The "Paradox of Empowerment" in Parent Education: A Reflexive Examination of Parents' Pedagogical Expectations

By Lam, China Man; Kwong, Wai Man | Family Relations, February 2012 | Go to article overview

The "Paradox of Empowerment" in Parent Education: A Reflexive Examination of Parents' Pedagogical Expectations


Lam, China Man, Kwong, Wai Man, Family Relations


In an action research project designed to develop a new paradigm for parent education in alignment with the "strengths perspective," a social constructionist epistemology, and the empowerment discourse, it was found that parents joining two parent groups actually valued and sought expert knowledge. Seeking to empower these parents by adopting a collaborative learning approach-facilitating a reflective discussion of their parenting experience while refraining from meeting their expectation to be taught-we were actually exercising professional power in imposing our ideology of empowerment on the parents. To resolve this "paradox of empowerment," we came to the see that parent educators cannot avoid meeting parents' pedagogical expectation. They should, however, provide expert knowledge and advice with epistemic reflexivity. Moreover, they need to navigate the micropolitics in the interaction between themselves as "educators" and parents as "learners," so as to negotiate a power relation that is characterized by collaboration and partnership.

Key Words: action research, parent education, parenting, reflexive.

Parent education became a government-financed professional intervention in Hong Kong in 1979 when the Social Welfare Department began funding a new family life education service. A government-commissioned study (The Social Causes of Juvenile Delinquency, Ng, 1975) had earlier concluded that young offenders had less favorable relationships with their family members and had more negative attitudes toward parental control than did nonoffenders. One recommendation was to provide parents with the knowledge and skills needed for supervising children. Even though in traditional Chinese culture, parenting is considered an adult life task that people learn naturally, parents in Hong Kong have since become generally receptive toward the idea of ' 'learning to become better parents. ' ' The lay public regards helping professionals as childrearing experts. Parent education is provided in diverse community settings by social workers, counselors, health care workers, childcare workers, and school teachers.

We were among the first generation of social workers involved in implementing the new service. Over time, we began to question many of the received ideas: What legitimizes parent educators to teach parents and to set standards for parenting? Will people become better parents by attending parenting courses and following expert advice? This paper critiques parent education as a modernist project for regulating parenthood. A Foucaultian analysis of professional knowledge and power (Foucault, 1980) points to a new paradigm for parent education that (a) adopts a social constructionist epistemology and (b) translates the empowerment discourse into practice. Finally, the paper draws on the findings of an action research project to examine the "paradox of empowerment" in parent education.

THE "NURTURE ASSUMPTION" AND REGULATING PARENTHOOD

The "nurture assumption" posits that "what influences children's development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up" (Harris, 2009, p. 2). Accepting this assumption, parents are motivated to find correct ways of parenting. The good-bad parent conjecture asserts that "some unusual parents have greater success ... in socializing the really difficult cases, while other parents are so bad . . . that any child in their custody will become a victim of social pathology" (Lykken, 2000, p. 588). Advocates argue that "licensing parents" (Irvine, 2003; Westman, 1994) is the best way to ensure that children are raised by competent parents in healthy families (McFaIl, 2009). To Chinese parents, the nurture assumption is culturally ingrained. They accept the responsibility for what their children will become. Thus, helping professionals in Hong Kong have been successful in popularizing parent education by asserting that parenting is powerful and a misstep will result in grave consequences to children. …

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