Policy focus on building parent confidence will reap rewards for us all

By Catherine Wade

Thursday May 17, 2018

As we celebrate National Families Week this week it’s timely to ask ourselves how Australian policymakers can help our families to thrive.

We all benefit from families’ ability to raise strong, resilient children. So how do we support them to do it?

There’s rarely a magic bullet to addressing questions such as these. But research from the Parenting Research Centre has shown one ingredient that, if we focus on it, could make an important difference to the lives of parents, carers and children.

And that’s confidence.

Parents who feel confident and satisfied with their parenting – and who know where to go for help – are in the best position to deal with child-related concerns. They are better equipped to take on information about how to improve their child’s health, wellbeing and educational outcomes. This has many long-term implications for policy efforts to support well-functioning communities.

One in 10 aren’t confident parents

We have found that while most parents feel they have the skills necessary to be a good parent, many do not. In general, about one in every 10 parents don’t feel confident in their parenting, fathers have lower levels of confidence than mothers, and confidence generally seems to dip around the time a child reaches adolescence.

A new analysis of our recent study of 2600 Victorian parents has focussed on parents of children under five. And it found that those parents read to and played with their children less if they had lower levels of confidence in their parenting.

Without doubt a child’s early years are a critical time for their development. Parents’ engagement in their children’s early development and learning has an impact on children’s later educational and life experiences. So, building confidence levels in parents of young children will reap big rewards.

But we found that a third of parents of under-fives were not confident about knowing where to get parenting help from a professional if needed and they were less likely to seek that help. Parents’ confidence in help-seeking wasn’t related to things like their age, their gender or their child’s age, but it was related to being less confident as a parent.

For parents of pre-school children, confidence in communicating with staff at kindergarten or child care was also significantly related to the parent’s overall sense of parenting confidence.

So, in a nutshell, if you feel like you’re doing a poor job at parenting, you may be at risk of not having access to supports when you need them.

The evidence on parenting confidence

Our research adds to the evidence from a number of other studies, which have shown a link between a parent’s sense of confidence and competence in parenting with children’s wellbeing.

The jury is still out on exactly how parenting confidence influences children, but we do know that parenting confidence is associated with positive parenting behaviour, the quality of the home environment and child behaviour. And it might help protect against risks associated with social disadvantage and family stress.

In any case, there is little doubt among experts that improving confidence and competence among parents is an important thing to do.

So, how do we do it?

This is an area ripe with potential. A good start would be to consider how to build parent confidence and when making decisions about designing and delivering services or supports to parents.

We should also increase the number of parents who participate in the early childhood education and care system. This includes maternal and child health groups and playgroups as well as day care and kindergarten.

These are places where, if we really focus on the issue of confidence, we can make a difference to support parents. But we know that often those who need help are least likely to attend – 40% of parents don’t attend a first-time parent group, for example. And attendance rates are lower among those with a language other than English and those with a lower than average household income.

So, focusing on those groups is key. There are a number of known ways to increase participation rates – such as making services convenient and available in natural gathering places and overcoming practical barriers to access such as poor public transport. But we could also do more work on what kind of support parents want from parent groups and playgroups and other types of group-based support.

We also need to help early childhood staff build parent confidence.

We already know a lot about what might work here. We know for example, that sometimes parents are just looking for basic guidance or ideas. Others might be worried about how they’re doing and need some reassurance or suggestions. And others may need more intensive support. So, the key for professionals working with families is to match the support they offer to the needs of each family.

The Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net.au suggests a wide range of strategies professionals can use to build parent confidence. Here are just some of them:

  • being sensitive and responsiveto all different kinds of families, including those from socioeconomically, culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
  • using language that parents will understand and respond to, and avoiding jargon
  • being flexible in how services are provided and consider what’s most useful to particular families
  • acknowledging and respecting that parents are the experts about their children
  • giving families the information they need to make informed choices
  • trying not to make assumptions about what parents ‘need to know’ and providing clear information.

Taking a ‘whole-of-system’ approach to building parent confidence is a policy challenge involving multiple players. But it’s one worth tackling – given we know the return on that investment will be stronger families and a stronger society.

Dr Catherine Wade, Principal Research Specialist, Parenting Research Centre

The Parenting Research Centre is a non-profit organisation that helps children thrive by driving new and better ways to support families in their parenting. We work with governments and community agencies to put the best scientific evidence on parenting support into action. The research discussed in this article was funded by the Victorian Government Department of Education and Training.

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