Opinion: A case for changing the message on parenting
This article was first published in Apolitical.
By Annette Michaux
Director Parenting Research Centre
Those who design policies and programs for families and children have access to a wealth of solid evidence on what works in parenting.
Research tells us that a complex interplay of factors influences how people parent, that parenting is a skill that can be learned and that a child’s early years should be a critical focus for parents individually and for society at large.
But this knowledge has not permeated the public consciousness. Major gaps remain between what the evidence tells us about parenting and how the public perceives it.
A research project we commissioned with the US-based FrameWorks Institute found that, contrary to the evidence, most people believe that how someone was parented is the most important influence on what type of parent they will become. People also think of parenting as something that comes naturally and that it is a private matter, rather than something that requires community and policy support.
So, what’s the problem?
These evidence-practice gaps present us with a major hurdle.
If we want to build public support for policy solutions and system supports around parenting, we’re unlikely to get it if most people don’t accept that governments and others outside the family unit have a role to play in helping people build their parenting capacity at home.
And parents themselves are less likely to seek help if they believe they are somehow “less than” because they’re experiencing parenting challenges they can’t solve alone.
Why does all of this matter? Because parents are the single most important modifiable influence on a child’s wellbeing. So, if we want to promote healthy development in children, it’s critical to focus on supporting their parents.
This means we have to find ways of bridging the gap between what people think about parenting and what evidence shows us to be true.
A second major research partnership we developed with the FrameWorks Institute investigated exactly this. The result is a powerful new story that agencies working with families can tell, and which helps people think about parenting in more productive ways.
But first, what not to say
This latest project involved more than 7,600 Australians and builds on five years of communications research on child development.
It found that the common practice of opening communications with messages about “effective parenting” or “parenting skills” is counterproductive. If we communicate in this way, we not only risk our messages being ignored, we risk people doubling down on their existing beliefs and any misconceptions about parenting.
Another common practice the research showed to be ineffective is normalising the parenting struggle. This is a common device used by communicators to “meet people where they’re at”, to connect with them and make them more receptive to messages.
However, the research showed that by normalising parenting challenges (e.g. “all parents struggle at times”, “being a parent is the hardest job in the world”) communicators risk making struggles seem inevitable and insoluble. This doesn’t prime people to receive positive messages about parenting, and therefore should be avoided.
What to say instead
Beginning communications about parenting with an emphasis on child development and the role parents can play is highly effective, the research found. This exposes people to the fact that supporting children means supporting parents. It also opens their eyes to the idea that societies can do things to improve parenting — and governments can be part of the solution.
“Reframing” communications around child development doesn’t mean we should stop talking about parenting and parenting skills. Rather, we should talk about it in the context of what helps children. Simply changing the order of our messages and what we choose to focus on first makes a big difference in helping people engage.
How do we know this? The research findings show a marked change in attitude towards policy support for parenting when people are presented with scenarios via a child development frame as compared with an effective parenting frame.
The chart below shows this difference in attitudes as compared to a control group when using the different frames. It’s clear that the child development frame positively affects attitudes and support for the issues outlined at the bottom of the chart and the effective parenting frame negatively affects them.
Implications and next steps
These findings have important implications for organisations that communicate about parenting. They do reflect Australian attitudes and cultural values around parenting but have broader relevance nonetheless.
They show that as a minimum, jurisdictions should rethink their current messages about parenting if they want to build widespread acceptance for parenting support as a smart public investment that helps children thrive.
The research suggests developing a new “master narrative” around parenting that does three things:
1. Effectively describes “the big idea” — that is, child development and how it’s connected to parenting
2. Explains in easy-to-understand terms how child development works and what threatens it
3. Explains what should happen next: we should support parents in order to support children.
As part of this work, the FrameWorks Institute empirically tested a number of metaphors to determine what language might resonate to help articulate this new narrative.
It found one in particular that was successful in helping people think productively about parenting. This described parenting in terms of “navigating waters” — a journey where one might encounter smooth or rough seas, where skill and support are needed and where safe harbours and lighthouses can help us when we need it.
The project has also produced many tips and tools to help organisations communicate differently, including a list of messages to avoid and advance. It gives us a practical way forward that is based on evidence and offers a real opportunity to make a difference.
It won’t be easy. Undoubtedly this is a large undertaking that will require sustained and coordinated effort. But we are energised about the possibilities open to us to make real and lasting change for children and their families.