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Mary Daly answers critical questions on family and parenting support

20 Mar 2015
Parenting Intervention update

Mary Daly

A recent question and answer Mary Daly is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, at Oxford University, and lead researcher on the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti publication: “Family and Parenting Support: Policy and Provision in a Global Context.” Her research interests and expertise are primarily focused on the analysis of social policy in advanced OECD countries. Most of her work is comparative, in a European and international context, and interdisciplinary. Her research interest focus broadly on: family policy, gender, care, poverty and welfare and EU social policy.

How should family and parenting support be defined ?

It is very important to have clear definitions and goals of all policies but especially those in the areas of family support and parenting support because they are relatively new fields of policy and also because they touch about issues that are sensitive. The following is an overview of the two types of policy.  

  • Family support is a set of (service and other) activities oriented to improving family functioning and grounding child-rearing and other familial activities in a system of supportive relationships and resources (both formal and informal);
  • Parenting support is a set of (service and other) activities oriented to improving how parents approach and execute their role as parents and to increasing parents’ child-rearing resources (including information, knowledge, skills and social support) and competencies.

What kind of issues can family and parenting support address?

Family support and parenting support are being developed in response to a wide range of problems such as widespread poverty and child underdevelopment. In practice, a clear set of underlying objectives and ideas is not always articulated, in either policy or provision. Thinking this through there are three potentially different sets of orientations in family support and parenting support:

  • Focusing on children/adolescents and aiming for child-related outcomes such as furthering a children’s rights approach, ameliorating child risk or adolescent risk, improving early childhood development and combating anti-social behaviour or marginalisation.
  • Focusing on parents so as to improve parental competence and/or enlist parents’ help in their children’s development.
  • Focusing on the family so as to improve family functioning, address family poverty and address structural weaknesses. 

What are the typical goals?

There are many different types of family support and parenting support. Most usually they are oriented to two goals: improving the family or individual parent’s level of information and/or education; changing family or individual functioning. So as well as information and education training may be given in parental and family-related skills and also people may be enabled to find or be provided with (social) support.

What outcomes can be planned for or expected?

To a large extent, the outcomes expected and associated with family support and parenting support (and indeed any provision) depend on factors such as how the policy and/or provision are defined and conceptualised, the objectives and aims set, the designated resources, and so forth. For purposes of setting out an analytic framework though, one must go beyond such relativity and on the one hand be more specific and on the other be open to unintended consequences. One way of achieving both is to conceive of outcomes in terms of particular categories encompassing the situation of the child and adolescent, parents, families and the community (understood in an immediate sense of the actors involved locally but also in a more general sense of the resources and capacities of the local area as well as the nation as a whole). Outcomes can also be seen and planned for as short and long term.

What form do family support and parenting support take?

They can take the form of one-to-one sessions, group sessions or simply information given on a face-to-face or remote basis. Sometimes they are given as casework services and sometimes as education services and sometimes as peer support.  

Where are they located in the policy landscape?

Another important element is where to locate the provisions as a service (or if one is researching them – where to find them). The evidence from different countries indicates that family support and parenting support may be located in six different policy areas: family services, child protection, early childhood education and care, health, education and social protection.

Who are the family support and parenting support workers?

Those involved in providing family support and parenting support vary widely in terms of their professional background and their level of training. In some countries social workers and/or pedagogues are the leading staff involved but in other cases it is people who have relatively little training. Volunteers are also quite widely involved in providing parenting support especially when it is oriented to providing more general social support to parents and families. 

What philosophies or theoretical approaches underpin family and parenting support?

A wide range of child-related and social learning theories have influenced parenting support measures. The relevant theories and concepts usually cited as influential in family support include: attachment theory, ecological theory of human development and social capital. In parenting support social learning theory, cognitive behaviour and theories oriented to empowerment are among the primary influences.

Who are the main actors involved in promoting and developing family and parenting support?

There are three very important sets of actors: the state and the public authorities and political actors more generally; the international organisations; civil society, faith-based and community-oriented actors. It is important to pose the question of whether the voices and needs of parents and children are given enough priority in the services.

What are the most salient aspects of the context?

For the purposes of planning and delivering family support and parenting support, it is very important to take account of the elements of the context in which they emerge and are set.  The most important such factors include:

  • cultural factors - such as the general value or belief system and prevailing public and other discourses relating to childhood, adolescence, childrearing and family relationships;
  • social factors – such as the societal setting in which family and parenting (and related values, concepts, policies and activities) are carried out and acquire meaning;
  • economic factors – such as the existing (local, national or regional) economic context, the financial and other resources available and the resource infrastructure (human and material) more broadly (including also informal resources);
  • policy infrastructure and background – such as the policy system (consisting of all relevant policies and programmes), legal background and the administrative and other components of the infrastructure.