In recent years, we have seen a rise in awareness of the critical period of development that occurs within the first 2-3 years of a child’s life. Those working in early childhood welcome this attention, to finally shine the spotlight on our youngest children. This period of life is fundamental, a time to be nurtured and not simply a stepping stone to the school years. However, this recognition has also brought with it as much attention, even pressure, on parenting and on family life. Recommendations in government reports are bursting with parenting intervention, parenting programmes, and parenting education.
The experience of becoming a new parent is like no other, the love and feelings of protection for this new life are exceptional but it can also be very scary. Parents can feel overwhelmed, they may feel out of their depth or frustrated, or even that they are losing a sense of their own identity. All these feelings are natural but when coupled with unreachable representations of perfect parenting (particularly in the media and on social media) it is little wonder that parents may find it difficult to be open and honest about how they are feeling.
The transition into parenting often includes difficult decisions about feeding, sleep arrangements, routines and all other aspects of home and family life. These decisions can seem, from a societal perspective, rather mundane, even trivial. But anyone who is pregnant or who has a newborn knows, the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ can be all-consuming and overwhelming. Parents can face a huge amount of pressure as they navigate the bumpy road into a new reality. This includes lots of decisions about managing the changes to home, family and working life. Building effective partnerships with parents and carers in early childhood is therefore essential. Trusting relationships, a space to be honest and open and to share experiences may make all the difference to a new parent.
It is so important, therefore, for those practitioners to understand the daily realities of becoming new parents, and to provide meaningful, inclusive, and respectful support to families, not imposed targets or measures. With many opportunities to support parents and families, early childhood practitioners can reflect on their role in providing this support.
This can begin with the following questions:
- Where do new parents go for support?
- What do new parents need help with?
- Is current support effective?
- How can we support parents better?
By asking these questions, and properly listening to the responses, we can provide the space and support that families are asking for help with. We know that support that is too prescriptive or formulaic is off-putting and does not work, we have tried this in the past and we must now learn from the lessons. If delivering a top-down, one size fits all approach doesn’t work, then working alongside families and communities to break down barriers to support might.
This can begin with a shift in perspective – to see that, as professionals, we are in fact, not the ‘experts’ in individual family life. We have, for many years, acknowledged the importance of the unique child, now this must extend to parents and families. Parenting is not context-free, nor are families ‘hard to reach’; they are the opposite and if we really want to support families, then this must come from a place of co-production.
With the development of Family Hubs well underway, there is an opportunity for those in the field of early childhood, those who understand childhood best, to extend that understanding to parents and families. By speaking to parents in your local community, we can hear about any barriers and challenges that families may face in accessing support. Do families know where to go for support with feeding? Do they know how to meet other parents? Do they know where to look for tips about managing the rising costs of family life?
As practitioners and educators, we can challenge our own thinking and perceptions and see the wealth of knowledge and values within our own communities. Meaningful support for new parents comes from engaging with those values and finding ways to build that into provision. Global approaches have demonstrated this already, placing local people, their narratives, histories, oral traditions, songs and play at the heart of community developments.
If parents are supported to see that they are the real experts, then perhaps the narrative can change. Instead of feeling, as new parents often do, out of control and searching for expert guidance from others, a true partnership can emerge; with all parties benefiting from the learning that comes from reciprocal relationships. Co-production doesn’t have to be large-scale or demanding. It can just be a conversation, ideally with questions – starting with: “What is your name?” (because by the way, it isn’t ‘mum’!) leading to important conversations where parents feel valued, respected, and heard.
This is why, in support of new parents, the importance of friendship, trust, empathy, and humour cannot be underestimated – it is essential that parents can share their feelings with practitioners and with other parents, and not be scared about being judged. It is the silence in parenting that will ultimately create the biggest and most long-term issues. Co-produced strategies that facilitate social interaction, the development of support networks and reduction in isolation will help to forge lasting and valuable relationships between parents and practitioners.
“Partnerships with Parents in Early Childhood Today”.
Philippa Thompson and Helen Simmons (editors) 2023
Published in April 2023 by Learning Matters, Sage Publishers.
This newly published book aims to explore the importance of building effective partnerships with parents and carers in early childhood. It considers the role of early childhood practice in understanding the needs of parents and carers today. Each chapter considers families that may be marginalised in practice. The book suggests respectful, co-productive ways for students and early childhood practitioners, across the sectors, to work together.
- Asks current and future practitioners to reflect on and challenge their current practice
- Considers the perspectives of parents/carers that are marginalised by current practice
- Provokes thinking about how settings can become more inclusive in their practice