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3.2 Parental competence

Parental competence is not just a matter of the acquisition of parenting skills. It is also an attributed status which relies as much on the judgements of health and social care professionals and the courts as on the behaviour of parents. Judgements, and prejudgements, of the quality of parenting draw on ideas present in the wider society. These ideas are often not made explicit. Booth and Booth's (1994) study of parents with learning difficulties revealed that their problems often mirrored those of parents of the same social and economic status, and many of their difficulties should be understood as resulting from poverty. This research found that problems were often magnified by the services ostensibly provided for the support of the families, snap judgements were made, and there was often a failure to involve people in decisions affecting them. The study concluded with a section detailing good practice guidelines. Some of these are quoted here and we believe they have a much wider application:

  • Respect for and support of the emotional bond between parent(s) and children should be the starting point for any intervention in the family.

  • Service providers must be responsive to any informal support system already in place and ensure they do not interfere with its functioning.

  • Support is more effective when directed to the survival and maintenance needs of families, followed by child care tasks, than to modifying styles of interaction within the family.

  • A parent–child relationship based on love and affection is more easily supported than replaced.

  • Always bear in mind that the parent–child relationship may be worth supporting even when a parent cannot meet all the developmental needs of the child.

  • Always ensure that people's parenting abilities and problems are assessed in the context of their own lives and experience.

  • Assessing the quality of parenting or family life calls for close familiarity based on long-term involvement.

  • Be alert to the possibly damaging effects of physical, sexual or system abuse on parents' own functioning.

  • Do not adopt too narrow a view of the parenting task: there is more to parenting that merely practical skills.

  • Remember that the need for belonging on the part of children may outweigh any deficits observed in the competence of parents.

  • Steer clear of self-fulfilling prophecies of parenting failure based on single-minded concern only with parental inadequacies.

  • Practitioners must be aware of their capacity for exacerbating the stress on families and augmenting the problems they face.

(Booth and Booth, 1994, pp. 145, 146, 147, 148, 149)

An additional point needs to be made here. Some of the reasons why people need help with parenting relate to anger and violence. In these cases intervention is instigated from outside the family in order to protect the child from harm. In other words, help is imposed rather than requested. Principles have been established so that in particular cases protection can be secured for a child even if the parents’ wishes have to be overridden. An example is the Children Act 1989 which moves from the idea of parental rights towards the concept of parental responsibility. The significance of the shift to the concept of parental responsibility lies in its emphasis on the child's welfare rather than on the parents' rights.

Reasons for parents needing extra help do not always fit into one neat explanation, as you may have already discovered for yourself. Rather, there are different levels of parental difficulty which intersect and overlap. Furthermore, identifying reasons does not automatically mean that solutions can be either found or provided. It is beyond the capacity of most people to change structural issues, in particular. We might speculate that the difficulty of addressing structural issues is one reason why practitioners and policy makers sometimes limit themselves to approaches which assume that the ‘solution’ lies at the personal level.

In the next section we will use a number of case studies to explore explanations of need and the provision of support services.


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