Thursday, 29 September 2011

Is parenting really about control?

The day before the new school year started I spent a day with one of our Families Plus workers visiting families in their homes.

Our first stop was to go with a Mam and her 6 year old son to buy a new sweat shirt for school. We walked from their flat across several busy streets and up the hill to school. The lad, let's call him John, was full of energy, excited to be out, he wanted to run and his Mam had to keep warning him to watch out for traffic and be careful crossing the roads. When we got to school he rushed into reception heading for the toilet, the receptionist called out, you can't go through "because of insurance" as if a 6 year odl would know what that meant. He was busting so she let him into school explaining she had to accompany him because if he hurt himself the school would be to blame.

It took a little time to buy and pay for the sweat shirt (from a grant Children North East had obtained), in the meantime John wanted to run into the playground and play on the climbing frame. The receptionist told him he was not allowed "because of health and safety". She explained he might fall, hurt himself and then the school would be to blame. She said it was OK during term time when there were lots of people about but she could not take the risk in the school holiday. John's Mam meekly complied with the school rules too.

We visited two other families that day. In each home I was struck by how anxious the parents were to ensure their children and young people were 'under control' - that they were well behaved and not causing any trouble to anyone. Of course setting and maintaining boundaries is part of good parenting, children need to know right from wrong, but my colleague told me it was quite usual for parents to be constantly fussing as if the mark of a good parent was how well you controlled your children.

John told us the highlight of the whole 6 week holiday was going to a football match (again organised by Children North East) with his Dad - he had never been to a match before and it was really exciting. Apart from a couple of trips swimming with his Mam and one to the cinema he had spent most of the 6 week holiday indoors, safe from the streets and the traffic.

After so long indoors would it really have been so bad for John to run about and climb in an empty school playground? Wouldn't we have enjoyed watching him exploring the world and yes, maybe he might fall over? And even if he did isn't it more likely his Mam would have picked him up and comforted him than sue the school? And wouldn't she have felt better to allow him to do all that too?

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Homelessness and the Great North Run

The Cyrenians is a North East charity working with homeless people. This week they published research commissioned from Northumbria University about how adults become homeless. They trained homeless people to interview 82 other homeless people about their experiences.

It seems there are two distinct routes into homelessness, 'lifelong' and a 'life events' pathways. The former pathway is about disadvantage all through life - 24% had difficulties reading and writing at school; 24% were bullied at school; 25% had been in care as children or adolescents. Parental addictions, domestic violence and traumatic experiences in childhood, especially ones involving violence all figure heavily in the recollections of these homeless adults.

The 'life events' pathway is more about adults who have good childhood experiences but run into crises as adults. For example 80% had had their own home at some point; 70% had experienced financial problems such as being unable to pay bills; 65% had been in a long term relationship and 50% had children. However the majority had a problem with drugs and half a problem with alcohol. The common story was of alcohol or drug misuse triggered by financial difficulties ending with loss of job, relationship and home.

Most of us have several social networks for example family, friends, work colleagues, social contacts e.g. sports club or team, former friends (e.g. people we knew at school and keep in touch with) who would help us if we needed help. Typically homeless adults have lost all their social networks, they are entirely alone. Perhaps none more so than young people leaving care who frequently have no network at all.

So more reaons why Children North East support for children, young people and families is necessary to improve childhood experiences, prevent family breakdown and contrbute to preventing homelessness.

Great North Run

Huge thanks to the 40 runners who raised money for Children North East by running the Great North Run last Sunday. We welcomed finishers with cups of tea, chocolate bars and heartfelt congratulations. Every year I am overwhelmed by anyone's ability to run 13 miles - some looked as though they had just had a brisk walk to post a letter, though others were clearly suffering. I am personally grateful to every single one of you.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Dad's are biologically programmed to care

There was news this week of a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences who followed 624 young men before and after they became fathers. The study found that as soon as a man bcame a father, his testosterone levels dropped substantially. Men with newborn babies less than a month old had especially reduced levels of testosterone. Larger falls were also seen in men who were more involved in childcare.

Christopher Kuzawa, lead investigator of the work, which was carried out in the Philippines said: "Raising human offspring is such an effort that it is co-operative by necessity, and our study shows that human fathers are biologically wired to help with the job."

"Fatherhood and the demands of having a newborn baby require many emotional, psychological and physical adjustments. Our study indicates that a man's biology can change substantially to help meet those demands."

The researchers think that lower testosterone levels might also protect against certain chronic diseases, which might help explain why married men and fathers often enjoy better health than single men of the same age.

Testosterone is the hormone which makes men go out and find a mate, often competing to do so.Professor Ashley Grossman, spokesman for the Society for Endocrinology, said: "this shows the hormonal and behavioural trade-off between mating and parenting, one requiring a high and the other a low testosterone level."

Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, said: "The observations could make some evolutionary sense if we accept the idea that men with lower testosterone levels are more likely to be monogamous with their partner and care for children. However, it would be important to check that link between testosterone levels and behaviour before we could be certain."

Children North East publishes a series of guides for Dads for sale from our Father's Plus website, look out for the latest one about Dads and Midwives.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

To work or not to work?

This week the Daycare Trust and Save the Children reported the high cost of childcare especially for poorer families. We can all agree that the route out of poverty is jobs but poorer families are finding it is no longer worth their while staying in work because the cost of childcare can swallow up between a quarter to one half of all their income. And things will get even worse in 2013 when government reimbursement for childcare costs falls from 80% to 70%.

Also National Energy Action published data on fuel poverty this week. A household is deemed to be in fuel poverty if they spend more than 10% of their income on gas and electricity. In 2007 13.2% of all English households were in fuel poverty, that has now risen to 23%. But things are far worse in the North East. Here 18.6% of households were in fuel poverty in 2007, now the figure is 33% - that's one in three households.

According to Save the Children 1.6 million children in the UK are living in severe poverty, that is families whose income is less than £12,000 a year. The reality of life for those families is they may not be able to afford a hot meal every evening, or to heat their home adequately all the time and children may have to go without a warm coat in the winter. 40% of parents in this group are thinking about giving up work. Faced with rising childcare as well as rising food prices and energy costs, they reckon they would be better off living on benefits.

That is not what the Coalition Government wants to hear. Their welfare policy is to put pressure on everyone to be in work and they still have a target inherited from New Labour to end child poverty by 2020. People could find themselves compelled to work but for less and less return. Is that really what we want?

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Why services provided by volunteers are not free

Recently I spent a couple of days out and about with our Youth Link Coordinators. I wanted to know first hand about their day to day work with volunteers and young people. I accompanied them to 'Team Around the Child' meetings of professionals involved with a young person and their parents; visits to young people with their parents to set up work with one of our volunteers and a meeting with a young person and their parents to review the time the volunteer had spent with them.

Children North East has three 'Youth Link' projects in Sedgefield, Tynedale and Blyth. The projects recruit and train young people as volunteers to mentor and befriend other young people in need who are generally referred by statutory services (schools, mental health, children's services etc.).

The Youth Link Coordinator visits young people who have been referred to explain what Youth Link is and discuss the things they would like help with from a volunteer. This meeting will usually be with the parents who must give consent to having a volunteer working with their daughter or son. Then the Coordinator 'matches' the young person to a volunteer taking account of interests, abilities and availability. Matching also means explaining the young person's needs to the volunteer and getting their agreement to the 'match'.

Next the Youth Link Coordinator, volunteer, young person and their parent(s) meet to introduce each other and agree how the work will take place - goals, meeting times and places, transport etc. Only then does the volunteer start to work with the young person.

Volunteers give a few hours a week so can only realistically work with one young person at a time. They also have a meeting with the Youth Link Coordinator about once a month to discuss how the work is going and draw on the Coordinator's knowledge, experience and insight to help the process along.

Sometimes other people are also involved with the young person or their family at the same time as the volunteer. When that happens those people will usually meet regularly in 'Team Around the Child' or 'Team Around the Family' meetings to coodinate what each is doing. The Youth Link Coordinators attend these meetings (which happen during normal office hours) on behalf of the volunteer (who usually is at work or college).

Youth Link Coordinators review the work between the young person and volunteer every few months and also at the end of the work. This is done to make sure progress is being made towards the goals the young person wants to achieve and that all involved are satisfied with the arrangements. The volunteer can learn from these reviews to discuss in private later with the Youth Link Coordinator, for example what sorts of young people they enjoy working with and what extra training would help them.

Currently there are 96 young people who are volunteers in our Youth Link projects. This is just a flavour of what the Youth Link Coordinator's do to ensure that the service the volunteers provide is effective and a beneficial experience for the young people, parents and volunteers. The Coordinators also recruit and train volunteers to an accredited standard and promote the service to potential referers. Each is a qualified youth worker and all are employed full-time.