15 March 2019

Perceptions of parenting: Mapping the gaps between expert and public understandings of effective parenting in Australia

This research examined the differences between expert and public understanding of effective parenting. Public perceptions involved a range of implicit understandings and assumptions. First, raising  a happy child is assumed to be the goal of parenting, and the happiness of the parent is assumed to be a vital means of achieving good parenting, as happy, ‘normal’ people are thought to have a natural capacity to care for children.  Second, the  public equate good parenting with ‘just caring about your child’, and assume that this naturally and automatically flows from being a normal and moral individual. Parenting is not thought to require intentional or conscious effort, but rather happens ‘naturally’ and unconsciously. Third, beyond simple ‘caring’, the public have two competing ways of understanding what good parenting looks like. One way of understanding parenting focuses on the provision of opportunities for learning and growth, while the other on threats to the child. The former understands the parent’s role to involve filtering experiences from the child’s environment, while the second views parenting as walling off, or protecting children from threats. The remaining perceptions involved: determinism, that people parent as they were parented; social context contains sources of stress and support; parenting today is both harder, and generally worse in quality than in the past, due to fundamental changes to society; parenting is a one-way activity, as something that parents do and children receive; men are important but women are responsible; focuses on examples involving older children, largely ignoring infants and younger children; and when thinking about the government’s role in parenting, the public alternately conceive of government as a supervisor trying to impose particular behaviours and practices; as an incompetent instructor who tries to, but cannot educate people about how to parent; or as a resource and partner that parents can engage with for support as they work on parenting challenges.