Positive parenting in South Africa

Positive parenting in South Africa – Understand

Preventing the kinds of violence children experience, and grow up to repeat, requires us as a society to start thinking about how best we can support parents.

Supporting families is key to development and violence prevention

There is a strong body of national and international evidence we can draw on to help us understand what causes violence,1 as well as a growing body of South African evidence on what works to prevent it.2 Government has identified the need to intervene early to prevent violence and the Department of Social Development has a strong legal and policy framework around which to grow preventative interventions.

Preventing the kinds of violence children experience, and grow up to repeat, requires us as a society to start thinking about how best we can support parents.

Putting in place good, strong interventions based on the best available evidence is vital to national growth and development. This is because children who grow up in warm and attentive families have a much better chance of completing school and developing the required working skills thereafter. An investment in supporting parents may take time to show returns, but the cost benefits as far as health and criminal justice are concerned make this a wise, long-term investment.

Positive Parenting

When we speak about positive parenting, we mean warm, consistent parenting where parents have good relationships with their children, use non-violent forms of discipline, and exercise supervision over their children as appropriate to their developmental stage.


When we speak about family, we mean all types of families, including singleparent families, extended families, foster families, families in which the parents share the same gender, and families in which the members may not be biologically related. 


When we use the term ‘parent’ we mean anyone who plays a primary care giving role in a child’s life.

The challenges parents face

Parenting does not happen in a vacuum and South African parents face a range of challenges. Poverty constitutes a particular risk for parenting.3 Not only does a lack of financial resources affect the ability of parents to provide nutrition, health care and education, it makes parenting itself much more difficult. In addition, more than 50% of children in South Africa grow up in households where caregivers parent without the support of the other parent.4

Parents struggling with poverty are more likely to suffer from depression and depressed parents are more likely to use harsh punishment and to be inconsistent in their responses to their children’s behaviour.5 Mothers in this situation are less likely to be affectionate towards their children, and more likely to use corporal punishment.6 They are also likely to leave them unsupervised (in other words to monitor them less.

This type of harsh, inconsistent parenting that features a lack of warmth and supervision, increases the likelihood of children abusing drugs or alcohol, engaging in risky sex and becoming involved in crime.7 Parents living in poverty are also less likely to have the social support that assists better-off parents with their parenting.8 This makes it particularly essential to put into place evidence-based programmes that support parents.

What is the legal and policy mandate?

Interventions to support and develop positive parenting are mandated by Chapter 8 of the Children’s Amendment Act (Act No. 41 of 2007), which deals with prevention and early intervention. Section 144 focuses on developing the capacity of parents to act in the best interests of their children by:

  • Strengthening positive relationships within families,
  • Improving the care-giving capacity of parents, and
  • Using non-violent forms of discipline.

This provides the legal basis for the provision of parenting programmes to address these needs.

The South African Integrated Programme of Action on Violence Against Women and Children (2013–2018)9 seeks ‘to provide support to strengthen and capacitate families especially in relation to parenting responsibilities; to decrease the vulnerability of children to abuse, neglect and exploitation,’ and very specifically ‘to develop, strengthen and roll-out positive parenting courses.’

The Department of Social Development’s Draft National Strategic Plan for Prevention and Early Intervention (2013–2017)10 identifies early intervention as being focused or ‘indicated’ intervention that targets high-risk individuals or families identified as having symptoms of social problems, e.g. a child who is frequently absent from school, or whose caregiver is often intoxicated.11

This strategy is intended to provide the basis for the transformation of the department’s services to children so as to significantly increase prevention and early intervention services, and thus reduce the number of cases requiring statutory intervention. It accepts the need to engage in evidencebased planning. 

The research

In 2012 and 2013 the Institute for Security Studies and the University of Cape Town partnered12 with a community-based organisation in a small disadvantaged community in the Western Cape. An audit was conducted of all households in the community, followed by two waves of a survey of all households in which there were children between the ages of 6 and 18. The surveys were conducted six months apart.13 To supplement the quantitative data focus group discussions were held with parents after the survey to discuss their experience of the study and their experience and perception of factors that affect parents’ stress.

The survey found that spanking and slapping, parenting stress, and parental mental health are significantly associated with both children’s depression and anxiety as well as aggression.

In addition, intimate partner violence in the home was associated with children’s aggression and violence. This was the case irrespective of the gender of the child or whether the parent also parented positively. It was also the case whether parents were single or parented as couples; whether they drank alcohol, were involved in their children’s lives, or were poor.

In short, we found that children who were subject to corporal punishment, whose parents were stressed and who suffered from any mental health problems (such as depression) were more likely than other children to be anxious and depressed, or act violently and aggressively.

The study also found that more than half of the parents living in the community wanted help with their parenting, and felt that they would benefit from home visits or a course on positive parenting.

The connection between national development and positive parenting

The National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) has the broad aim of reducing poverty and inequality in South Africa. It lists 19 milestones that will enable South Africa to achieve that goal.

These include:

  • An increase in employment
  • An increase in per capita income
  • An increase in the share of national income of the poorest 40% of the population
  • An increase in the quality of education; and
  • Ensuring that all people live safely

What does parenting have to do with each of these elements of the NDP? Education, employment and income are intimately related – educated young people are more likely to be employed, and more likely to be employed in better-paying jobs. Parenting lays the groundwork for this when it results good attachment, cognitive stimulation and when parents and children are able to communicate effectively.

Healthy relationships

Through a mechanism psychologists call ‘attachment’,14 parents set the tone for their children’s later relationships and begin to help them to manage their emotions and behaviour (a capacity psychologists call ‘self-regulation’).15 Both of these are crucial for education (and hence for employment and income), and also for helping children to curb aggressive impulses that could lead to violence.16

Children who were subject to corporal punishment, and whose parents were stressed or suffered from mental health problems, were more likely to be anxious and depressed

Infants who have warm, consistent relationships with adults who respond appropriately to their needs will develop secure attachments to those adults. This achieves two things. It sets a pattern for future relationships since children learn that people can generally be trusted, and it provides them with a measure for future relationships. It also gives them a sense of security that is essential for healthy development.

When infants and their parents have a good attachment, children have a base for identifying their own and other people’s emotions, which in turn is necessary for regulating those emotions and so controlling emotions such as anger. It also helps them to establish good relationships with their peers, which are important for intellectual development and for learning social skills; children with good social skills are more likely to do better at school.

Parents who form healthy bonds with their infants are also more likely to be attentive to their needs, supervise them appropriately and experience the pleasure of parenting.

Infants need to learn to regulate their emotions and their behaviour. Most children are aggressive and demanding at age two, but over time most learn to ask politely for what they need, to take turns and to manage emotions such as anger.17 Children who do not learn these skills are likely to go on to develop behavioural problems. 

Learning to regulate emotions starts with parenting.18 Parents who help toddlers to name their emotions are teaching them to recognise their internal states, which is the first step towards managing emotions.

Parents who establish consistent household routines and who use non-violent approaches to discipline, such as praising behaviour that is appropriate and ignoring behaviour that is not, help children to manage their own behaviour and to find appropriate ways to get what they need and want. This is very difficult for parents who are depressed, anxious or struggling to survive. 

Cognitive stimulation 

Children whose parents provide appropriate stimulation in the early years are more likely to be ready for school and to learn more easily. An early child development programme in Jamaica supported parents of malnourished children to provide stimulation that assisted them to develop cognitively as well as socially. Malnourished children are highly likely to have compromised brain functioning.19

When the children who had been part of the cognitive stimulation programme were assessed 20 years later, when they were 22 years old, it was found that they had higher IQs than their counterparts who had not received this type of stimulation, and had done better at school (their marks were better and they had gone further in their education).20 More than that, they were earning 25% more than other malnourished children who had not been part of the programme.21 Effectively, they had caught up with their counterparts.22

This suggests that stimulation provided by parents in the early years may compensate for the effects of malnutrition and improve educational achievement

Though more studies are needed, this does suggest that stimulation provided by parents in the early years may compensate for the effects of malnutrition, improve educational achievement and lead to better and better-paid employment.

What about safety? The same Jamaican study showed that 20 years after they received the intervention, the children who received stimulation were less likely to be involved in fights and less likely to have been involved in serious violent incidents.23 This may be for several reasons: they were able to find work when they left school; they may have been better able to regulate their emotions; they may have enjoyed school more, and children who are attached to school are less likely to be involved in delinquency, including violence.

Parental involvement in schooling

Once children are in school, their parents’ involvement by ensuring that homework is done, attending parent-teacher meetings and participating in school activities with their children, shows their children that education is important and supports them to do well at school.

Children whose parents are involved in their schooling tend to do better at school and have the feeling that education is important. Doing better at school and believing in its value, which is often referred to as ‘attachment to school’, means that children are more likely to seek tertiary education and so to find better employment.

Schools should make every effort to engage and support parents in their part of the work of education.

Safe homes

Violence in homes, either where violence is used as a means of discipline or where there is violence between adults, creates several problems. In the first instance, children who are exposed to violence are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and will struggle to concentrate at school.

Second, they are more likely to be aggressive with adults in general, with their peers and even in their own intimate relationships as they grow older; they will have learned that violence is a mechanism for resolving problems.25

Ultimately, children who are parented positively are:

  • More likely to form good adult relationships
  • More likely to succeed at school
  • More likely to find good, stable employment
  • Less likely to suffer anxiety and depression
  • Less likely to abuse substances
  • Less likely to engage in risky sexual practices, and
  • Less likely to be involved in crime and violence Positive parenting, the parenting that can lead to good child outcomes, is thus parenting that allows for secure attachment, manages children’s behaviour, teaches them self-regulation and provides cognitive stimulation. 

What can be done?

Fortunately, there are parenting programmes that have been shown to be effective for improving parenting, reducing child maltreatment, and improving children’s cognitive and behavioural outcomes.26 There is also evidence that positive parenting can buffer the effects of poverty on children.27 In addition, parenting programmes that are effective in high-income contexts have been shown to be equally effective with the most disadvantaged families.28

Clearly, to achieve the outcomes of the NDP will require investment in parenting programmes that have been shown to improve parenting and child outcomes, as well as in the related supporting infrastructure.

Other countries provide examples in this regard. Both Norway29 and Wales,30 for instance, have made parenting programmes widely available to parents whose children have behavioural problems. The introduction of such programmes does need an investment in a body that is capable of ensuring that those running the programmes are trained to run them in the way they were designed to be run, and to monitor and evaluate the programmes.

This is entirely feasible. Currently, two parenting programmes have been developed in South Africa, tested through randomised controlled trials and been found effective.

The Thula Sana home visiting programme helps mothers to develop strong, healthy bonds with their infants,31 while a book-sharing programme that teaches mothers to share picture books with their infants has recently been found to be effective in stimulating cognitive development.32 In addition, a number of other parenting programmes for children and teenagers are currently being tested in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.  

A clear strategy and adequate resources will have to be provided. Inter-departmental collaboration and strong partnerships between civil society and government would also be required

Developing an Implementation Plan for Parenting Programmes in South Africa

Collaborative efforts towards developing an implementation plan for parenting programmes in the country amongst government departments (national, provincial and local), academics and researchers and non-governmental organisations (that will deliver them), are needed in order to take parenting programmes in South Africa to their required scale. Departments such as Health, Basic Education, Social Development, Housing, Justice and Corrections all have a role to play.

Planning greater intervention requires consideration to be given to a range of factors, including:

  • where these services should be offered,
  • how to reach and target those most in need of support,
  • what programme(s) should be offered,
  • how to ensure that the programmes are delivered in they way they were designed to be delivered,
  • how to ensure on-going monitoring and evaluation, and
  • how to obtain the feedback of data into programmes to improve services.

It also requires us to plan very carefully so that we can make use of existing programmes and capacity, and find synergies between these programmes and existing outcomes identified by departments. 

Since a strong policy framework is already in place to escalate the introduction of parenting programmes that have been shown to be effective, the next step should be a dialogue between civil society and the departments of Health and Social Development to discuss the opportunities and challenges for taking such programmes to scale, and to develop specific timeframes to ensure that South Africa starts supporting parents in the interest of national development as quickly as possible.

About the authors

Chandré Gould is a senior research fellow in the Crime and Justice Division of the Institute for Security Studies and editor of the journal South African Crime Quarterly. She is a lead researcher in the study to document and analyse the life histories of repeat violent offenders. Chandré Gould and Catherine Ward are currently assisting a provincial government to develop a plan to take evidence-based parenting programmes to scale at provincial level.

Catherine L Ward is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, and also works with the UCT Safety and Violence Initiative. Her research interests are in violence prevention from the perspective of children’s development, and particularly in public health approaches to this – in developing evidencebased approaches to violence prevention that have a wide reach and are effective in improving children’s development and reducing their likelihood of becoming aggressive.


  1. For a comprehensive overview see Catherine Ward, Amelia van der Merwe and Andrew Dawes (eds), Youth Violence: sources and solutions in South Africa, 2012, Cape Town: UCT Press. Available at: https://open.uct. ac.za/handle/11427/2422. See also Chandré Gould and Lukas Muntingh, Towards an understanding of repeat violent offending: a review of the literature,’ ISS occasional paper No.213,July2010.Available athttp://www.issafrica.org/crimehub/papers/towards-an-understanding-ofrepeat-violent-offending-a-review-of-the-literature.
  2. See South African Crime Quarterly 51, March 2015. This special edition of the journal reviews the evidence from programmes developed and tested in South Africa.
  3. J W Kaminski, R Perou, S N Visser, K G Scott, L Beckwith, J Howard, D C Smith and M L Danielson. Behavioral and socio-emotional outcomes through age five years of the Legacy for Children public health approach to improving developmental outcomes among children born into poverty, American Journal of Public Health 103 (2013), 1058–1066; B A Kotchick and R Forehand, Putting parenting in perspective: a discussion of the contextual factors that shape parenting practices. Journal of Child and Family Studies 11 (2002), 255–269.
  4. Mazembo Mavungu Eddy, H. T.-d. B., Karabo Mphaka (2013), So we are ATM fathers: A study of absent fathers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Johannesburg, Sonke Gender Justice.
  5. G H Elder, J S Eccles, M Ardelt, S Lord, Inner-city parents under economic pressure: perspectives on the strategies of parenting, Journal of Marriage and Family 57(3) (1995), 771–784.
  6. R H Bradley, R F Corwyn, H P McAdoo and C G Coll, The home environments of children in the United States, Part I: variations by age, ethnicity and poverty status, Child Development 72(6) (2001), 1844–1867.
  7. C Jackson, L Henriksen and V A Foshee, The Authoritative Parenting Index: predicting health risk behaviors among children and adolescents, Health Education and Behavior 25(3) (1998), 319–337.
  8. G J Duncan, J Brooks-Gunn and P K Klebanov, Economic deprivation and early child development, Child Development 65(2) (1994), 296–318.
  9. South African Integrated Programme of Action on Violence Against Women and Children (2013–2018), 18.
  10. This strategy is still in the drafting stage and may become the strategy for 2014–2018.
  11. Draft Strategic Plan for Prevention and Early Intervention, Department of Social Development (2013), 2.
  12. This research was generously funded by the Open Society Foundation of South Africa.
  13. For a detailed discussion of the study please see: How parenting and children’s aggression and mental health are related: A case study of a rural South African town. Forthcoming in SACQ 51, March 2015.
  14. C A Ogilvie, E Newman, L Todd and D Peck, Attachment and violent offending: a meta-analysis, Aggression and Violent Behavior 19 (2014), 322–339.
  15. B Henry, A Caspi, T E Moffitt and P A Silva, Temperamental and familial predictors of violent and nonviolent criminal convictions: age 3 to age 18, Developmental psychology 32(4) (1996), 614-623.
  16. D Espelage, Preventing youth violence and bullying through socialemotional school-based prevention programs and frameworks, in P D Donnelly and C L Ward, Oxford Textbook of Violence Prevention: epidemiology, evidence, and policy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 6 November 2014.
  17. R Tremblay, Developmental origins of physical aggression, in P D Donnelly and C L Ward, Oxford Textbook of Violence Prevention.
  18. M R Sanders and T G Mazzucchelli, The promotion of self-regulation through parenting interventions, Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 16 (2013), 1–17.
  19. J Liu and A Raine, The effect of childhood malnutrition on externalising behaviour, Current Opinion in Pediatrics 18 (2006), 565–570.
  20. S P Walker, S M Chang, M Vera-Hernández and S Grantham-McGregor, Early childhood stimulation benefits adult competence and reduces violent behavior, Pediatrics 127 (2011), 849–857
  21. P Gertler et al, Labour market returns to an early childhood stimulation intervention in Jamaica, Science, 344, 2014, 998–1001.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. C Desforges and A Abouchaar, The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: a review of the literature, Research Brief no. 433 (2003), London: UK Department for Education and Skills.
  25. C L Ward, Young people’s violent behaviour: social learning in context, in P Burton (ed.), Someone Stole My Smile: an exploration into the causes of youth violence in South Africa (2007), Cape Town: Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, 9–35.
  26. A Mejia, R Calam and MR Sanders, A review of parenting programs in developing countries: opportunities and challenges for preventing emotional and behavioral difficulties in children, Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 15(2) (2012), 163–175; C Mikton and A Butchart, Child maltreatment prevention: a systematic review of reviews, Bulletin of the World Health Organisation 87(5) (2009), 353–361; S Peacock, S Konrad, E Watson, D Nickel and N Muhajarine, Effectiveness of home visiting programs on child outcomes: a systematic review, BMC Public Health 13 (2013), 17–30; S S Selph, C Bougatsos, I Blazina and H D Nelson, Behavioral interventions and counseling to prevent child abuse and neglect: a systematic review to update the US Preventive Services Task Force recommendation, Annals of Internal Medicine (2013).
  27. Conger, R. D. and X. Ge (1994). Economic Stress, Coercive Family Process, and Developmental Problems of Adolescents, Child Development 65(2): 541-561.
  28. F Gardner, J Hutchings, T Bywater and C Whitaker, Who benefits and how does it work? Moderators and mediators of outcome in an effectiveness trial of a parenting intervention, Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology 39(4) (2010). 1–13.
  29. M F Terje Ogden, E Askeland, G R Patterson and B M Bullock, Implementation of parent management training at the national level: the case of Norway, Journal of Social Work Practice 19(3) (2005), 317–329.
  30. J Hutchings, Incredible Years Wales, British Psychological Society, Faculty of Children and Young People: Service and Practice Update 5(4) (2006), 19–21
  31. Mark Tomlinson, Toxic poverty: improving maternal, infant and child health. Inaugural lecture, Stellenbosch University, 13 November 2012.
  32. Z Vally, L Murray, M Tomlinson & PJ Cooper. The impact of dialogic booksharing training on infant language and attention: a randomised, controlled trial in a deprived South African community, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, forthcoming 2014.