Do all families need parenting classes? The UK embarks on an experiment.

Prime Minister David Cameron will announce a new initiative to fund parenting classes and relationship counseling, in an effort to make parent education the 'new normal' for all.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/ File
Parents of young children attend The Parenting Circle in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in this April 2014 file photo. The Parenting Circle is an 8 week education workshop for low-income families.

Parenting classes ought to be "as normal and pleasant as going to a cookery or line-dancing class," David Cameron's spokesman told British parents in 2012, trying to drum up enthusiasm for a voucher program to help low-income families. 

They weren't convinced: Fewer than 3,000 parents took advantage of the more than $7-million program, which provided $145 for up to 10 two-hour sessions. 

But the Prime Minister is determined to make government-sponsored parenting classes a cornerstone of his anti-poverty efforts, and will announce a new plan for widespread parent education and relationship counseling services on Monday, reiterating his "compassionate conservative" commitment to building strong families as an antidote to poverty.

The new scheme will incentivize lower- and middle-class parents to enroll in parenting courses. The government will also dedicate more than $100 million to training relationship counselors and providing support to 300,000 couples. 

"Families are the best anti-poverty measure ever invented. They are a welfare, education and counselling system all wrapped up into one," Mr. Cameron plans to say, according to the Guardian, referencing research that says children in married, two-parent households often fare better by measures such as education, income, and avoiding teen pregnancy. 

Those correlations have fueled intense support, and scrutiny, on both sides of the pond. Fellow "compassionate conservative" George W. Bush was both praised and criticized for the Healthy Marriage Initiative, founded in 2003 to help low-income couples strengthen their relationships.

While many applauded programs to build communication skills, and foster stable homes, others alleged that a focus on marriage itself was misplaced, particularly for women in unhealthy relationships. Some surmised that the program was meant to bolster the then-President's credentials as a defender of '"traditional" marriage soon before Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

In both countries, many parents and experts have bristled at the implication that poorer families need assistance with their marriages and child-rearing, or that their problems can be fixed by classes: focusing on their skills and values, rather than economic and educational opportunity for them and their children.  

When Downing Street rolled out its first vouchers for parenting classes in four poor areas, in 2012, Katherine Rake, who was then the director of the Family and Parenting Insitute, a UK charity, told the Guardian that she thought a parenting focus was misplaced.

"You can give someone good driving classes, but if you send them out on an icy road they are going to find it very, very difficult. The road is very, very icy at the moment," Dr. Rake said, noting problems such as unemployment.

As many as 17 percent of children in the UK live in relative poverty, according to government figures from 2013-14. The poverty line is defined as 60 percent less than the median income: about $400 per week.

In the United States, researchers have found connections between marriage, income, and children's outcomes. Many say that the advantages of a stable two-parent household – ranging from the legal benefits of marriage, to reduced anxiety and regular routines – can positively impact children's emotional development and school performance. With two incomes, and two parents, families have more time and funds for extracurricular activities, and simply spending time together.

Among children in the poorest third of households, half of those with married parents will move up to the middle or highest third as adults, according to a report from the Pew Center. About 42 percent of those born to unmarried mothers will do the same, but only 26 percent of those with divorced parents.

But some researchers say marriage itself isn't providing those benefits, or making people better parents. Rather, it's that people who start off strong tend to get married, and stay married.

"It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged," Johns Hopkins University sociology professor Andrew Cherlin told The New York Times in 2012. In part, that's because college-educated Americans are marrying each other.

In the United States, 12 percent of births to women in their twenties with a college degree or higher were outside of marriage, versus 59 percent for women with a high school degree or less. That figure averaged 51 percent for white women, 85 percent for black women, and 59 percent for Hispanic women.

In the United Kingdom, many took offense at Cameron's suggestion that parents needed to be better "nation builders" when the free parenting courses began after riots in 2011. But the administration says that the newest courses, to be announced Monday, will avoid previous stigma and pitfalls by appealing to all parents, instead of focusing on low-income ones.

And apart from specific tips, parenting classes can benefit all parents by simply showing them they're not alone. "Having your first child can be enormously isolating," Cameron says, particularly today.

"The days when you grew up in big extended families, surrounded by aunties and uncles with children, so you absorbed what it was like to be a parent long before you became one, are no more," Professor John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, told the Telegraph last January. He advocates government-sponsored classes for new parents, particularly to combat health issues such as childhood obesity.  

"We all need more help with this – the most important job we’ll ever have. So I believe we now need to think about how to make it normal – even aspirational – to attend parenting classes," Cameron is expected to say Monday.

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