SLF Matt Buttery Blog

The number 1 parenting myth


In a guest blog  to coincide with Place2Be’s School Leaders Forum, Matt Buttery explains how parenting skills are learned, not innate, and why support for parents should take that into account.  

There is something so right about anecdotal sayings, it’s a wonder we don’t listen to ourselves more often. Take the collected wisdom in the phrase, “the first child is often the hardest’’. By the time the fourth or fifth one comes around, we’re really getting the hang of things.

What I love about this concept is that it shows how parenting is a skill-based exercise. We’re not born with these skills; we learn them on the job. Moreover, we have to continually adapt our ‘style’ as each new phase of a child’s life presents even more learning opportunities.

Like all good sayings, “the first child is the hardest’’ is true only up to a point. Every child is different and with each child comes new challenges. What works for number 1 might not work for number 2 and vice versa.

Again, this points to the fact that parenting is a conscious, skill-based practice and we know these skills can be practised and developed with evidence-based support. At least that’s what parenting experts know.

What undermines the self-worth of many parents is a particularly harmful myth that I think challenges all of us, both as parents and workers and researchers supporting families. This is the notion that a ‘good’ parent is simply someone who cares enough about their children. Research suggests this is a widely held belief. But the danger of this notion is that the opposite is also held to be true: a parent who is struggling, the assumption goes, is simply someone who doesn’t care enough to draw on the innate well of parenting knowledge they were supposed to have been born with.

Try telling that to the woman who recently spoke to a high-ranking government official about how life has changed after a Triple P program. “Well, I am eating now,’’ she told him. This particular mother’s anxiety about her family’s circumstances had become so debilitating, she had not been able to eat. That mum now feels as if she has more control over her life and things have improved so much her children regularly attend school.

Take Deborah, from Stoke-on-Trent. Deborah found her way to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) through her GP after a teacher suggested she seek medical advice. Deborah’s daughter was ‘acting out’ at school and having night terrors at home. Deborah was given access to Triple P’s online service because of a lack of face-to-face support in her area. It turned things around and got both parents and teachers on the same page. Watch Deborah share her story.

Given that 75% of children who need mental health support don’t receive it because of lengthy waiting lists, imagine the children we could help if we could support more families like this. The powerful point Deborah makes is that by being directed to a parenting programme to support her parenting skills, she felt as if she was being judged as a failure. This common attitude never fails to break me up. As a community, we all have a duty to help parents overcome this myth because they are the single-most powerful influence that can affect their child’s future.

Matt Buttery is CEO for the Triple P Positive Parenting Program in the UK and Europe

This blog was written by Matt Buttery in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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