A place in parenting history


AN UPHILL battle is how Michael Quinn, who 10 years ago co-founded The Family Caring Trust with his wife Terry, describes early attempts to promote parenting courses in Ireland and Britain.

Back then, he says, people usually reacted in one of two ways to the notion of such courses. Some would gasp in amazement "My goodness, they're even telling us how to bring up our children! What will they think of next?", while others would cry "Great! Now we'll be told exactly what to do and we won't make any mistakes".

In the intervening years however parenting courses have become more widely accepted and for a small but growing number of people they are now part of the fabric of everyday life. Today, Family Caring Trust, which is based in Newry Co Down, supplies the material for almost 90 per cent of all parenting education in Britain, according to Quinn.

The trust's programmes are used by the psychological services in Scotland, by the (British) Health Visitors' Association, by all the mainstream christian churches and by up to 1,000 schools in Britain. In the Republic, one in every three Dublin schools is offering the trust's programmes to parents, says Quinn, while in Cork and Carlow, programmes are run by the Diocese.

The trust offers eight different courses parenting up to six year olds five to 15 year olds teenagers sex education parental assertiveness and programmes for young adults and couples. Each course also includes an optional religious dimension in either the christian or Islamic traditions.

All the courses are designed to be taken in groups of 10 to 12 people aided by two voluntary, trained facilitators who come from the local community. Each course kit includes a video or audio tape (or both), a handbook for each participating parent and two leader's guides.

Parents who are expecting a blueprint for future parenting can be disappointed with the first session, especially when they realise that their facilitator is a person from their own community rather than a professional "expert", Quinn admits. But facilitators from similar backgrounds who are experiencing similar problems provide an ideal means of moving forward, he says.

"You don't need an expert for the average parenting group but where specialist help is needed as in cases of drugs and alcohol abuse, bereavement or sexual abuse, facilitators will refer people to the appropriate professional."

The whole thrust of the programmes is shared experience and to encourage parents to change their own ways of behaving, says Quinn.

"You can't change another person you have to change yourself and take a different approach in order to break behaviour patterns."

It can come as a shock to parents to discover that they have to change themselves, Quinn concedes, since they often come on a course intending to change their children. But the process is "gentle", he says, and parents have to discover which approaches work for them.

The programmes have the double benefit of enhancing parenting abilities and encouraging local leadership, Quinn notes. "These courses are not just about parenting, they are also about community development and developing leadership," he argues.

"It is extremely encouraging to see people emerging as leaders in their own communities and having something to offer them A few years ago I met a social worker from the Philippines who had a case load of 60,000 people. But she wasn't worried. Her job she said, was to locate and develop leaders in the community... It's important to get people to take responsibility for themselves rather than to rely on `expert' help all the time. . . Family support and community development go hand in hand."

But although the demand for, and interest in, parenting courses is growing, it remains a minority activity.

WE HAVE reached I more than a quarter of a million parents in 10 years and over 10,000 people have voluntarily acted as facilitators," says Quinn.

However, the uptake of courses remains relatively small. In one Dublin school 65 per cent of parents took the course, but that is unusual.

Quinn remains optimistic however. "The process works," he says. "Some of the greatest sceptics have become the greatest converts particularly professionals who initially were doubtful that ordinary parents could run training courses successfully."

Similarly, it was doubted in some quarters that such courses which involve open discussion of parenting experiences would succeed in some rural areas, where high values are placed on privacy. "I was told. It may go down well in the rest of Ireland but it won't work in West, Cork. Yet in one year alone we got 60 groups going in West Cork."

The trust's programmes, many of which have been developed in conjunction with Barnados the child care agency, take up to two years to research. The most recent innovation is the Family Dinner Game which will be available in October.

The game consists of dice and a set of cards which present topics for discussion. If you don't like the topic allotted to you at the throw of the dice, you can take another go.

"The idea is to get the family communicating around the dinner table even if it's only once a week," explains Quinn. "It's suitable for all ages, but is more popular with preteen children. The game includes a wild `Say the alphabet backwards' card. The children love the dad to get that one it creates great fun."