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Mum's on a learning curve
By Francesca Price
The Times
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Yearning for peace and quiet at home? Ever considered signing up for a parenting course?

Parenting Courses"Why would you go on a parenting course?" my friends chorused when I told them I was signing up for a three-month stint. "Aren't they just for people who are about to have their kids taken into care?" Not any more. Parenting courses are a boom industry. Across the country on any weekday night you will find groups of professional, middle-class parents taking notes in the hope of discovering the keys to everlasting family happiness.

A number of different organisations offer courses. I opted for an American-sounding bunch called the New Learning Centre. The marketing bumf promised a calmer, easier, happier household. With a defiant three-year-old and her boisterous 22-month-old sister at home, I was hopeful.

In the first week I get a name badge and introduce myself to a group of well-dressed thirtysomethings. Everyone seems to be here for similar reasons: they're fed up with nagging, and pleading with their children. "I want to find solutions that don't involve sweets and TV," says one desperate-looking dad. Most of my classmates are in couples. I am alone, as my partner maintains that parenting courses are for people "who don't trust their instincts" . Luckily there's another mum who has been unable to drag her hubby along. "He's still recovering from antenatal classes," she confesses.

The ten-week course costs £360 a couple. There are no discounts for braving it alone. We get a green folder to keep our notes in and the weekly wisdom of Gillian Edwards. She is one of several teachers at the school, which was set up by the writer Noël Janis-Norton (Can't Smack? Won't Smack? Barrington Stoke, £12.99). Their approach is positive but practical. With her whiteboard at the ready, Edwards tells us that it's time to take control:

"We find that households are unhappy when it's the four-year-old running the show." She introduces us to the first of our new parenting skills; descriptive praise. It's not good enough just to say "Well done" or "Good boy", you have to describe what you are praising them for: "Well done for bringing your plate over to the sink." Edwards explains that "criticism is not an effective way to change behaviour; you create co-operation through praise".

I am keen to give this a whirl at home. "Thank you for helping Mummy and putting your coat on by yourself," I venture as my three-year-old walks into the room. She eyes me suspiciously, obviously making a mental note never to do that again. That night we have a tricky bedtime. She doesn't want to go to sleep and is making more and more demands. Once I've told her a story, switched the light on, switched it off, I stomp upstairs ready to give her a telling-off.

Then I remember Edwards's words and force a smile. "I think it's great the way you go to sleep on your own these days. Now snuggle down and I'll see you in the morning." I go back downstairs convinced it will never work. The peace and quiet continues all night.

The following week Edwards lets us in on another little trick: asking your kids questions. "If you want them to make their bed, ask them the night before what they have to do in the morning. When they provide the answer, you can praise them." I put this into practice the next day when my daughter climbs on to the table during dinner. "Is it a good idea to stand on the table at mealtimes?" I ask calmly. "No," she says. "What do you do when you eat your dinner?" "You sit down," she says, preparing to do so. "That's right," I say, sounding like a Stepford wife. "And well done for giving me the right answer." "It's like living in a bloody cult," my partner grumbles.

At each session, the class share their parenting dilemmas and seek advice from Edwards and each other. I find myself telling the man next to me about my daughter's daily clothing crisis. "She says she has nothing to wear; if I offer her a skirt, she wants trousers, and so on." Despite the City suit and palmtop, he appears sympathetic. "Why don't you try offering her special mummy time if she gets dressed quickly?" he suggests. The next day I give it a go. "If you get dressed all by yourself this morning, we will have time for a story before nursery," I venture. Five minutes later, she appears in a truly disgusting outfit, with The Mousehole Cat tucked under one arm. I praise her eclectic taste and we cuddle up on the sofa to race through the longest book ever written for the under-fives.

I am starting to see the benefits of my new skills but I'm surprised by how much hard work it is. "If you put the time in now, you save time later," Edwards says. Disillusioned with student life, I miss the next class and get the notes in the post. Ironically, there's a whole section on being positive.

"If we manage to stay calm and positive we are demonstrating the qualities we want them to develop: self-control, maturity, being considerate and thinking about solutions rather than just complaining." I spend the day being positive and am amazed at how difficult it is. I realise that three-and-a-half years of urban motherhood has turned me into an embattled old misery-guts.

With a night out looming, I decide to wash my hair with the kids around. I know from experience that it's just the time you decide to slide into the lavender-scented water that your older daughter pushes the younger one down the stairs. Remaining positive, I suggest that they get in with me. The girls love this idea and we spend the next half-hour washing each other's hair. I'm amazed at how a simple shift in attitude can change a day.

Back in class, we move on to sibling rivalry. "Children will always squabble," says Edwards. "It's a way of gaining their parents' attention. The best thing you can do is spend quality time with each child every day." After several attempts to pass off cooking and cleaning as quality times with my bored three-year-old, I take her for a "babycino" (a cup of milky froth) while the younger one sleeps in the car outside the café. This might raise a few eyebrows with the social services, but my daughter loves the time alone with me. We emerge calm and happy, and her sister doesn't know any better.

By the last week I feel sad to say goodbye to my classmates. I have rejoiced in their triumphs, taken a guilty pleasure in their failings and, in truth, found their advice just as helpful as Edwards's. Most of us agree that the course has been worth the money. It has extended my repertoire of tricks and in that respect made me a calmer mum.

These days when a tantrum kicks off I try to think of the best way of dealing with it. Despite his reservations, my partner has also picked up on the skills (he is particularly keen on her advice to go out once a week).

Without the weekly check-ins, however, keeping up the good habits has been difficult, but every now and then, I hear Edwards's voice saying, "Catch them doing it right", and I'll tell my three-year-old how independent she is for getting dressed on her own.

Do try this at home:

Descriptive praise
Notice and mention every little step in the right direction, even if the result is not yet what you would hope for.

Reflective listening
Instead of reasoning or getting cross with an upset or unco-operative child, take a guess at what they might be feeling as in: "I understand you don't want to go to bed."

Prepare for success
Keep children informed of what's coming up, anticipate any challenges and use role-play to help them through it, such as arriving at a party or confronting a dog.

United front
If you have a partner, take time to sit down together and clarify your values and strategies. Never quarrel in front of the kids.

Be positive
Children will follow your example. If you don't want them to whinge, stop doing it yourself.

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