Pip Jaffa: I don't know any parent who doesn't need support

As the chief executive of Parenting NI Pip Jaffa spent 37 years helping to equip and support parents. Jenny Lee chats to her about discipline, resilience, smacking, technology and retirement

Pip Jaffa with her grandchildren, from left, Monty Stock (9), Mitzi Stock (7), Ben McNamara (19) and Sam Stock (11). Picture by Cliff Donaldson.

FROM family dynamics and working parents to changes to advice on co-sleeping, weaning and discipline – not to mention the reliance upon modern technology and the worries of social media – parenting has changed dramatically in the past 40 years.

Someone who has witnessed all these changed and helped countless parents on the rollercoaster of parenting is Pip Jaffa, who last June quietly retired from her role as Chief Executive of Parenting NI.

The 73-year-old, who grew up in Lisburn, has fond memories of her own childhood, through it wasn't without its challenges.

"One of the biggest things in my upbringing was that I was always accepted and I had my mother's attention whenever I needed it.

"I wasn't in anyway an indulged child at all, though ballet was my passion. It was a happy childhood, though my father struggled with his emotional health, but in a way that helped me become who I am.

"My mother was a very strong figure and the backbone of the family. She was always one of these people who if we are up against it would ask us all "what are we going to do now?" and you just found a way through it. That stayed with me."

Pip went onto study at Stranmillis College and has fond memories of her time as a primary one and two teacher at Finaghy Primary School.

Having three children within four years, Pip took some time out to raise her young family. When her youngest, Lucy, was five Pip got involved in what was then called the Parents Advice Centre.

She would remain at the organisation, which later became known as Parenting NI, for 37 years. Set up as a pilot one-year-scheme by a group of lecturers from the University of Ulster and a group of interested parents the helpline had the strapline 'for parents under stress'.

"At that time we were viewed as do-gooders and people would question our right to advise others how to bring up their children. The change moved gradually during the 80s and 90s to a much more full some recognition that parents are the primary influence of children and therefore if you support the parents there is a much better chance of having positive outcomes for the children."

The Parent Advice Centre was given charity status and after a number of years as a voluntary co-ordinator establishing the organisation, Pip became the Chief Executive and the organised started offering a range of parenting programmes.

Their 'parents helpline' ran throughout the Troubles and Pip had many emotional conversations with parents 'in the wee small hours'. Whilst she can still recall everyone of them, she says her own personality and support of her colleagues meant she was able to do the job all these years.

"When you are talking to a parent you very much have to be in the moment with them and their story empathising with them. Then you have to move that into a place you can manage it."

Pip acknowledges that throughout each decade the demands of parenting have changed but yet the needs of the child remain constant.

"Family life is quite dramatically transformed but the basic needs of children to be fed, clothed, loved and given attention and approval hasn't changed."

"I don't know any parent that doesn't need support and I'm the first in the queue for that. And that's why I'm so passionate about it.

"Every day, child and circumstance is different. And if you add onto that concerning rates of separation, huge rates of poverty housing issues and uncertainty about job security, parenting is difficult.

"Parents rarely feel they are doing a good enough job. Parents shouldn't expect to get it right all the time. They sacrifice so much for their children, many in diabolical circumstances, and they should be very proud of themselves."

Positive parenting has become a buzz word of the noughties and something Pip is passionate about.

"I like to be optimistic and that's what we need to be with our children – always looking for the best in them, giving them praise and approval."

As anxiety and mental health concerns spiral out of control amongst children and young people Pip believes that open communication and building resilience in children is crucial.

Key to building trust and enhancing communication within families is putting limits on the use of technology – whether it be a mother spending time on her mobile rather than interacting with her young child or limiting technology in teenagers bedrooms, to enhance sleep.

"Of course teenagers want privacy, but they are more likely to talk to you if you have had a decent, open and caring relationship. We need to listen to our children and teenagers and giving them full attention. I think we've lost sight of that a bit."

When it comes to building self-value and resilience in children for coping with life's problems and rejections as they grow up Pip believes we should stop over-protecting young children and praise our children for qualities outside academic attainment.

"Children will fall at times, but it's picking them up again and saying I think you're ready to take the stabilisers off the bike, let's try it. By giving children challenges that will stretch them you are building up their strategies for coping and dealing with life's disappointments and helping them make their own decisions."

Pip was also involved for many years in Family Mediation NI and is passionate about the need for father's to be "actively involved" in children's lives.

"No matter how awful a separation is co-parenting for the interests of the children is crucial. Dad's involvement makes a difference to children's outcomes academically and emotionally and as a society we need to change our attitudes towards a father's involvement."

Her other desire is to see a reform of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 which states 'it is against the law for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to reasonable punishment'.

"The law needs to have equal protection for children as for adults. You're not allowed to assault another adult, but there is justification for hitting children.

"Discipline does not mean punishment; it's about creating rules and boundaries and understanding consequences."

Although her retirement was publicly quiet, Pip admit she toyed with the decision for a number of years and a great deal of internal planning was involved in her moving aside.

"When people would ask me when I was retiring I would say "I'm not talking about it". "I wanted to go when it was the right time for me, before I would begin to make mistakes and I was completely and utterly confident in the staff that were taking over."

Thankful for good health, she's enjoying spending more time with her seven grandchildren, ranging from seven to 23, the eldest three of which live in England, as well as spending more time in the kitchen.

"I've only got used to the idea I'm retired now. I'm no Mary Berry, but now I've the time, I'm cooking a little more adventurously.

"The grandchildren are a tremendous joy to me and I love being with them and hearing what they are doing."

:: Anyone requiring parenting advice can call the Parenting NI helpline on 080 8801 0722.

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