How Do You Teach A Kid To Be A Parent?

A British MP is suggesting that kids need parenting classes, starting in elementary school. But teaching kids about real-life shit is harder than it sounds.

In a report today, Labor MP Frank Field wrote that "parenting and life skills" should be taught to students all the way "from primary school to GCSE level" (GCSEs are exams taken by 14-16-year-olds). Field also said that taking parenting classes "should be seen as something normal to do, rather than remedial, or something only for low income families." Telling low-income parents how to raise their kids while exempting wealthier families is indeed insulting — but given that not everybody wants to reproduce, teaching elementary-school kids how to raise their own kids someday seems a little premature. It reeks of that obnoxious CDC recommendation that doctors treat all women as "pre-pregnant." And leaving all that aside, is there even a way to teach parenting skills to kids?

Criticizing Field's views, Prospect's Yvonne Roberts writes, "research says we learn best from a hands-on experience, not 'chalk and talk.' This means more than lugging around a five-pound bag of sugar, dressed as a baby, as they do in parenting classes in some American high schools." Ouch. But yeah, it's true that the old sugar- or flour-bag baby assignment has become more schoolyard cliche (and Modern Love topic!) than actual educational opportunity. And really, can you remember any "life skills" class that actually taught you to live?

This is a tough issue for me, because there are lots of life skills I wish I hadn't had to learn on my own. For instance, I'm constantly calling for communication between partners to become a basic part of sex ed. But I also know that every time my school tried to teach me How To Be A Good Person, the result was sneering resentment. Roberts says British public (read "private") schools have the answer:

They invest heavily in character, education and life skills. They encourage self-discipline and grit; and develop in pupils a sense of agency and the ability to communicate, empathise and collaborate with others [...]. We know that, from a very young age, resilience can be taught, well-being improved, and social capital increased even in the direst of settings-not via a GCSE or a sporadic course in emotional literacy, but if a belief in the value of life skills suffuses the entire educational experience.

This makes sense, and certainly part of the problem with every "life skills" class I ever had was the way it felt tacked on to the rest of the curriculum (and was often taught by someone actually trained in teaching some other subject). But when it comes to specific things like changing a diaper or discussing STD testing, I'm not sure a general emphasis on "self-discipline and grit" is going to cut it. Really, if I have any (totally inexpert) advice for educators on helping kids lead their lives, it's this: let them talk. Try to create an environment where they can voice their concerns and get real answers. This is hard, because teenagers are often embarrassed about — or punished for — showing vulnerability. But whether it takes small groups, sensitive teaching, or one-on-one mentoring, actually giving kids a place to open up is going to help them a lot more than a flour-sack baby.

New Mothers And Fathers Should Have Parenting Classes — Frank Field Report [Guardian]
A GCSE In Parenting? [Prospect]
The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children Becoming Poor Adults [Poverty Review]

Image via Anita Patterson Peppers/Shutterstock.com