• The 'Oxygen Mask' Approach to Supporting Parents

    The ‘Oxygen Mask’ Approach to Supporting Parents

    Dr Jonathan Sher

    While probably not in your diary, the second of October 2017 is the fifth anniversary of the Scottish Government’s National Parenting Strategy.

    Other initiatives and events took precedence during this extraordinary period in Scotland’s history. But, when launched, the Strategy was not a trivial, ‘off the cuff’ public policy. After an extensive consultation process, the Scottish Government proposed dozens of actions under the rubric ‘Our commitment to Scotland’s parents’.


    A year later, NHS Health Scotland’s detailed Outcomes Framework supplemented this Strategy. It offered three ‘logic models’ to monitor, assess and report upon the National Parenting Strategy’s impact. Parents were also highlighted in the Child and Young People Act 2014, as well as in the official implementation guidance.


    So, what actually happened with those ‘commitments’ and desired outcomes? More important, what progress has Scotland made to better prepare and support all the mothers, fathers, carers and others having parental roles and responsibilities for our next generation?

    It is a safe bet that a great deal of excellent work has been accomplished by, for and with parents over these years. Both public bodies and Third Sector organisations have successes of which to be proud. Unfortunately, it is an equally sound wager that some promises have not been kept at all, while additional commitments have been inadequately fulfilled. Few enduring lessons from this Strategy (positive or negative) have been publicly reported or widely embedded in practice.


    Parents and parenting have not diminished in importance at the personal, professional, policy or political levels since 2012. For instance, the Scottish Government’s new plans for education governance and closing the attainment gap envisage a strong role for parents. But, it remains unclear what that will really mean for the great majority of parents – and how these hundreds of thousands of fathers, mothers and others will truly become ‘empowered’. As a parent/grandparent, as a researcher on parenting issues and as a long-time advisor to parent groups, I offer three recommendations.


    First, produce an unflinching, Plain English analysis of what did (and did not) happen as a result of Scotland’s National Planning Strategy. Now that five years have passed, the time has come to answer the ‘So what?’ and ‘Why?’ questions – instead of merely how much was spent and how many activities were undertaken by whom.


    What highlights could be built upon and encouraged? What failed because the idea was mistaken versus flawed implementation? To what extent will these answers and needed next steps be generated by a cross-section of concerned parents?

    Blaming is largely counterproductive. Seeking, learning and meaningfully applying the Strategy’s lessons is the prize.


    Second, understand and assist mothers and fathers (biological or de facto) as people first and then as parents. From recent work with Parent Network Scotland, I have a deepened appreciation for PNS’ ‘airplane oxygen mask’ approach. They help parents get the ‘oxygen’ they need themselves first, so they can better confront their own personal and circumstantial realities, as well as feel more competent and confident.


    It is unwise to expect parents to help resolve their sons and daughters’ Adverse Childhood Experiences until they have first acknowledged and started coming to grips with their own ACEs. It is unrealistic to assume parents will become cheerleaders for, and active participants in, their children’s schools before overcoming their own bad memories of, and unhappy relationships with, the education system.

    Parents are best able to help their children develop a sense of agency and self-confidence when they experience and can model these attributes themselves. More generally, it is disrespectful and ultimately unproductive to treat anyone (including parents) in ‘instrumental’ terms; i.e. as merely the means to an end – even when the end is as desirable as better childhoods.


    Third, the Scottish Government’s National Parenting Strategy was absolutely right in stating that ‘much more needs to be done’, particularly in relation to ‘preparing our children and young people for future parenthood’. An examination of the strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and tribulations encountered by this Strategy should pay special attention to the issue of developing and supporting the next generation of Scottish parents.

    At least 250,000 babies will be born in Scotland during the next five years. That will intimately involve at least 500,000 parents. Thus, properly preparing prospective parents, and strongly supporting current ones, is anything but a trivial concern about a marginal population.


    Understanding the story of Scotland’s National Parenting Strategy could become the foundation for future success. While awaiting that analysis, there is no harm in seeing and respecting fathers, mothers and others as people first, and then as parents. It’s time to deploy the oxygen masks!



    Dr Jonathan Sher is an Edinburgh-based, Independent Consultant specialising in primary prevention and preconception health, education and care.

    September 2017

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