years will always present challenges for families as parents and young people negotiate the tricky road towards adult independence. It is imperative that we find ways to support families through this difficult stage.
There is already a lot of good work happening throughout Scotland, but too much of it is small scale local projects operating on a shoestring with short-term funding. And all too often, services to children and families are seen as an easy target in these financially challenged times. We need a coordinated approach across Scotland that is there for all families. Sure, investing in families needs resources and that means there will be a cost, but it is one worth paying.
There’s barely an area of government policy that doesn’t affect families. Making life easier for families has to go beyond supporting parents with parenting. We have to put families right at the heart of policy making. Every Government department and local authority department has to look at what they do and see how they can make their services more family friendly, so that Scotland becomes the best place in the world to bring up children. There’s a long way to go, but if we want to make this ambitious vision a reality, and give Scotland’s children better chances in life then it’s a journey we have to take. Let’s start now.