The longest apprenticeship EVER!

Parents learn on the job.

Traditionally apprentices learn on the job too as they build the skills necessary for their chosen field of work. After a period of learning practice – which can take several years – those who meet the required standards of competence are awarded a ‘License to Practise’. Apprenticeships are about the passing on of knowledge from ‘master’ to ‘novice’. In the Middle Ages, it was common for apprenticeships to involve more than training on the job, but to include board and lodging in the ‘Master’s’ house, with perhaps a daily dose of ‘moral guidance’ too. A full training for a full life’s work…

For Parenthood, however, and its active cousin, Parenting, there is no such training scheme, no on-the-job guidance for this complex task which, when taken on, requires no license to practise. Yet operatives are required to be knowledgeable, competent, and highly adaptable and, at a stroke, acquire the skills and knowledge to cope with an irate toddler/ a challenging teenage son, or a depressed daughter, in her thirties. At every stage and in every circumstance, parenthood is very much a role of the ‘suck it and see’ variety – in short, parenting is about muddling through. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it horribly wrong. This is because, as parents, we remain permanently in ‘apprentice’ mode – out there in the storm/up against the odds, but mostly without the shelter and certainty of guidance and support. Maternal instinct may be strong, but parenting skills are rarely in-born – thus it is down to a combination of time and commitment, effort, and love for our children that sees us through.

But an often-times sense of a Mum or Dad being at a loss what to do is not the case for parents everywhere and in all circumstances. In some cultures the first grandchild actually will be raised by the Grandmother. In late modern western society, however, such ‘Grannie Gurus’ are unlikely to be accepted, nor, in most cases, available to take on the role. And a mothering apprenticeship perhaps hardly squares with the individualistic ‘my way’ mind-set of a 21st century new mother in late modern western society – not least one who has achieved considerable success in the work place and now, perhaps approaching middle age, becomes a proud mum of her first child.

However, is the case that the grandmother’s menopause, bringing as it does an end to their own child-bearing years, is often complete by the time the grandchildren are beginning to come on the scene. Evolutionary Biologists would describe this phenomenon as Nature’s way of freeing up ‘Grannie’ from child-bearing so she can assist with caring for the next but one generation.  However, a ‘shared parenting’ model, whilst perhaps wished for and achieved by a growing number of over-burdened working parents – as long as Grannie is not too determined to do it ‘her way’-  Grandparent care is often not logistically possible.

Unusually, in the animal kingdom, it is the Killer Whales, or Orcas, who, in common with their human counterparts, experience a menopause, freeing them up for the younger generation. Once this evolutionary phenomenon has happened, these matriarchs take on the role of leading the pod. This often proves crucial in ensuring the cohesion and survival of the family group. But in present time human society, it is hardly ever Grannie who ‘leads the pod’. Thus, parents, most commonly mothers, have to learn to cope alone ‘on the job’ with day to day parenting tasks and decision-making. If the parents work and if Grannie is not around to provide substitute care, then this critical task will be left to ‘professional’ others.

To summarise – parents in western society today get little or no preparation and perhaps little recognition for a complex life-long task. Unlike the thorough models of ‘work on the job’ apprenticeships of days gone by, there is no watchful guidance and support. Nowadays, there is no wherewithal in terms of financial support from the state either to allow parents the choice to commit to parenting themselves so they can to ‘learn on the job’ – if that would be their wish. It is perhaps strange that current fiscal policy allows the state to pay a substantial proportion of childcare – but not if provided by parents themselves, many of whom would value the chance…

It is generally the case that an absentee apprentice in any trade or profession will not make the grade in terms of depth and breadth of learning and skills. This could well turn out to be the case with ‘absent’ parents too.  In this regard, journalist, Sarah Vine (The Times 22.7.15) recognises a new phenomenon termed ‘arrested parental development’. This circumstance can happen for parents who simply do not have the time, space and opportunity to build their parenting skills and confidence. Absent too might be a critical skills factor as their children move into adolescence – ‘role authority’. At the same time, the United States Institute of Child Health and Human Development cites substantive research evidence which strongly suggests that it is the phenomenon of ‘parenting quality’ that far outweighs genes, economic factors and schooling as a predictor of a child’s future.

Recognition by Government, society, and parents themselves that being a parent is the longest and hardest apprenticeship EVER, is now urgent. For the role to be truly successful and life-enhancing for all concerned, it requires very much more resource, recognition and support than is currently on offer.

Dr Carole Ulanowsky (February, 2017)