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Introduction

Universal delivery of parenting programmes has increasingly been seen by policy makers as a way of addressing larger social issues in marginalised communities, as research has shown that there is a high correlation between poverty and ‘inadequate’ parenting (Gillies, 2009; Katz et al., 2007). In attempting to ensure conformity, James et al. (1998) argue that, “standards of judgement relative to our world view” (p.27), as decided largely by middle-class stakeholders, are universally applied to and/or imposed on all, irrespective of whether they clash with the norms and customs of community members (Jordan, 2001). Furthermore, much of the focus in traditional parenting research is the relationship between parent (primarily the mother) and the child. Although a bi-directional relationship does exist between the child and the parent (Granic et al., 2007), little consideration is often given to how others within the family unit and/ or child’s sphere also influence their lives. This can lead to one-sided results, despite research showing that, for example, children primarily cared for by grandparents follow a similar developmental trajectory to those cared for by their parents (Dunn et al, 2006)

Despite the significant role children play in influencing family life, their voices are frequently, and noticeably, absent in parenting research, only emerging when parenting is considered to be failing (James, 2003). Their influence is often only measured in terms of behaviour outcomes in parenting programmes (Enebrink et al., 2015), thereby positioning the child as a passive ‘recipient’ of parenting behaviour, rather than an active agent in the process. Research contradicts this positioning; children do actively influence and shape parenting practices, as well as understanding what is happening in their own lives (Williams et al., 2014; Greene & Hogan, 2005, p.9). In line with Article 12 of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child, children are considered ‘experts’ in their own lives, with research showing that they can articulate their views accurately and clearly, when freely allowed to do so in an enabling environment (Greene & Hogan, 2005; DCYA, 2012; Lundy & McEvoy, 2011). Therefore, their influence in shaping parenting practices cannot be underestimated and their voices should be treated as an essential and integral part of the discourse, alongside all other voices (Lundy, 2007; Nelson & Prilleltensky, 2005). Children should be considered as an important contributor to our understanding of society, have the right to be listened to, and to have what they say acted upon, where appropriate (Lundy, 2007; UN, 2009, Article 20).

This article aims to privilege children’s voices in marginalised communities, with particular emphasis on ensuring that ‘seldom heard’ children are included in parenting research (Kelleher et al., 2014). The inclusion of the voices of children from marginalised communities in this way is quite a departure from traditional rigid assumptions in parenting research. By asking a range of children about the relationships they have in their lives, we seek to gain valuable insights into family life and to use this learning to improve parenting supports to families. Furthermore, by critically analysing the ‘standards of judgements’ which normally focus on the community’s problems, and as perceived by researchers, we can instead uncover potential family and community strengths, as perceived instead from the children’s viewpoint (Kaufman et al., 2007).

Methodology

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory (1979) argues that the environment surrounding the child comprises many levels, all of which interact reciprocally with the child in different ways. The theory is illustrated by a model involving concentric circles, see Figure 1. A child’s engagement with their worlds starts with their immediate environment (e.g. relationships and interactions with family, neighbourhood and school, which make up their microsystems and mesosystems) and moves outwards incrementally to society more generally (e.g. links with social services, community and culture, which make up their exosystems and macrosystems), with each level influencing their development at varying degrees. By applying Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) lens, therefore, this study seeks to explore the different relationships children have in their lives and how this learning can be used to improve parenting supports to families.

Participants

Children of parents who had completed Parent Plus Children’s Programme in the past twenty-four months were approached for inclusion. All the children lived in the same Dublin suburb. The average Absolute Deprivation Index for the area places it in the disadvantaged category, with a number of its district electoral divisions amongst the most deprived in the Dublin region (CSO, 2016). All children attended local Designated Equality of Opportunity of Schools (DEIS) Band 1 primary schools.

The children ranged in age from seven to ten years. Three of the children had four or more siblings, and two children had no siblings. Five of the eight children were living with both parents and two of the children lived with their mother and grandparents.

Table 1

Child Participants

Child Code

(names changed to protect anonymity)

Ethnicity

Lisa

White Irish

Martin

White Irish Traveller

Cara

White Irish Traveller

Cian

White Irish

Jack

White Irish

David

White Irish

Farrah

White Irish

Mandy

White Irish Traveller

Ethical Issues

Further details about each child (e.g. their age) and the area they lived in have been withheld to protect the children’s anonymity.

Informed consent was sought from the parents for the child participants. The children were given a child-friendly information sheet and they signed an assent form too. Before commencing the interviews, each child was given a disc, coloured red on one side and green on the other. If they were happy to take part, they turned the disc to green. If at any time they were not, they could turn the disc to red.

Method

An arts-based mosaic approach was used as it allowed children to express their views visually and orally, in a way that is appropriate to their age and level of understanding (Christensen & James, 2000; Lundy & McEvoy, 2011). Two children focus groups were held in the children’s school. The focus groups lasted for approximately forty minutes with four children in each group. Each child was asked to complete a concentric map (Figure 2) of the important people in their lives, placing themselves at the centre and then adding people who were important to them, with the most important people closest to them. Prompt questions were based on an adaption of the ‘Flower map of people who support children’ (Save the Children, 2008, p.26) as it complemented the work of Bronfenbrenner (1979). Examples of the children’s completed concentric maps are provided in the Findings section to illustrate how the children engaged with the method (Note: the maps include researchers’ notes and were coloured by the researchers at the time of analysis).

Findings

While traditional research has assumed that change occurs within the traditional parent-child family unit itself, this research identified influences at play through Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) levels. In this study, when asked to list the people who were important to them, the children’s networks comprised of people who cared for and were good to them. Within their immediate family, all the children identified at least one of their parents as being very important to them and placed them, in most cases closest to them. Many spoke about how their parents look after them. Jack said they, “help me with my homework… make all my food”, and they are “amazing”. For Farrah, when it comes to getting support, she says her father is “a bit tough” and she prefers asking for help from her mother: “I used to say I’d ask my dad for help but not, he just says, he’s a bit busy and I’d be calling him and he has his earphones in.”

Grandparents were a key feature for all the children’s support networks. Grandparents, in many cases, were positioned as being as important as their own parents, especially for the Traveller children. Cara said her grandfather, “gives you everything you want. He’s like my daddy”. For Jack and Lisa, they placed their grandparent(s) ahead of their own parents because, as Jack said, his grandmother “took care of me”, a sentiment echoed by Cian (Figure 4). He lives in a household of nine people. His grandmother is always in the home and “my nanny does everything”.

Beyond the wider family, school staff, such as teachers, Special Needs Assistants and Home School Community Liaison (HSCL) Coordinators, were listed by many of the children as important to them. Mandy felt comfortable turning to her teacher for help as she sees her as a calm person. However, a noticeable absence from the children’s social networks were friends. When listed, they only named friends from their class. No neighbourhood friends were identified. However, for the Traveller children, their cousins who lived in the same halting site appeared to take on the role of friends. For many of the children, particularly those facing adversity, their pet dog or cat featured predominately and in three cases were in the first circle, closest to the child. Cian sees his dog as a “guard dog”. Living in overcrowded conditions with high levels of tension, the importance of the dog to Cian appears to be reflective of the difficulties he has at home with his cousin and uncle who also live in the same house. Martin, a Traveller child with a chronic health condition, placed his dog in the same circle as his parents and two siblings. When he had no-one else around him to play, the dog was, “all I would ever play with”.

Conclusion

The findings of this research, supported by the application of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological systems theory, challenge the often-held preconception that marginalised communities are ‘failing’ in their parenting skills and how they are raising their families (Gillies, 2009; Katz et al., 2007). Reflecting influences primarily at the microsystem and mesosystem levels, all the children had a network of parents, grandparents, extended family, school staff, school friends and pets that they were able to draw on for support. They had positive relationships with either one or both parents, which they negotiated in individualised, dynamic and open-ended ways, reflective of their own experience. This was particularly evident for the children who perceived their fathers in a more passive role. In these cases, children were more likely to approach their mother for support, rather than their father. A key community strength identified is the role grandparents play in supporting their family. Grandparents are viewed as essential caregivers and a constant support in many of these children’s lives. It becomes clear that the traditional assumption of the family unit within this community extends beyond parent(s) and child to include grandparents. Grandparents appeared to play a similar role to parents in many cases, carrying out day-to-day parenting of their grandchildren, sometimes in the place of the child’s father.

This research highlights the importance of the inclusion of children’s voices from marginalised communities in informing service delivery of parenting supports within those communities. Parenting programmes largely focus on the parent-child relationship, often treating both parents as one unit. However, the findings here suggest that children may not view their parents in this way, but instead clearly differentiate the relationship they have with their parents. Furthermore, the findings contest the little consideration given to others present in the family unit, namely grandparents.

The insights from this research provoke the question: How often are children involved in the planning process when parenting programmes are being rolled out? A key recommendation of this research, therefore, is to speak to children about their family before any intervention is designed and implemented. By including them at the start of the process, a more appropriate parenting programme could then be developed that reflects a better understanding of the realities for each family. This could include a greater focus on, for example, grandparents’ role in their family and on building on the relationships children have with one or both parents.

Furthermore, children clearly articulated the supportive role of school in their lives. Therefore, when developing and offering parenting supports in DEIS schools, particularly through the HSCL scheme, and to minimise schools imposing their standards of judgement on families, a key recommendation of this study would be for school staff to work with the children of the parents prior to the commencement of any parenting intervention. In doing so, school staff can ensure that children’s voices are included and privileged and that the realities of their family lives are understood in any intervention that will directly impact on their lives. By applying such a bottom-up approach, this also challenges the assumption that families must conform to the ‘standards of judgement’ often imposed by policy makers (James et al., 1998). Rather than thinking about how families should be, this approach would instead require parenting programmes being tailored to more specifically meet the needs of people they are aimed at and empower them to make decisions in keeping with their own realities. In this way and by making children policy makers, especially the ‘seldom heard’, parenting supports in marginalised communities can more truly reflect and respond to the strengths and needs of the families.

This research found that children seldom, if at all, included neighbourhood friends. This is a worrying finding as it may suggest social isolation. The author recommends that communities develop and expand on opportunities to bring children together through, for example, after-schools clubs. In deciding on what activities should be developed for children and families, it is again imperative that their voices are privileged and given weight as credible stakeholders in their community. Finally, an unexpected finding was the important role family pets had in their lives. For children who were facing adversity, the presence of a pet was significantly more important to them than to other children. In the absence of others, including protective figures, it appears a pet can help mitigate against isolation and help to reduce stress caused by exposure to tense living conditions (Mc Connell., 2011; Wagner, 2011). Therefore, it would be recommended to explore with families how best pet ownership can be supported and expanded within the family or indeed the community, through for example, an after-school activity or access to pet-care facilities.