© Blog First Steps, IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division
by Patricia Jara
We’ve all heard our parents say—and perhaps even said it ourselves—that no one is taught to be a parent, probably in an attempt to justify an ill-conceived response to an uncertain or stressful situation involving our children. Indeed, the basic skills needed to provide quality care to children are learned through imitation—what we observe in our social environments and what we experienced with our own parents—acquired knowledge, and the natural process of learning that comes from practice.
The current thinking about child development has been gradually incorporating the concept of parental training. A number of interventions referring to themselves as “parenting schools” are being offered at daycare centers, schools and health centers. Some child development support policies and several of the programs implemented in this area have even established the creation of activities related to training on parenting skills as one of their fundamental components. But what do we mean by this?
We’re referring to the practical skills needed by parents and caregivers to protect and teach their children, creating contexts of protection, affection, and safety conducive to healthy development. It also relates to those family members who are responsible for the care and upbringing of the children and who interact with them on a frequent basis. It’s important to recognize that we’re talking about specific skills here, and it’s not blatantly obvious how they can be developed or strengthened.
In the opinion of noted neuropsychiatrist Jorge Barudy, the most important parenting skills are those that generate contexts of good treatment of children [link in Spanish], mainly the capacity for attachment and empathy, the ability to assimilate positive parenting models, and the ability to participate in social networks and use community resources. Furthermore, he mentions four dimensions necessary for generating nurturing contexts with positive reinforcement for the child:
- Affection, a quality essential to any form of interaction based on good treatment;
- Communication, because when there is an atmosphere of respect, empathy and mutual listening, an educational domain focused on the child’s welfare is created;
- The support provided by parents and caregivers as children develop and mature, which results in the generation of positive stimuli, rewards and challenges that promote a sense of accomplishment in children;
- Control, since children need to learn to recognize boundaries, manage their impulsivity and develop frustration tolerance.
It’s difficult to disagree with these precepts. In environments where the treatment of children is based on affection, where there is good communication, where there is help and support, and where the exercise of control is used to teach a lesson, it’s more likely for children to feel comfortable, to experience emotional and physical safety and, therefore, to reach their full potential.
When mothers, fathers or caregivers are able to look subjectively at their own performance and evaluate themselves in relation to the needs of their children or those children in their care, they’re taking the first step toward the development or strengthening of parenting skills. Furthermore, with the advice of counselors or professionals who facilitate this recognition, parents learn to see the differences between good treatment and mistreatment of their children, and opportunities are generated for parents to build these skills in a context favorable for parental learning, a type of work with families that is increasingly present in many child development support programs. The challenge is to institutionalize a strong policy that promotes positive parenting skills and that gives the necessary tools early on to parents and caregivers who need additional support.
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Patricia Jara is a sociologist at the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank. Her job focuses on policies and programs targeted to populations living in situations of vulnerability.