Normally this sort of thing is anathema to lefties like me - the repressive bourgeois state poking its nose in, telling poor people how to raise their kids. According to the Dom Post (http://www.stuff.co.nz/4767579a6479.html), the Ministry of Education last year began running parenting classes, where the parents of kids exhibiting antisocial behaviours are referred, often by the courts or Probation Services. Hundreds of parents have attended these group classes since they began, and the Nats have indicated their support for increasing these numbers as a means of addressing child abuse and a range of other negative social outcomes. The Dom Post reports that, so far, the classes have resulted in improved behaviour from 75% of kids whose parents attended.
I can't bring myself to disagree with the idea of parenting classes. It's not that I think there's a sinister underclass out there - a seething horde of useless parents breeding dysfunctional children. Rather, it's that no one is born naturally knowing everything about how to be a good mum or dad. Everyone learns a little bit along the way, myself included. Other parents, public health messages, even crappy Supernanny-type TV programmes, have got me thinking - reflecting on how I can do a better job. But not everyone gets the same opportunities to learn about parenting as I've had. And not everyone is set a good example by their own parents.
Initiatives like parenting classes are often criticised for taking one idea of what constitutes good parenting - usually a middle class, Eurocentric idea - and trying to impose it on everyone else. Most often, mothers bear the brunt of schemes aimed at better parenting, and these schemes can be punitive. These are fair criticisms. When the state gets it wrong, the consequences can be dreadful. I'm reminded of Plunket's policy of insisting that mothers put their babies to sleep on their tummies. When they changed this policy, the cot death rate was slashed, suggesting many babies needlessly died because of Plunket's poor advice.
The devil is, of course, in the detail. What kind of values and techniques should parents be taught in parenting classes? Contrary to what our PC-gone-made-get-the-nanny-state-out-of-our-lives friends may argue, how you parent is not a matter of personal choice, where almost anything goes. Society has a right and a responsibility to be assured that kids are being raised healthy and happy. There may be no single 'right' way of parenting, but there are certainly some wrong ones. Child abuse, whether or not under the guise of 'discipline', cannot be tolerated. Everyone should be able to agree on that much.
If we accept there's a need to intervene to ensure parents raise their kids well, we're faced with two options: the carrot or the stick. There's plenty of 'stick' available in the law already - for example, the ability to fine parents whose kids are truant. Parenting classes could potentially be carrot or stick. They could be a stigmatised affair, with connotations of failure, surrounded by the nasty racist discourses which surge after events like the terrible death of Nia Glassie. Or, they could be an expression of the truism that no parent knows it all: that every one of us needs, and deserves, a bit of help and a pat on the back from time to time, and there's no shame in asking for either.
Giving parents the support of the community is vital. Parenting classes - offered in a spirit of encouragement, not punishment - have the potential to be one way of providing support. It's important, though, not to pin all our hopes for children's wellbeing on a few state-run courses. Poverty, health and education - all crucial factors in how we care for our kids - need our urgent attention too.