Decolonising Parenting: So much more to do

By Sarah Glew, Lecturer & Clinical Psychologist

As part of the team’s thinking about decolonising our curriculum, my attention turned to a new teaching session I was developing and delivering with a colleague. The focus of the lecture was around parenting and the many guises within which we may work with parents as Clinical Psychologists. I thought particularly about this lecture because I was aware of the important contribution of culture, race and community to parenting practices. However, I was also aware that parenting has been an area in which there has been a tendency for single narrow narratives to be treated as ‘best practice’, and that these narratives tended to reflect power hierarchies within UK research, social work and health provision rather than the complex realities of families and communities. In other words, while the ideal of ‘parenting’ has been heavily colonialised, the experience and reality of ‘being a parent’ in the UK and worldwide will reflect diversity in all its forms.

My broad plan for this lecture was to meet two key aims: firstly, to follow recommendations by ensuring that thinking about diversity, ethnicity and culture was embedded across the lecture, rather than presented in a compartmentalised way or as an ‘add-on’ (Cullen et al., 2020; Prajapati et al., 2019); and secondly, to broaden out our thinking to the social and political context, considering the basis and origins of received wisdom and research and considering the philosophies underpinning clinical approaches (Cullen et al., 2020).

To meet these aims I planned several activities and approaches. I tried to move away from a tokenistic one-slide-on-diversity approach by planning to open the session with a ‘location of self’ exercise, inviting trainees to consider their own Social GRACES (Burnham, 2018) and backgrounds in relation to parenting and also by embedding cross-cultural research throughout the lecture. I encouraged trainees to include culture, ethnicity and socioeconomic status in their formulations by holding an explicit systems and social-ecological stance to making sense of parenting. I tried to challenge colonialised knowledge by actively seeking out research from non-White origins, particularly where a different point of view was put across (in this case, challenging the generally accepted notion that an ‘authoritative’ style of parenting produces the best child outcomes cross-culturally; Garcia & Gracia, 2013) or where it related to contentious issues where marginalised voices were most likely to be silenced (Okpokiri 2021). Okpokiri’s paper was transformational in my thinking; exploring through the words of interviewees how the structural forces of race, power and culture impact parenting practices in Nigerian parents in the UK, and how uncritical social work and safeguarding practices are likely to reinforce the disempowerment of parents, maintaining stuck patterns and decreasing family wellbeing. I was so glad I looked a little longer to find that paper, which may not have come to the top of my searches; I so hope some of the trainees read it themselves and were not just relying on my fleeting reference as we raced through the content that morning. Finally, I included a narrative around the EPEC parenting intervention (Empowering Parents, Empowering Communities), a peer-led, community-embedded parenting programme, through which I hope I somewhat challenged the idea of ‘hard-to-reach groups’, instead arguing for creativity and community working as clinicians (Prajapati et al., 2019).

Some trainee feedback reflected my well-intentioned attempts; several felt that difference and diversity was well attended to and embedded throughout. But I know I didn’t go far enough. On revisiting the plan I’d set out, I realised how many of my intentions I’d not lived up to along the way. The session was intensely time-limited, and I realised I skipped over or sped up many of the most crucial elements making up this agenda. While I may have encouraged trainees to think more contextually or a little differently, their feedback highlighted that we didn’t spend enough time thinking about the implications of this for practice. Trainees wanted to know more about how they could practice cross-culturally. I wonder if my inaction in this area was reminiscent of a ‘colour blind’ approach (Prajapati et al., 2019), where, although I was encouraging thought, observation and reflection on differences, I was sticking to a standard line around treatment which is rooted in colonialised knowledge, neoliberal individualistic conceptualisation of distress and White research.

I hope not. Because parenting is an area with huge potential power to challenge and change. When I work clinically with parents of children with additional needs, I sometimes challenge what they have been told about conventional parenting. I encourage collaboration, negotiation and flat hierarchies between parent and child. Yes, because this helps children feel more in control when the demands of others have the potential to create overwhelming anxiety; but also because this kind of parenting is a vehicle for challenging oppression, blind obedience and children raised to follow the status quo. The parenting ideas me and a colleague wrote about (Glew & Marsden, 2021) reject the classic behaviourist models we’ve held dear for so long, and link instead to Psychologists for Social Change’s manifesto (PSC, 2019) prioritising agency, security, connection, meaning and trust. This parallel between how we parent, and how we might conceptualise a psychologically healthy society is pertinent; because it’s all part of the same thing. The way we practice as clinicians, the way we respond to distress, the way we parent our children and the way I teach these areas to new trainees all have huge potential to help acknowledge and hold the distress from historical oppression, challenge ongoing colonialism and facilitate new ways of being in new generations.

That’s a whole lot of pressure for next year’s lecture. I am so keen to rise to that challenge, but I felt uncomfortable even writing this article, sharing some kind of supposed success as one, White, middle-class, educated, childless woman. Who am I to be the one propagating knowledge here? If I learnt one thing in my reading, conversations and reflections so far, though, it’s that this sort of change can’t happen if acting alone or without humility. So next year, I’ll hope to capture more voices, engage more communities and try to empower the trainees to use each other, and to help me, in moving this little part, of this great big field, forward.

Burnham, J. (2018). Developments in Social GRRRAAACCEEESSS: visible–invisible and voiced–unvoiced 1. In Culture and reflexivity in systemic psychotherapy (pp. 139-160). Routledge.

Cullen, K., Rhodes, P., Brockman, R., Hunt, C., & Langtiw, C. L. (2020). Decolonising clinical psychology: National and international perspectives. Clinical Psychologist24(3), 211-222.

García, F., & Gracia, E. (2014). The indulgent parenting style and developmental outcomes in South European and Latin American countries. Parenting across cultures, 419-433.

Glew, S., Marsden A. (2021) Pathological Demand Avoidance. Originally published in British Psychological Society, Division of Clinical Psychology, Faculty for Children, Young People & their Families Newsletter, August 2021.

Okpokiri, C. (2021). Parenting in fear: Child welfare micro strategies of Nigerian parents in Britain. The British Journal of Social Work, 51(2), 427-444.

Prajapati, R., Kadir, S., & King, S. (2019, November). Dealing with racism within clinical psychology training: Reflections of three BAME trainee clinical psychologists. In Clinical Psychology Forum (Vol. 323, pp. 20-24).

Sahithya, B. R., Manohari, S. M., & Vijaya, R. (2019). Parenting styles and its impact on children–a cross cultural review with a focus on India. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 22(4), 357-383.