Hannah and I attended the Parenting UK (a membership organisation for those working with parents) annual conference earlier this month on the theme of Parenting and the Recession. A variety of speakers and workshops explored, in different ways, how economic disadvantage affects parenting styles and outcomes. Keynote speaker, the Rt Hon Frank Field, MP for Birkenhead, opened the proceedings, followed by Claire Walker, Director of Policy and Communications at FamilyLives and Elizabeth Jones, Research Officer on the Millenium Cohort Study. Panel discussions and a choice of workshops filled the remainder of the day which was also coloured by the release of the latest government criteria for indicating poverty.
Key for me amongst all that I heard was a renewed sense of the importance of the early years as a critical influence on the rest of a person’s life. Frank Field is already known for his work on this theme having chaired an independent review which resulted in a report called The Foundation Years: Preventing PoorChildren Becoming Poor Adults.
For those present he recounted his concern about changing children’s life chances by tackling the inequalities that are apparent in their foundation years. Family income is not the main driver in determining how children will fare as they grow up, but rather the relationship or quality of the bond they have with their parent, usually the mother initially, and the environment of the home, particularly the quality of communication a child experiences which enables her to develop a broader vocabulary. By age 2-3, 80% of the human brain is formed, especially the part of the brain designed for empathy which develops in the first year. Frank has since convened the Foundation Years Action Group to pursue some of the recommendations from his independent review and he also spoke about some of the work unfolding in his constituency of Birkenhead, particularly in supporting mothers antenatally.
Claire Walker spoke next about the increasing stresses that families are experiencing in the light of the recession. Job losses result in declining family incomes, whilst the cost of living increases; emotional and mental health issues increase with uncertainty around employment and finance; changing working patterns impact family life, with longer hours and more shift work; increases in work place bullying also impact family life as the home is often the only place where frustration can be expressed. Couple relationships become more stressed if ‘couple warmth’ declines and employment patterns work against couple connectedness. She noted the challenge of ensuring that families get the support they need to become more resilient to these stresses and that the caring sector needs to be available to provide that support. (The Center for the Modern Family published a report on family resilience last June, for those interested in looking further into this.) One of the question later to the panel noted that the caring sector is also on the decline due to the recession and perhaps less able to provide the additional support needed by families.
Elizabeth Jones (pictured above) concluded the morning presentations with an outline of the Millenium cohort study, providing statistical evidence that reinforced the sense that if poverty is experienced in a child’s earliest years it has a lasting impact, even if that period of poverty does not last too long.
All in all a very sobering day. A useful follow up appears to be another conference in January, this time organised by the Family StrategicPartnership, on the theme of Family Services in an Age of Austerity.