By Ania Filus
Programs to strengthen parenting skills aim to improve children’s wellbeing. Here we look at results from Sweden showing what motivates parents to participate in these programs.
Over the last few decades a significant body of research has shown that low quality parenting can have long-lasting negative effects on children’s wellbeing (see for example here and here). In response to this, governments around the world have invested in initiatives that resulted in unprecedented parental access to evidence-based parenting programs.
Parent training programs are courses to help participants develop knowledge and practical parenting skills as well as confidence in being an effective parent. They focus on non-coercive disciplining strategies to manage misbehavior (setting the rules, giving clear instructions, following up with age-appropriate consequence if rules are broken and being consistent), adopting age-appropriate expectations of child’s actions, managing parental stress and the importance of rewarding good behavior and spending quality time with children. Evidence indicates that these programs are effective in promoting positive changes in parents (decrease in parental stress, increase in parent self-confidence and improved family relationships) and children (decrease in emotional and behavioral problems, better social and cognitive development, and reduction in juvenile delinquency) (e.g. here, here and here).
However, the programs’ utility is tempered by low attendance rates. Attendance is especially low among fathers, although research shows that fathers’ participation in parenting programs is associated with better outcomes for children and may help to maintain long-term treatment gains.
So what are the factors that affect mothers’ and fathers’ decision to participate in these programs? We actually know little about what motivates parents to enroll in parenting interventions, and about the differences between mothers and fathers in this matter. In a recent paper, my colleague Raziye Salari and I present findings that show how consumer engagement can improve parent attendance rates. We examined the factors that affect parents’ intention to enroll in parenting programs in Sweden, a country where during the first year of a child’s life, the government offers parental support to all parents, often in the form of parental groups with the primary aim of providing parents with a place to connect and establish a network. Parenting support for parents of older children in Sweden depends on local policies and competencies and varies greatly. Even though these programs are available to all parents, attendance rates are low. In an earlier study conducted in Sweden, my co-author, Raziye Salari and colleagues found that over a six-month period, only 12% of fathers and 23% of mothers attended a brief parenting program offered as part of a research project to all parents of preschoolers in Sweden.
In the current study we collected information from over 500 Swedish mothers and fathers of children ages 5-10 years old to help determine what factors are related to parent’s intention to enroll in parenting programs. We found similarities and differences in mothers’ and fathers’ motivations when making their decision to participate. This is very interesting, given that Sweden is considered one of the most gender-egalitarian countries in the world. Our study showed that for both parents, the perceived benefits of program participation was the strongest predictor of parental intention to attend. In addition, both mothers and fathers who reported higher levels of behavioral difficulties in their children were more likely to show an interest in parenting programs because they perceived them as highly beneficial for their child. However, fewer perceived barriers to attend a parenting program (such as lack of time, transportation, lack of support from other family members or being ashamed of seeking parental support) predicted higher intention to participate for mothers only, while higher perceived self-efficacy (belief that one can effectively change one’s own behavior) predicted higher intention to participate for fathers only.
Although our findings were based on Swedish data, they are very relevant for other Western countries. In the United States enrollment rates for parental programs tend to be low (13-25% – see here). Why are enrollment rates so low? One possible explanation is lack of parents’ awareness of parenting programs and of their benefits. The other may be lack of fit between what parents need and are willing to do and what the parenting programs offer. Our findings suggest ways in which consumer input can be helpful in informing parent engagement strategies. Focusing on the benefits of parenting programs will be useful in attracting both genders. For mothers, marketing strategies should also focus on increasing the social acceptability of parenting interventions whereas for fathers the marketing materials should emphasize that parenting strategies taught by a specific program are easy to learn and apply. Our findings also provide some guidance for the design of parenting programs. To attract parents the programs should be offered at flexible times, convenient locations and be short (online parenting intervention could be effective). To specifically attract fathers they should focus on easy to implement strategies, to boost fathers’ belief that they can make positive changes in their own and their children’s behaviors.