Maternal instinct is not enough

Parenting can be fun, but it also serves up its fair share of challenges Keystone Archive

Parental education is booming in Switzerland, with over a thousand different groups offering courses across the country.

This content was published on January 4, 2003 - 11:16

Last year alone, it is estimated that more than 50,000 parents attended courses ranging from baby massage and dealing with the "terrible twos" to coping with a rebellious teenager.

Despite its popularity, parent education in Switzerland remains firmly in the voluntary sector. There is no government department for family matters, and almost no public funding for courses.

Kathie Wiederkehr, who is head of the association for parent education in canton Zurich, would like to see much more support for parent training classes.

"Being a parent is something very special," she told swissinfo. "But quite often parents find themselves in difficult situations, where they are not quite sure how to react. And following instinct isn't always the right approach."

First years of life are crucial

Child development experts are agreed that what happens during the first seven years of a child's life is crucial for their further development.

But traditionally the life of the family has been seen as a private matter, in which the state should not interfere.

Although Switzerland has a long tradition of parent education - mother schools were established on a wide scale at the start of the 20th century - it has primarily been targeted at health education, aimed at lowering the infant mortality rate.

Nowadays many parents are interested in learning more about how to ensure the emotional and psychological well-being of their children, and how to achieve a happy family life.

"In the past, mothers just didn't have time for this sort of thing," explained Wiederkehr. "They often had four or five children [and] they had no modern appliances - they had to wash everything by hand, for example.

"But now mothers are often at home with only one child, in a house that almost runs itself, and they spend a lot of time thinking about how to raise the child - sometimes too much time!"

Valuable shared experience

Magie Schäubli, who teaches the class for mothers of boys, explains that many of the women she meets admit that they have difficulty understanding their sons.

"They say they just don't know why their boys behave the way they do," she said. "Why are boys so wild for example? And then they wonder whether it's just because they are boys, or whether they as mothers are doing something wrong."

"Coming to a course like this at least helps them realise they are not alone," she continued. "They can share experiences and swap ideas; you can't get that from a childcare book."

Among the mothers attending the class, there was a consensus that coming to a parent education course should not be seen as an admission of failure.

Mother-of-three Emily said that although she did often trust her maternal instincts, she also felt she could use the extra support provided by a course.

"Instinct is fine," she said. "But that doesn't mean your children don't make you very angry sometimes. And you don't always understand why they do what they do."

"I'm here because I want to understand my children better and help them grow into good people."

Preaching to the converted

One problem confronting Swiss parent educators at the moment is how to attract a wider cross section of society, and above all how to involve fathers more.

"I have heard it said that our courses are taken by the very people who need them least," said Kathie Wiederkehr. "I wouldn't go that far, but I agree we do need to bring in more people."

The Zurich centre is now offering courses for fathers and daughters, for example, and a surprising success has been a course, held in the workplace, called "fathers, torn between career and family".

"At first the men were all very suspicious of this course," said Wiederkehr. "But it proved very popular, so much so that the next one we are running is completely booked out."

Meanwhile some parent educators are so convinced of the importance of their work, that they believe courses should be compulsory for all mothers and fathers.

"I wouldn't go that far," said Wiederkehr. "There's a lot we could do before making it compulsory, with advertising campaigns and so on."

"But," she added firmly, "for that we need federal funding."

Magie Schäubli agrees that there should be more government commitment to supporting parents.

"Why not, at the birth of a child, give all new parents vouchers for parenting classes," she suggested. "After all, being a parent is one of the most important jobs in our society."

"And children are the future of our society," added Wiederkehr. "So investing in children and parents is one of the best investments we can make."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

Over 50,000 Swiss parents, mainly mothers, regularly take courses in parent education.
Switzerland is the only country in Europe to have an official qualification in teaching parent education.
Parent education is still mainly voluntary, with little public funding and no federal department for family affairs.
The most popular course attended by Swiss parents is on how to cope with adolescent children.

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