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Parenting in the early years has a critical influence on children’s development, whether one examines positive outcomes, such as prosocial behaviour, empathy or school performance, or negative outcomes, such as aggressive behaviour, bullying or school dropout. In Canada, Dr J Douglas Willms’ analysis (1) of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth found nearly 30% of children have cognitive or behavioural problems serious enough to make them vulnerable in the sense that unless there is a concerted effort to intervene on their behalf, they would be prone to experiencing problems throughout their childhood and young adulthood. After examining the most important determinants of these problems, Willms concluded that “sensitive, responsive parenting is the single most important benefit children can receive during their early years”. In the United States, a megastudy (2) by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which measured the impact of both child care and parents on children’s development, concurs that parenting is the primary influence on children’s development.
Invest in Kids’ National Survey of Parents of Young Children (3) showed that the large majority of parents know little about how children grow and develop. Although more than 90% of parents strongly agreed that parenting is the most important thing they do, and despite wanting and trying to learn how to parent, parents had very little knowledge about how children grow and develop. Parents have the least knowledge about social and emotional development, the two areas in which parents believe they have the most influence. Thus, parents feel acutely unprepared for what they consider as the most important thing they do (4).
Compellingly, both Willms’ and Invest in Kids’ studies indicated that parenting skills need improvement. Willms found that only approximately one-third of parents use the authoritative parenting style, the style most frequently associated with positive outcomes for most groups of children in North America (5). Invest in Kids found that one-third of parents could increase their positive parenting practices and two-thirds could decrease their negative parenting behaviour. Together, these surveys present a strong case for universal interventions designed to increase parenting knowledge, confidence and skills.
Yet, there are almost no programs to prepare and educate new parents for their role in a meaningful way. Parents seek parenting and child development information and support from doctors, friends, grandparents, high school courses, community parenting programs, television, the Internet, books and magazines, and other community resources. The result is a patchwork of efforts that provide only superficial information, are largely unevaluated (so we know little about who the programs reach and whether they are effective) and are limited in important ways (6,7):
Today’s parents are truly in a quandary. They want to do the right thing; yet, too many do not know what to do. In a society that purports to value the role of parents, we provide woefully few opportunities for parents to become really educated about parenting and child development. Even worse, we have not created an environment that is conducive to enhancing parenting skills. Steps that can be taken to address the current situation and create an effective system of parenting education and support include: providing opportunities for parents to be engaged in developing programs; ensuring that programs are evidence-based and evaluated; providing quality training to service providers; and ensuring adequate resources are available to sustain the implementation of effective programs.
Some positive signs: Despite this national picture of what is not happening, some encouraging initiatives are beginning to emerge. In a recently released Ontario report “With our best future in mind: Implementing early learning in Ontario” (8), by Dr Charles E Pascal, the critical importance of the early years for lifelong health, learning and behaviour, and the recognition of parents as children’s first teachers are foundational concepts. Supporting children and families during the earliest years of development is a key recommendation, and the report calls for consolidating existing child and family programs into a network of Best Start Child and Family Centres. These Centres would provide a one-stop opportunity for pre- and postnatal supports, parenting programs and resources, and a variety of other early learning and development services for parents.
Among the range of supports and services provided to parents during their child’s early years, the Healthy Child Manitoba initiative has selected the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program. Developed in Australia, this program emphasizes the prevention of problems and has the flexibility to move from simply providing information and advice to parents, to intensive family intervention if necessary. Other provinces are also making this program available; evaluations of its effectiveness in Canadian settings are underway (9). International research indicates that Triple P and the Incredible Years BASIC parent training program (for parents with children aged two to seven years) are particularly effective programs for parents of young children (10).
A recently commissioned report, entitled “Planning for Parenting Education and Support in BC” (11), makes a case for the formation of a coherent and comprehensive parenting education and support plan for British Columbia, and provides guidance on how this can be achieved. Developed by a coalition of federal, provincial and community partners, and presented to the government of British Columbia, the plan is based on the growing understanding of the lifelong importance of the early years, and the significant and recent research on what ‘works’ in parenting education and support from around the globe.
The above initiatives, and others throughout Canada, are beginning to take action in addressing ways to support the critical role that parents play in the early development of their children and in shaping and determining lifelong learning, health and behaviour.