Every once in a while a piece of research emerges which is not only outstanding in its content, but also beautifully practical. This description covers the package of research and tools from a recently released FrameWorks Institute report, Talking about the Science of Parenting, developed in partnership with Australia’s Parenting Research Centre. We will bring you two articles over the next fortnight: today we share the key findings and links to the package of communication tools. Next week we will share additional context for early childhood and OSHC educators who want to improve their personal communication with parents as well as lifting their service’s broader appeal to families through communication tools like websites, presentations, brochures and social media postings.
Australians don’t usually consider parenting as something that can be learned
Parent communication research
A major research project has revealed some important new advice on communicating about parenting for those working with families.
The project – a partnership led by the FrameWorks Institute and the Parenting Research Centre – shows that the common practice of opening communications with messages about ‘effective parenting’ or ‘parenting skills’ is not meaningful to parents. In fact, parents resist these messages because Australians don’t usually consider parenting as something that can be learned or something that is more than a private concern.
But the project, which researched the views of more than 7600 Australians, has discovered a powerful new story that agencies working with families can tell, and which helps people think about parenting in more productive ways.
Focus on child development
Beginning communications about parenting with an emphasis on child development and the role parents can play is highly effective, the research found. It exposes people to the fact that supporting children means supporting parents. And it opens their eyes to the idea that as a society we can do things to improve parenting – and governments can be part of the solution.
Changing existing public perceptions about parenting is important because doing so will remove barriers to parents seeking help when they need it. It will also build public support for funding and designing policy solutions and system supports around parenting.
we should talk about [parenting skills] in the context of what is good for children
Change the way we talk
The research found that changing the way we talk about parenting does not mean we should stop talking about parenting skills. Rather, we should talk about it in the context of what is good for children. Simply changing the order of our messages and what we choose to focus on first makes a big difference in helping people engage.
The project has developed tips and tools to help organisations communicate differently. For example, it recommends avoiding the common messages that parenting is hard, or a struggle because this highlights the problem and doesn’t help people focus on solutions.
The research project – a partnership between the Parenting Research Centre and the FrameWorks Institute and the Parenting Research Centre – was funded by, the Australian Government Department of Social Services, Department of Education and Training Victoria, NSW Department of Family and Community Services and The Benevolent Society.
The research tested several ‘narratives’ and found a single master narrative that resonated strongly with parents, this is the Navigating Waters metaphor.
Raising children is like sailing. To develop healthily, children need an even keel. But things like poverty, health problems and stress can make it harder for parents to navigate family life and provide this even keel. Just like we can build lighthouses and safe harbours to guide and protect boats during heavy storms, we can help parents by providing things like counselling services, high-quality child care, and assistance with housing and food. This not only offers safety and protection during difficult times but makes for smoother sailing and helps all children in Australia to thrive.
The report recommends using the Navigating Waters metaphor to bridge the gap between ‘parenting experts’ and parents who tend to dismiss messages about parenting skills as ‘intrusive, inappropriate, or an example of science going into territory where it does not belong’. For educators who have attempted to share advice about parenting skills with the families at their services in the past, the recommendation may provide a useful middle step in future communication.
Another feature was particularly good news to this sector: parents responded much more strongly to messages about Child Development than they did to Effective Parenting. Focusing on child development in general, and brain and biological development in particular, were found to be highly effective ways to explain the value of parenting skills (and, as educators know, quality early learning).
As the report says, ‘Communicators should, therefore, work to deepen people’s knowledge about early childhood development in order to increase support for policies and practices designed to improve parenting’.
The basic architecture of a human brain is constructed through a process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Early experiences shape how the brain gets built. A vital ingredient in a child’s brain development is the ‘serve and return’ interactions that they have with their parents, caregivers and community members. Young children naturally reach out and serve to adults through babbling and facial expressions. Getting in sync and returning these kinds of noises and gestures is a critical skill for parents: this is something that they can learn and get better at with support over time.
We will cover these features and more in the context of early childhood education and OSHC next week!
These resources are designed to help those who work with and for families. The Parenting Resource Centre invites you to use them in your work.
Meet the author
Bec Lloyd is the founder and managing director of Bec & Call Communication, providing professional writing, editing and strategy services to the school and early childhood education sector since 2014. In 2018 she launched UnYucky mindset and menus for happier family mealtimes. Formerly the communications lead at ACECQA and BOS (now NESA), Bec is a journo and mother of three who produces Amplify for us at Community Early Learning Australia.