Because the notion of teaching people how to be good parents is relatively new in this country, much of the teaching material currently being used is imported from America, which can make participants squirm.
The parenting programme taught by Save the Children in high-poverty areas of the UK is the Fast (Families and Schools Together) scheme, which was conceived in the US and involves, according to Peter Bryson, who runs the programme, "a lot of yahooing and clapping". "There is a cultural resistance for the first few weeks; you're aware that it's a bit embarrassing, but you begin to have fun anyway. By the end of the course, parents are yahooing at each other when they meet in the supermarket," he says.
This is a sight we may begin to witness more frequently over the next couple of years. The Save the Children scheme is one of a number of programmes that the government announced this week it would be rolling out in three areas of the country, as part of a two-year trial of free parenting classes for anyone with a child under five who wants them.
At face value, it's hard to find much to dislike about the concept of parenting classes. Given that most parents sit through hours of antenatal lessons, it seems crazy that the classes stop at birth, and that there's nothing to help with the much bigger task of bringing the child up.
Except that beneath the cheerful prospect of supervised play sessions and coffee mornings, simmers the politics of the parenting debate, which is surprisingly highly charged.
The announcement of parenting classes came the day after headlines in the Daily Mail and elsewhere announced that "Poor parenting gets the blame for riots", which selectively quoted from the independent inquiry into the riots, to pinpoint parenting, over the other riot triggers: lack of opportunity, failures of the police and the justice system, growing materialism. "We heard from many communities who felt that rioter behaviour could ultimately be ascribed to poor parenting. We need to consider what can be done to ensure that all children get the right support, control and guidance from parents and guardians," the report said.
The government's focus on parenting as the cause and possible solution to many of society's problems predates the riots. A number of government-commissioned reports have highlighted the need to improve parenting, and have often carried an uncomfortable subtext of blaming parents for children's failures, and sometimes a peculiar conflation of being poor with being a poor parent.
Over the past couple of years, the government has commissioned and endorsed two research papers, both written by Labour MPs, on the theme of parenting and early intervention. Frank Field called for all children to be given parenting classes at school, commenting: "Being a parent, apart from running the army in Afghanistan, is the most important thing we will ask anyone to do and we assume people get the knowledge by osmosis – and they don't"; Graham Allen, who last year called for the launch of a national parenting campaign, remarking that "babies don't come with a handbook", made an explicit link between poverty and poor parenting, adding: "Parents have a strong desire to do the best for their children but many, especially in low-income groups, are ill-informed or poorly motivated on how to achieve this."
For a while, Iain Duncan Smith liked to produce images of the cross-sections of unloved children's brains, rather like shrivelled walnuts, in a dramatic (but controversial) attempt to show the effect neglectful parenting has on brain development. The new parenting classes will be available to everyone, the government said – neatly defusing any debate about whether the government's attachment to parenting as a core element in its family policy implicitly blames poorer parents for their circumstances.
Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "We want parents to be able to seek help and advice in the earliest years of their child's life and for this to be a normal part of family life." For the moment, though, they are being piloted in areas of "medium to high deprivation".
The announcement left some key figures in the field wary.
Katherine Rake, chief executive of the Family and Parenting Institute, said she didn't think there was clear evidence that good parenting was in decline and wondered whether the debate about parenting was a distraction from other problems that have a profound impact on children's lives – unemployment and stretched family finances, for example. "You can give someone good driving classes, but if you send them out on an icy road they are going to find it very, very difficult. The road is very, very icy at the moment," she says.
She also wondered how much could be delivered for £100, which the vouchers are worth, and how classes for 0-five-year-olds would help parents struggling with difficult teenagers.
Naomi Eisenstadt, one of the founders of Sure Start and now an academic at Oxford, is critical of the drift towards promoting good parenting as a key theme in the government's child poverty strategy. Despite her own career-long commitment to championing parenting classes as a key element of Sure Start, she feels there has been too radical a shift in this direction, arguing that in the context of rising prices, frozen benefits and soaring unemployment, parenting classes do not feel as high a priority as helping people to find work. "I also think it is insulting to poor people to suggest that poor parents are bad parents," she says.
But can good parenting be taught, or is it a bit like trying to teach someone to be a good person? I have very hazy memories of the three-hour, free, evening parenting session I sat through 18 months ago, which promised to make me a calmer, happier parent, but which turned out to be a protracted sales pitch for a set of 10 CDs. I can dimly remember one thing: if you want a child to do something, you need to stand close to them and patiently wait for them to do it, rather than shrieking at them madly from a distance, which is probably sensible advice if you're ever calm enough to remember to take it.
What's interesting about the government's pilot schemes is the different approaches offered by different providers; it's clear there is no established formula for creating good parents yet.
Octavius Black, founder of Parent Gym, one of the few home-grown courses in the government's pilot, is convinced that skills can be taught. While he stresses there is no robust evidence, he believes parenting classes could ultimately contribute to preventing future eruptions of antisocial behaviour of the kind we saw last summer. Children who have benefited from good parenting "have a greater chance of succeeding at school, of getting a job, reducing the chance of criminal behaviour, and that would suggest that better parenting would lead to less social unrest", he says. (Black, who is a school and university contemporary of the prime minister's, says he has played no part in shaping government policy, but is "delighted" parenting has been given this high profile.)
The most difficult part of the programme is getting people to sign up; people are resistant because "challenging someone's parenting skills is one of the strongest challenges to their identity", Black says. Providers have to avoid any suggestion that the courses are created to help bad parents; instead they need to persuade people it's about "building on their good points".
Bryson, of Save the Children, says the Fast programme is less about practical parenting tips, more about improving relationships within the family, and between the family, the school and wider community. He is wary of talking about poverty, because the charity knows any overt linking of the courses and poverty prevents people signing up, but the programme's literature is explicit: "Parents can support children to overcome the effects of deprivation."
Angela Edwards, 39, from Manchester, says her time on the Fast course taught her the importance of spending time with her daughter without allowing distractions to interfere. Like many of the messages, it's a simple and obvious point, but somehow the classes made her take the lesson on board and apply it to everyday life.
"I didn't realise how much time you don't spend with the children. I'd be at home cleaning, doing the washing and she'd be playing or watching a film. I was thinking I was spending enough time with her, but I wasn't," she says.
Before, there was a lot of shouting – mainly from her five-year-old daughter in her direction. "If I didn't listen to her, she'd shout. It's not very nice being shouted at by a five-year-old. We've got a much better relationship now. She actually listens to me."
Edwards has found time to do extra spelling, reading, writing and maths with her daughter, and the course has simultaneously given her the confidence to become a school governor. "I know from the teachers that they have seen a change in her. The extra time I'm spending is bringing her on with her reading and writing. I've learned that it doesn't cost anything to spend time with the children; it doesn't matter if you have money or not. I wasn't a bad parent before, but I wouldn't have spent the time."
Mostly she enjoyed meeting other parents from the neighbourhood, which chimes with Rake's analysis that it's not really what you learn in parenting classes that matters, but the friendships you make during them.
"We are living in increasingly fractured communities so there is an enormous value in parents coming together as a community," Rake says. "When you're put in touch with other people facing different challenges, you learn that you are not alone. We know those connections continue for years and years."
How to be a better parent Tips from the experts
"Children have eyes and ears, hearts and minds – they see and hear more than we think they do, feel things deeply and have their own thoughts. Find time to talk and to play. Don't be afraid to answer their questions honestly."
Becky Hall, child psychotherapist
"Have clear, simple rules and limits, and be consistent in expecting them to be met. But praise good behaviour and give your children attention when they are being good – it will increase."
Chris Cloke, head of child protection awareness and promotion, NSPCC
"Look at the ways in which you do the bad things to your children that your parents did to you, and look for the ways you re-enact with your partner the bad stuff that happened between your parents as your children watch you." Oliver James, clinical psychologist and author
"Listen to your child and try to see things from their point of view. Don't mistake childish exploration for defiance. Love unconditionally. Relax and enjoy." Annalisa Barbieri, agony aunt
"Put away your mobile, turn off your laptop and don't even think about a BlackBerry or an iPhone."
Justine Roberts, Mumsnet
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