• Parenting Skills Classes: Transforming the Next Generation [PDF]
  • By Cristina Odone & John Loughlin
  • March 2017
  • Published by the Legatum Institute


Parenting is a key factor in determining a child’s life chances; positive parenting skills can engender enduring positive values such as empathy, self-discipline, and self-sacrifice. These character strengths support children into their futures, helping them make the right choices when faced with moral dilemmas. Parents from all walks of life want this for their children, but are not always sure they can deliver it as they can lack confidence in their childrearing skills. This should come as no surprise. Our culture—increasingly materialist and self-centred—is not conducive to parenting, with its emphasis on nurturing and self-sacrifice. Extended families and tight-knit neighbourhoods, which traditionally used to support parenting, have become rare.

Society is both reliant upon, and hopeful for, parents that bring up their children with strong values such as respect for self, others and property. The cost to society when parents fail to transmit these values is immense—poor educational outcomes, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy and self-harm all require expensive interventions by the state.

However, the evidence reveals a powerful truth—while parents may lack confidence and support from the wider community, they do not lack motivation. Today’s parents are as determined to do the best by their children as parents in previous generations, and they are looking for resources from which they can draw.

This preliminary report is based on qualitative research—field studies and a survey (carried out by Bheard for the Legatum Institute in March 2017)—that provides strong support for universal parenting skills courses as a cost-effective resource for parents from all backgrounds. Our findings showed that although the majority of parenting classes were not explicitly teaching character and values, the parenting skills groups prompted parents to reflect on their values, while the small group dynamic present in all the classes we visited served to challenge poor values and confirmed positive values.

Public discussion about the role of positive values in combating social problems has been ongoing in Britain and abroad. Work by Angela Duckworth, Paul Tough and Sir Anthony Seldon draw on neuroscience, psychology and child development to show how character traits such as self-restraint and courage help children succeed in terms of academia and well-being. Research has shown that character-based schools help develop these character traits in children.

This principle has affected education policy and education initiatives, most famously, in the US, the KIPP network of schools; while in this country it has led to the Flore at schools, founded by LI Senior Fellow James O’Shaughnessy and character-building curriculum such as the Knightly Virtues pioneered by James Arthur at the Centre for Character and Virtue at Birmingham University.

The Legatum Institute sought to determine whether parenting skills groups could perform the same role as character-based schools in supporting parents to transmit good values to their children. 

Sometimes reflecting on values within a group can be constructive; individuals are inspired to embed their values more directly into their everyday behaviour, or adopt new values that can have a positive impact on their lives. Moreover, the group dynamic can be helpful in promoting tolerance and seeking understanding in a community. When others hold a different values system, individuals can feel threatened, angry or feel a need to defend or enforce their position while holding onto their own identity and strongly-held beliefs. This has come to the fore in Louise Casey’s recent report on integration. Any conversation about values should therefore include how we cope and manage when people hold different values to our own—how we value tolerance and seek understanding or acceptance.

Our recommendation is that character and values be introduced to parenting classes, but in order for these values to be embedded, classes should adopt a new format. We propose an innovative scheme, the National Parenting Trust (NPT), which would complement evidence-based, existing parenting skills groups with continuous volunteer mentoring, to support parents throughout their child rearing years. The volunteer mentors would be especially trained to lead the parent group into reflecting on their values and developing positive character and values in their relationships with their children.

Our research showed that parenting skills groups teach specific skills — patience, communication, empathy—that reinforced values such as self-restraint. The parents we encountered, after seeing the good outcome of practising these values in their home, were convinced that these made a positive difference to their lives, and their children’s. There were five main findings from our research:

  1. Parenting skills groups use a successful three-step process to modify parents’ and children’s behaviour.
  2. Courses make use of ‘the power of small groups’.
  3. Parents are overwhelmingly positive about parenting classes.
  4. Parents want access to longer, more sustained parenting courses.
  5. Parenting classes are a way of reflecting on and embedding family values that support positive long-term outcomes.

Given the striking evidence in our report that parenting skills classes help combat the ‘deficit’ in character and values that lie behind many social problems, we conclude that parenting classes should be made substantially more accessible across the UK. For this to happen, however, our report recommends that some significant changes are made.

Read the full report here