There is a strong association between child abuse and severe deprivation (2) (4) and as a result many believe that parenting is only a problem amongst families living in poverty. However, patterns of suboptimal parenting, which can be shown to impact on development, are much less closely associated with poverty, and some aspects of suboptimal parenting are more common amongst older and better educated parents. (3)
There is much more variation in parenting within social groups than between them (5) and problem parenting can be subtle and difficult to identify. Parenting programmes targeted at families living in deprivation or rated by professionals to have problems attract stigma.
Given the high prevalence in the population of suboptimal parenting and difficulties in targeting effectively, there are strong arguments for universal provision of parenting support combined with more intensive support for families with problems.
There is a very large research base to show that children from families living in poverty and deprivation do less well from early in life, that they fall behind their peers at school, and that they have more mental health problems (6) and employment problems in adult life. Policies have been introduced to reduce and alleviate childhood poverty.
All children under two from deprived backgrounds in England, for example, are now entitled to free pre-school education and some aspects of family welfare improved under the previous government. However, there are also studies to suggest that good parenting can protect children from the effects of deprivation, (7) and that parenting is an important mediator in the relationship between poverty and poor outcomes for children.
The well-known lifecourse studies showing longterm impact of poverty and deprivation in childhood on life outcomes (8) rarely address parenting or the extent to which this is the mediator between deprivation and poor outcomes. Parenting could account for the fact that by no means all children from deprived backgrounds do poorly, suggesting that whilst poverty and deprivation are profoundly taxing for parents, they are not necessarily toxic to children.
It is important when considering policies and approaches to intervention to recognise the combination, well recognised by primary care professionals, of parental mental health problems, low parental educational achievement due to early mental health problems, difficulty coping and managing money, and abusive and neglectful parenting which tends to repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.
These families, who are difficult to identify in longitudinal studies, could account for much of the impact of childhood poverty and deprivation on long-term outcomes. To change outcomes for children in a sustainable way, such families warrant intensive investment including support for parents and their own mental health, parenting support, high quality care outside the home, high quality schooling in schools where emotional and social development are a high priority, and provide both universal and targeted support for children from such families.
Whilst improving family financial circumstances is clearly valuable for families for a variety of reasons, there is not much evidence to suggest that it improves parenting. (9)
Parenting and Public Health Briefing Statement, Faculty of Public Health, 2005
3) Waylen A, Stallard N, Stewart-Brown S. Parenting and social inequalities in health in mid-childhood: a longitudinal study. European Journal of Public Health 2008; 18(3):300-305; doi:10.1093/eurpub/ckm131
4) Brown J, Cohen P, Johnson J et. al. A longitudinal analysis of risk factors for children maltreatment : findings of a 17 year prospective study of officially recorded and self reported abuse and neglect. Child Abuse and Neglect 1998;22:1065-78
7) DuMont K, Erhard-Dietzel S, Kirkland K. Averting child maltreatment: Individual, economic social and community resources that promote resilient parenting. In Ungar M (ed) The Social Ecology of Resilience: a handbook of theory and practice Springer 2012
8) Waylen A, Stewart-Brown S. Factors influencing parenting in early childhood: a prospective longitudinal study focusing on change. Child Care Health and Development 2010; 36: 198-207