Putting children first: Changing how we communicate with parents to improve children’s outcomes

Content type
Event date

11 September 2019, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Derek McCormack, Lesley Taylor




This webinar was held on Wednesday 11 September 2019.

Parents play a vital role in supporting children’s development and wellbeing, especially in the early years. Similarly, professionals working with families play a critical role in their work to support parents to help children grow up safe and well. However, it can be challenging for practitioners to know how to best communicate with parents in ways that resonate with their experiences and support them in their parenting role.

This webinar discussed new research on effective ways to talk about parenting. It introduced new tools to help put children first in our conversations about parenting, and outline practical steps to help apply this child-centred approach in practice. The webinar also featured case examples to illustrate how this approach has been applied in various ways, including in early childhood settings, youth-serving organisations, out-of-home care services and in rural and remote communities. This webinar is of interest to practitioners, service/program managers and policy makers who work with parents and children.

This webinar was hosted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies' CFCA Information Exchange, in collaboration with the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and the Parenting Research Centre  in support of National Child Protection Week, 1–7 September 2019.


Featured image: © GettyImages/Imgorthand

Audio transcript (edited)

MR DEAN: Well, good afternoon everyone, and welcome to today's webinar, 'Putting Children First, Changing How We Communicate with Parents to Improve Children's Outcomes.' My name's Adam Dean. I'm a senior research officer here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. I'd like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are meeting. In Melbourne, the traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to the elders from other communities who may be participating today.

Today's webinar will discuss new research and ways to communicate with parents to improved children's development and wellbeing. We're very pleased to have two excellent presenters today who will be sharing their insights and experience on this topic. Derek McCormack is a principal specialist at the Parenting Research Centre focussing on knowledge translation. In his role, Derek oversees a number of programs and projects, with his core activities including consultation, strategy development, planning, and in many cases, managing the development of evidence-informed resources for a range of stakeholders and clients. Derek's passion is the translation of research and best practice in to the day to day practices of parents, and those who support them.

We also have Lesley Taylor joining us today. Lesley is the National Manager Prevention Strategies, and Northern Territory Manager at NAPCAN. In this role, Lesley lives and breathes child abuse prevention. Lesley's work focusses on the need to support families, invest in connected child safe communities, and embrace a culture of compassion and shared responsibility for the wellbeing of children. Lesley actively advocates for this approach to achieve better outcomes for individuals, families, communities, and government budgets.

Just a bit of house-keeping. We encourage you to send your questions through during the webinar for Derek and Lesley to answer during our Q&A session at the end of today's presentation. Those we can't get to will be answered in the forum on our website. Please let us know if you don't want your question published on the online forum on the website following the presentation.

As always, our webinars are recorded. We're unable to make the slides available to download today. Our apologies. But these will be available, along with the recording of the webinar, audio transcript, and slide outline on our website in the next week or so.

Thank you everyone for joining us today. I will now hand over to Derek and Lesley. Please make them feel very welcome.

MR McCORMACK: Hello. Good afternoon. Good morning, for those in the western part of our country. My name's Derek McCormack. I'm here in the same room with Lesley Taylor. We're delighted to have everybody join us. Today's webinar will be handled as a sort of conversation between us and you, as participants, and also between us two people. The kind of feel that we're going for in this presentation is one of reflection. We're going to essentially tell a story about some research that's being already put in to use through Parenting Research Centre, and NAPCAN. And we're going to talk about where that research came from. And we're also going to talk about what it might mean to those who are wanting to put that research in to practice.

To begin with, I'd just like to acknowledge that where we are in this room, we're presenting our webinar on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora nations, and we like to pay our respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. We'd like to acknowledge any of you today joining us who are of indigenous descent.

I'd also like to acknowledge the partners that helped us get here to this stage of our work. You can see at Parenting Research Centre, we've worked very closely with the FrameWorks Institute but also with the support of Victorian Government, Victoria Education & Training, the Australian Government, Social Services, New South Wales Government, and Benevolent Society. All these partners helped fund the research I'm about to describe.

As I describe it, Lesley will be talking with me about her perspectives on what it has to tell us. As we get towards the end of the presentation, we'll talk about where we are right now, and just recent developments in putting this work in to practice.

Okay. So the story behind this work is the story of framing. A couple of years back, with the help of those partners, Parenting Research Centre embarked on a new piece of research which takes a quite robust and detailed approach to a question. And a question is around how you might frame, or re-frame, parenting. But why think about framing? What is framing? And how can we re-frame parenting? That's where we began.

First of all, let's back up and talk about what we mean. What is framing? And why would you think about doing it, on any particular concept? The concept that we were looking at was parenting, but framing work has been done on a range of concepts including child development, some work in the US, and here in Australia, mental health as a concept, as being framed and re-framed through research right now, and a range of other topics have been put through this process. So why think about framing? Essentially, as a first point to make, you think about framing because you want to sustain a social change. Perhaps you want to change a conversation. You want to change some behaviour that exists around that conversation. But if you want to do that, it goes beyond perhaps the traditional means of market research and just understanding what kinds of communication you might want to push out. It actually requires a focus on what it takes to have cultural change. And framing is one approach to tackling social and cultural change.

So with that in mind, a quick example of what it can look like, how framing can make a difference. This comes from the literature, and what it illustrates – just to pause on this slide, is that you can have a particular initiative or idea framed in two different ways, and have it received in two very different ways.

So we have for example, a framing message here on the top left, 'Given the importance of free speech, would you favour allowing a hate group to hold a political rally" And then with a different frame, Given the risk of violence, would you favour allowing a hate group to hold a political rally?' So those two takes on a particular idea you can see led to very different receptions. A simple example of how you communicate something can mean the world.

VIDEO: Love and support and Just a natural human, Human things to have challenges throughout parenting, Before when you asked me what factors impact that might come about, May lead to challenges and parenting and I completely did not think of this but I completely agree that its social situations the emotional stress all those factors are I can tell that would have an impact on parenting. good parent giving them discipline, I think some people perhaps love their kids too much and Don't see the negative sides of all how they affect other people I think it's something you can't learn you. You either can do it or you can’t. government support family support family, friends, Community support and I think this whole thing has broken down in my generation and we can actually get better, so I think the all kind of mixes in together.

That video was reflecting on some interviews with people having first been asked about the topic of parenting generally, and what supports it and what might influence it, and then in the after-parts of those interviews, those same individuals were reacting to the same question but having been exposed to a particular frame on parenting. But what are we really getting at here? Let's unpack a bit further what we're talking about when we're talking about framing.

Look at this quote here from the Australian Public Service Commission. It basically backs up the argument for framing. So what we have here is an assumption or a recommendation. It's important to focus on framing and how you are framing your messages, when you think you have a problem. That's a very good reason to get in to the detail on framing a particular issue.

So you have a problem you're trying to resolve. And with research we conducted at Parenting Research Centre, and with the help of the FrameWorks Institute, the problem or the issue we were wanting to focus on was parenting. How was it really understood as something we want to support for the good of children? And what framing teaches us, and what this research methodology helps us with, is the fact that you can push a message out thinking that it will be received in a particular way, but while you are saying, 'A', it is possible and often unfortunately the case that the message is being received as 'B'. What you're hearing back having communicated is not exactly what you thought you were communicating with your message.

VIDEO: I don't think there's such thing as a bad parent. I think we're all doing the best we can there's no rulebook. It's not like a textbook for it. Yeah, I don't think there's an obvious right or wrong way. Do you know what I mean? I think it's just basic love your child provide, If you care about your family and your kids just stick with what you've gut instincts are and that's good, Any parent that just gives their kids lots of love and attention would be a good parent, but it's cyclical, isn't it? So like if you were raised my shitty parents, then you're probably gonna turn out to be a shitty parent.

So how do we re-frame parenting? What we do in this research was we take an approach to the framing which is to aim not to have everybody speak about parenting and supporting parenting in the same way, as illustrated here on the left, where there's various different directions of the conversation. We're not trying to have every arrow point in the same direction but more like shifting the general conversation to go in the general same direction. So if you can imagine those arrows on the left as many different messages around the concept of parenting and they're saying quite different things, this kind of research and what it offers us is some approaches and tools to have them aligned a little better based on some good data, aligned in terms of how those messages are framed so they're heading in generally the same direction. This is the idea of shifting the conversation for social change. That's sort of the ambition behind the research.

So how do we do it? How do we go about re-framing it? First of all - and this is step 1, and we'll have Lesley comment on this in just a moment, we'd carry out research, in this case with more than 7,000 Australians who then on repeated engagement led to 15,000 responses in this work where we're essentially exploring the concept of parenting with those involved in the research and unpacking what we're hearing through those many interactions with the participants. So the tip here, step 1 in re-framing parenting, is to understand what you're up against. What is it that's in the minds and hearts of people when they are thinking and talking parenting? Essentially, mapping the terrain.

VIDEO: what comes to mind when you think about parenting? Love, joy, caring, love and support? Yikes, it's nightmare, a disaster parent is very hard the responsibility of raising a kid responsibility. It's a lot of responsibility. What does it mean to be a good parent? I don't think that such thing as a bad parent I think we're all doing the best we can I don't think there's a obvious right or wrong way. Can we say what's good and what's bad everyone has their own values their own beliefs. There's no rulebook. That's like a textbook for it. I think it's just basic love your child provide. If you care about your family and your kids just stick with what you've gut instincts are and that's good good parent giving them discipline. Discipline is one thing. I think it's raising a child up with with boundaries. Just watching over them making sure that everything is sweet. Give your kids the tools to get through life. Teaching them things. They need to know for later in life. What are the things that influence how somebody goes about parenting part of it comes from their own Parenting or lack thereof probably the way they was brought up. I guess in their own upbringing the way your parents were, you seem to follow suit? Well, they're a good parent because they've actually made an effort to do it, if you’ve decided to take it on you've got a responsibility to do it, parenting for each individual child is completely different. It's the child's own brain cells and the way they’re wired. I think one of the key trends right now is that we are going to a U.S Rock culture So maybe that's the other contributing factor where the time away from child is be taken away So we've got so many distractions with computers, etc That we're not just we're not covering the fundamentals As someone growing up in the 21st century. I don't think there's as much face-to-face as they used to be stress from Say work or other external factors, maybe what they do for work Depending if they work like a lot of hours. Are there things that could improve parenting in Australia. um, Wow,

Let me think for a second. I don't know. Um, oh, I have no idea. I'm sure there are a lot of things have been done to try and already the try and already do that. I think Australia is a great country, So I think we have those things in place already. Look, there's so many services available out there, you know you can go to the system they can help you, but your better off going with friends and family getting support from friends just need to talk to other people to get other ideas that might contribute or help to your child the best thing you could Possibly have is a good example yourself. I don't really know exactly what hasn't I'm sure there's been plenty of things that have been done, but I can't really think of anything that they haven't already already tried and I feel like there's not really a lot that you can do because it's all up to them now because it's all On them. It's about your how you've been raised and the responsibilities and how you take that responsibility and not everyone's up to it. 

Okay. So looking at that video that we just saw there, it's quite a good illustration of the many arrows going in many directions. What we have in this sample - and this of course isn't representing all of the 7,000 plus interviews, and interactions with the participants and the research, what we have is a sample of what is there when you go to map the terrain. A number of different perspectives on parenting, a number of different assumptions or ideas around what might support parenting.

And this is where we really started to get in to the details of what is it that we're aiming to re-frame. You saw near the end of that video, people were pondering on what might be good ways to support parenting, and maybe help parents with that job. And it was a little difficult, a little harder question to answer. So with that kind of mapping going on, what helps through this methodology is to go through a process of capturing and essentially analysing those various different perspectives and grouping them together.

On the slide here, we see some examples of what we call cultural models. And the FrameWorks Institute has helped us capture these, pull them out of the data and map them as models. I don't have enough time to go in to great detail on these models that you're seeing on the screen but just to briefly comment, what we can do is analyse the material we see, conversations we have, messages that we are ourselves putting out, and check that – are they aligning with one or more of these models, when it comes to parenting?

As a quick example, the individualism type models are parts of messages which tend to insist that parenting is around choice, and decision. It's down to the individual about how that parenting goes. That's quite deterministic, if you like. And another area here on the screen, another area of cultural modelling around parenting, is the area of collectivism. The importance of integration, and being a what surrounds us shapes us. There's a collective, very important collective part of how parenting works. It takes a village to raise a child.

Again, wish we had more time to unpack these models but just to say as a first step, mapping your terrain and then getting these models kind of pulled out is a really interesting first step to re-framing any issue – in this case, parenting.

Now, I get the chance to have a bit of a chat with Lesley. So Lesley, that's step 1. That's the first device, mapping your terrain. From your experience with NAPCAN, and just your impressions of this work, what would you like to say?

MS TAYLOR: Well, my background and experience has been in talking with parents in a variety of settings in a variety of places, and having conversations in the media around parenting, and what I know is that parenting is a highly emotive topic. It triggers a huge range of issues in us, and a huge range of feelings in everyone, especially parents, mostly around guilt, I have to say. But we have to talk about it, we have to talk about parenting in order to be able to have conversations around children's safety and wellbeing.

So I've been forced in to the conversations around parenting, and I've seen how things have gone wrong, and what I think I'm saying is so accurate and so non-judgmental, and yet the repercussions have been the opposite of what I intended. My child protection background has provided me with kind of like a default position about focussing on the child, and not on the parent. So I learned very early on in my career is the best way to avoid getting seriously off-track is to keep your focus completely and firmly on the child, on their wellbeing and their development. Which is why this research made so much sense to me.

MR McCORMACK: So what you reflected on there was the – you say, 'A', and you might hear 'B'. And when you're hearing back.


MR McCORMACK: Okay. Let's keep talking but first let's jump to the next tip. I know we have more to say about what you just segued there. So this works well.

The next tip, or the next sort of recommendation, out of the seven that we're going to talk about today, is 'Changing the big idea'. So let's imagine on the concept in mind - in particular, parenting this time, the work is done on mapping the terrain. We've got some models that you're able to check things against. What's at play here? What models are at play, when talking with people about the issue? What our research and analysis did here after quite a robust in-depth multi-stage analysis – what it did was offer us a very strong recommendation – I mean, a quite unusually strong recommendation for this type of research. Often it can be quite nuanced but lucky us, we got a very bold and clear recommendation from this work. It said, 'Aim to shift the conversation' so Lesley, exactly what you were talking from your gut and your experience, was what we were being told. Shift the conversation from parenting, effective parenting, parenting support, to a conversation, hopefully a national conversation, around child wellbeing, child development, children doing well. This is – and on the face of it, deceptively simple, because it's a clear recommendation but let's have a look at what was behind it.

What you're seeing here on this next slide is a graphic which depicts the strength of that recommendation. Let's explain it. This graph is just one capture from the data where three groups of people involved in the research were asked to comment on two different frames. The first frame, being effective parenting depicted in orange, was provided to a group of people and they were asked to then think about what they support, policy, decisions. As you can see along the x axis, would they support publicly-funded childcare? Would they support mandated family-friendly work policies? And so on. Would you support these things as a consumer, as a part of the society? Having received the message around parenting program, and that message being framed around effective parenting.

The second frame offered was that child development frame. The same program was described to a different group of people, but it was instead leading with the child development frame. So they're getting a different message for the same initiative. Would they support policy support for that program? Would they support publicly-funded parenting centres? That initiative, as described, but with a different frame, the one of child development.

The third group is the control. So along this the zero line on the axis, that group received neither, neither frame, so they just got the description of the work without the frames. So what you're getting here is quite a rarity. And that's why the recommendation was so strong. Likewise, with this graph, it's just another piece of, depiction of the same recommendation coming through the child development frame was the orange, and was universally positive in its reception, and the effective parenting was actually going below the line, the effective parenting being the black going below the line. Having the effect you didn't want to have. So the framing was starkly different in terms of people being motivated in their decisions, or their support. Yeah? So if you look there, we can see your willingness to pay additional taxes. Universally positive when it comes to the child development frame, and across the board, below the line when it comes to the effective parenting frame. So there's a kind of a you know, you might think a kind of obvious aspect to this. Perhaps there are reasons in the models that we looked at earlier that yes, the parenting frame might be received more negatively than a child development frame. That might not surprise you. You know, a child development frame is better received. People do gather well around the values of protecting children, and child wellbeing. The good thing about this is we have data. The data is telling us yes, your gut feelings are right. Do go with child-focussed messages. Do go with a child development frame.

So what does that mean? How do you go with it? How do you go and enact that kind of recommendation? Well, as a first step, you think about messaging, communication, what's going on in your strategic communications, and you seek to avoid certain kinds of frames - let's say things listed here on the left, and to advance other kinds of framing. For example, the things listed on the right here. These are examples of things that would be useful to take on. And we'll just pause for a moment so you can have a look at those.

So the modelling piece, and the recommendation around shifting the conversation, leads to this kind of recommendation around what to avoid and advance. Re-framing work often does this. It helps you just consider how it is your messages might fit in to the left or the right part of this list. And again, it might seem to people working in our sector, not too surprising you know, that it's advised to not um, be too deterministic around parenting. It might be to some of us quite obvious that maybe it's less constructive to talk about bad parenting or good parenting instead of talking about child development. But again, this research has given us data that backs up that notion.

Lesley, talk to me.

MS TAYLOR: This is very interesting for me. So in fact, just last week when Nat Kendall-Taylor, who heads up the FrameWorks Institute, was travelling around Australia to present on this literature, a community centre (indistinct) realised that they had been spectacularly unsuccessful in attracting parents to their workshop named 'Parenting Skills'. And they simply could not attract anyone to the workshop. They re-framed simply the name of their workshop to say, 'Learn about what children need to thrive' and they now have a waitlist. And it was that dramatic. Parents staying away – it looked like your chart. Parents staying away in droves to being unable to manage the demand to learn more about children's development. And yet, the course content remained exactly the same.

MR McCORMACK: I can reflect on a similar example just come to my head, and that is we at Parenting Research Centre, we do head a national initiative around peer support for parents. It's called MyTime. And with that, and promoting that to the [public, we had a similar experience. It is a peer support for parents but when we message it about its benefit to children and child development – children with disabilities in this case, the effect is obvious. And it does seem to make sense on a certain level where parents might value supports that are about their child doing well as to sacrifice supports that are for them, as individuals. We know that both are important but this framing shone through.

MS TAYLOR: Yeah. It is fascinating, it's interesting, and it works. We're actually now reviewing our resources, and literature. I have spoken probably for the last 20 years about how difficult parenting can be. So the shifts are not easy, but they are having to happen for us.

MR McCORMACK: Okay. That can take us on to the next of the seven sort of recommendations or tips. This one's around not judging with messaging, and building on this kind of framing work, aiming not to inadvertently judge or evaluate parenting. Once again, we've looked at the terrain, we've mapped what's going on, perhaps in terms of cultural models, and we've got a recommendation about shifting the conversation.

This tip is around working with messages which do avoid that judging, or judginess in our messages around parenting. Without needing or wanting to point fingers, we can see that in our day to day media, and perhaps in our own materials that we have used in the past, we do at times, inadvertently perhaps, and with the best of intentions, point to parenting being either good or bad. This is part of the national conversation, and we do notice it when we do this kind of framing work. We can see examples. But it's not always around the very obvious of nature perhaps being judgemental in our language. Sometimes it's more nuanced.

There can be instances where, again with the best intentions, we're messaging around parenting or whatever the concept is, we're in a more subtle way, building in that judgment or perhaps deterministic thoughts around what parenting is. On that score, I'll pause just for a moment on this slide and we can have a look. So what we're seeing there is one example of a messaging piece on the left, which is, with the best intention perhaps, using that judgmental framing and on the right, it's being reworked to have a different focus what children need.

MS TAYLOR: I've actually always found as well that sometimes data can come across as quite judgey. So when we do a lot of work – I do a lot of work in remote communities, travel around Australia, mostly the Northern Territory, but when you use data you can actually alienate people by trying to convince them of the seriousness of the problem and what you're actually doing is activating a whole range of messages that you're not intending to give them. So we're actually not only just reviewing our literature for the words that we use, but also the way in which we use data and information, so that we're not, you know, it would be like having your suburb come up as being the most disadvantaged, you know, with the highest crime rates, a very unsafe place for children and how does that make you feel. So I think we just need to sometimes need to be a bit more thoughtful, not just about the words but the way in which we present information to be more effective.

MR McCORMACK: Excellent point Lesley. Lesley and I were lucky enough to attend a Frame Lab just in the last week, during National Child Protection Week as well, where we're focusing on this work. And that did come up, the notion of yes, reframing and shifting the conversation from parenting to child development, very good point, but it's not just about the words data, statistics and how they're used, are just as important here. And we did really dig into that conversation around as you put it Lesley, you know, a listing prevalence, or a listing rates, or you know, naming suburbs, these things are in themselves messages and when you want to communicate data, it's often important that you do communicate a data, but what might it be triggering if you – if we hark back to those models, those kinds of perceptions in people's minds around an issue. What might you be triggering with the data which is a non-productive trigger. So that's something that does extend the data.

We can jump onto the next tick or recommendation that comes out of this work. I'm going to recap again, because I love recapping. We mapped the territory, we look to shift the conversation, in our case, from parenting to child development, child developing. We think about how that's being received and we watch out for, perhaps judginess or unproductive triggering. That's where we are now. Now let's focus on a particular tool. Any frame or a set of frames, can really benefit from – some explanatory tools. We love them every day when we read newspapers or the websites and we get those info-graphics, or we get those interactive graphs from ABS.

Explanatory tools are really very helpful. This tool is the tool of metaphor, often recommended about a framing work. Why not metaphor? Metaphors are often visual and they provide a mental image that can stick and it can help shift a conversation. It can communicate quite a lot with something which is quite narrative, quite story-like. And before I even go on, I'd make the most important point around metaphor and that is, they need to be tested. So with this work, with the frame options that you – we tested a number of metaphors, quite a range actually that drew on the data, talked about parenting in different ways and then you know, NBND tested them in an empirical way.

So metaphor can help you get a lot across in a simple message. In our work, the metaphor that tested best and you know, may still need to be adapted for certain context mainly – it may not work perfectly for everyone, but the one that tested quite well and we're rolling with, is the metaphor around navigation. Parenting and navigation. This slide depicts that in a basic way. The key components are that when you're raising children, you're navigating, you're on the water. The challenges that in times and like certain times you're on rough waters. When you're in need of support you might be looking to lighthouses and safe harbours.

With that simple story we have a metaphor that depicts supports in a certain way and depicts the journey of parenting in a certain way. Why go with that kind of metaphor? Well just to hark back to those models earlier on, those cultural models. This kind of metaphor is nice. It does at least three things. It helps avoid the model of individualism. It's not all about the parent themselves or what they're doing, there's a lot of other factors involved. It helps redirect from the model around natural parenting, that's the model that simply says, parenting comes naturally, you're born with the ability to parent well or you're not. And it also redirects from one of those tricky models of parenting that we found and that's fatalism. You know, the world is a difficult place today and it's going to be hard to succeed with you know, parenting. Those are some models we do see. And this metaphor, this navigating metaphor helps.

And this is an example of what can happen when the metaphor gets put to use. What you're seeing here, is a poster developed for National Child Protection Week, with the support of the government in Australians Institute of Family Studies and NAPCAN working with Parenting Research Centre we came up with a quite simple, we think, eloquent representation of that metaphor. It's simply pointing people to the toolkit from a poster which draws in elements of that metaphor. The other thing about metaphors is you don't have to repeat the story in its entirety, you're using it as an inspiration for your language. In this case, a poster using a lighthouse and certain wording that's drawing on a metaphorical language.

A quick other example of some other work that's drawn on the same metaphor but from a different campaign. This is national, as such, a national campaign happening through social services who came up with a video which also draws Let's have a look.

VIDEO: Raising children is like sailing for healthy development children need an even keel but things like stress health problems and Financial difficulties can make it harder for parents to navigate family life and provide this even keel Just like how we build lighthouses and safe harbours to guide and protect boats during heavy storms We can help parents by providing the support and understanding they need during the first 1,000 days of life Which are so key to children's lifelong health and well-being This support during difficult times will make for smoother sailing and help all children in Australia to thrive for more Information on child development and parenting in the early years visit the Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net au/first1000 days

I'm just going to jump over the next video there where you could see people reacting to that metaphor, because I want to hear Lesley react instead. Lesley talk to me about that metaphor, but also another one you'd like to share with us, just to make the point around telling a story.

MS TAYLOR: The use of metaphors is a very powerful tool as we know. And it's also very a common way to engage audiences from different cultural backgrounds and different levels of language difference, different styles of communications, it just creates another way of communicating very effectively. And one of the ones that I thought was interesting for me is some metaphor work that's done in the field of domestic and family violence, which is around the shark cage and people can look for that information. It's just an example about an effective way to talk about a very complicated topic as domestic and family violence is, in a way that, people actually can then understand quite a complex topic but in a way that makes sense to them and they can actually turn that into their own. So that's just an example of a program that uses a metaphor very successfully, to talk about a complicated topic.

And National Child Protection Week, you would have seen the artwork that's being peppered through this presentation, has all been obviously inspired by the metaphor. And the ability for young people and families and other organisations to engage with us, because we used the metaphor has been quite successful in Child Protection Week alone.

MR McCORMACK: Yes. And like I say metaphor is one great tool for helping with explanation. Jump on to the toolkit. First find that poster, it'll take you to the toolkit that sits behind this work, that helps you look at other tools. So metaphor a great tool. I'll jump through the next two tips that help us get through the reframing exercise. This one is around order. Simply says, if we are leading with a particular frame, then go with it first in your messaging. So here on the bottom half of this slide, we're saying, you know, a frame which establishes the context for children and getting good support is often going to more productive than let's say, the top half of the slide, a frame which begins or leads with effective parenting.

Because with the bottom one, you have a contextual understanding. Maybe you're talking a lot about what's good for children, but you're talking context and that means that parenting is contingent. It has factors around it that help with support, rather than perhaps a frame that says, good parenting, bad parenting, effective parenting, which could lead to some triggering of those models around individualism. So order matters. I'll just got to six, which says, 'Show don't tell.' We talked about metaphors. And whether it's a metaphor like the navigation one, or another metaphor, it could be good to use visual, narrative storytelling tools to show what you're trying to say, rather than lay it out in great detail in words. Many of you might be familiar with the brain architecture metaphor for the early years of life.

Many also be familiar with the serve and return metaphor used for explaining interaction between parent and child. If you'd like to know about them, I would suggest looking at the toolkit we have again, or looking at some of the great work done by the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child. Great work there. Frames, those are interactions between parent and child and ways that are quite engaging. So 'Show don't tell.' Lesley talk to me about 'Show don't tell.'

MS TAYLOR: One of the examples I think that is most powerful in my experience, has been around talking about brain development, was to not talk about neural pathways, that's my first great learn. But the other one is about, where you have and many people do use rice in stockings, weighed to simulate the weight of a baby's brain at birth, at three months – sorry, at three years and then as an adult. To actually physically demonstrate the importance of those early years in terms of how brains develop and grow, which has a very powerful way of getting your message across, without talking about very complex language around brain development.

MR McCORMACK: Yes. So the idea of using physical or visual approaches to getting the frame across, are really helpful as tools. Heading towards our last tip or our last recommendation, 'Tell a story.' You might be using metaphor to tell a story, but overall – overall, a strong recommendation from this framing work, was to plan. Have a plan for how you're going to take a frame into action. And that is, yes, that includes maybe the use of metaphor, but it means what strategically, what is your plan? So this slide is a little busy, but I'll just focus on the three parts of the arc.

Start with in your organisation or with your colleagues or your friends – why does it matter? Why are we looking at this framing business? What's the reason we're trying to shift a conversation? On to the second part. How does it work? What does it mean to actually shift a conversation? What is it we're trying to shift and what explanatory tools are we having – what are we going to use there? Yes? And then, a third important part, what do we need to do? What's our first action? What's our second action? How are we going to get this framing to take flight?

And to finish off on an example, we talked about a poster in this presentation and the artwork you've seen peppered throughout, that's just some examples of framing job around a particular metaphor getting used and it took flight in terms of some public communication. So that's the sort of potted history of this work and why – where we've landed at the moment. I'd like to again acknowledge the funders and partners in getting us to this point in the research. I'd also like to acknowledge the organisations including who are on – organisations who are now on a bit of a journey with us, where we're taking this framing onwards in an implementation stage if you like. Thank you.

MR DEAN: Thank you.

MS TAYLOR: Yes. I'm very excited to be part of that journey and particularly excited because what we found from our work around framing Child Protection Week in a very consistent manner, is that it's made us more effective, in getting our messages across and who doesn't want that? The journey now, is to reflect on all of our current work and past work, to explore what needs to be adapted and changed, as we learn more. And as we learn more, we change.

MR DEAN: Well thank you very much Derek and Lesley. That was a really engaging presentation. A lot of information to absorb. And I think it was really interesting how this research has unfolded. We've got a few questions coming through, but I imagine that, like myself there are a few people sort of, just digesting this – the information kind of represents a bit of a paradigm shift perhaps. And to clarify, do we have some questions about whether the toolkit will be available?

The toolkit will be – we've got a link to the toolkit on the online forum and we'll provide a link to that. As well as the name of the study, if you didn't catch it, that's available too. Derek and Lesley, I was – the kind of question that – occurred to me is, I was just kind of thinking where would people start with this approach to framing? I know you've provided a few case examples, but is there – could you provide like any other examples of where to begin with this? Do you begin with your communications on your website? Do you, you know, do you have any advice or recommendations, idea?


MR McCORMACK: Yes, I'll reflect on that and that Lesley too. Generally what comes out of the framing guidance, is sometimes a question, yes, this seems like a lot to take on, maybe it is a big shift in the conversation. How do we start? The best way to approach this is to first of all get as familiar as you can with those models that are being offered and then as you've suggested Adam, it can be a case of just starting with your communication. What's happening in your messaging, in the different parts of your work and is there time to do a bit of a frame game, checking on how that communication – how those messages stack up against the recommended conversation chain – the recommended messaging that's coming out of the framing?

I'd like to add again, we're not aiming for everybody to say the same things or use the same words when you do framing research, it's shifting a conversation so that they tend to align, or generally point in the same direction by avoiding unproductive frames. And so Leslie – from your perspective, getting started, what do you think?

MS TAYLOR: So what we have developed in our organisation as part of that, has been a small team who are committed to learning the most that they can about the changes that we need to take, to create and develop a bit of a, like a, list of the kinds of things that we know that we can say and say them well and start sharing that with our colleagues and as you were saying and reviewing our material. So as we become more capable of reviewing our materials, then we're capturing the ways in which we communicate in sharing that in our – in our workshops online, in our parenting resources, so yes, so it is a – it's a journey about developing more skills. And what we learnt is that it is actually practice. It sounds and feels a little clunky when you start talking in metaphors, but what happens is you become more confident the more you use it and it just becomes smooth sailing.

MR McCORMACK: Nice one. Okay, so yes, that would be a general kind of answer there, Adam. It's essentially trying with some first steps around reviewing messaging and then overtime you start to become more adept at what you're trying to avoid and we're trying to advance.

MR DEAN: Yes, excellent. Just sort of expanding on that kind of thought, there's a question with regard to the different kinds of communication on one – on the one hand you have like interpersonal level communication and on the other more of a macro, one to many, type style of communication. Is there anything you could say or comment on with regard to more of the interpersonal conversations that you might have with a parent, or with a family that you could elaborate on?

MR McCORMACK: That's a great question. How does framing come into play in different modes of communication? When getting into say some reframing work on parenting, which is when we're talking about, or on another topic, often the advice is you think about how your messages are shaping. Are they triggering perhaps on productive models of thinking or are they helping by perhaps going with a child centre, a child development language? Now that's the advice, but how does it look in different modes of communication?

The answer is not too different. I mean when you're talking about the message, that's one thing, but when you're talking about the mode, it really is about tailoring the message for that mode. So let's just get practical. If I was in a conversation with somebody and we're talking about parenting, I would now, having been through this journey so far, I, in my mind, I would be looking for opportunities to simply talk about what's good for children., what helps children to do well, while having that interaction. In a parenting support context, if you're a practitioner working with a parent they will – they will be doing the work they've always done.

Communications, professionals, will always be doing work they always have done, it doesn't change the processes or the mechanisms of our work, but you might find yourself discovering opportunities to talk a little differently. And then you might see the engagement's a little stronger. Lesley?


MR McCORMACK: You're thoughts on that personal intercommunication.

MS TAYLOR: Absolutely. So what we've learnt, is that there are some really keywords that you can use that can really create a negative response in people. So those words that we're trying to avoid, those kind of judging words, can be very powerful in a one-to-one relationship. People let you have a strength based way of working and talking, will also find this quite a comfortable fit. So rather than talking about what's not working and how hard parenting is, talking about the joys of parenting and that, you know, the important job of being a parent and the important job of raising our children.

So even that simple language and we are all – I have constantly talked about negative aspects of parenting and I've made this – and now that I've made the change I find it quite jarring when I hear other people talk kind of negatively about parenting and join in that conversation with how hard it is and how difficult that journey is, rather than talking about what you want people to achieve, which is a sense of being supported by those around them in their parenting journey.

MR McCORMACK: Now, just another quick comment on that, you know to be clear we're not saying that through this research and its recommendations, it's time to deny the fact that parenting is hard. This is about how language can help with the engagement. And it's – the recommendation is perhaps, when talking about parenting as a struggle and yes at times it can be, but when talking about parenting, it can be more productive to frame the parenting job around what's good for children and more aspirational language around children doing well, in terms of engaging, in terms of progressing the conversation and supporting the job, it's about more than, you know, reflecting or empathising on some natural facts about the hard job sometimes.

MR DEAN: Well in talking about hard job, I feel like the questions are getting harder which is great. Great questions. We've got a few questions just around, how does this issue of framing apply to more high risk situations, or where there's conflict. So there's examples of family breakdown or conflict or family violence where – or children have been removed and placed into care. Are you able to provide any, sort of reflections on how this might apply and maybe some issues that people could think through with regard to that kind of work?

MR McCORMACK: Thanks yes and it is a good question. I mean it's a complex world and often that we're faced – we're facing true vulnerabilities and disadvantage in the work that we all do, so the question is very valid. What does framing bring to the – to the work, when the work is at the point end. And there is complexity and there is true struggles for say children who are – who are at risk.

The answer might seem a little unsatisfactory but the answer is essentially the same as the answer for the more positive aspect or aspects of support. And that is, with this work, the intention is to help have conversations, or send out messages which promote a productive way of discussing and supporting the job of parenting. So when we had that slide around things to avoid and things to advance, or when we had that recommendation around, focus on the child more than the parenting, those ideas apply, or could apply to any situation of support.

Even if, the situation of support is one of those more complex or highly sensitive areas. In our workshopping this week Lesley, we had exercises where we tried out the framing approach and using these recommendations in contexts that might be around child protection and for example, the sensitivity around a parent who's sitting and hearing the messages. How could we have more productive interactions in that space? It was something that was possible to explore. It's hard to unpack in – in a webinar, but your recommendations can be quite universal, once you get used to trying them out.

MS TAYLOR: Absolutely. It is also about not tapping into those natural emotions that families have experienced extreme trauma have fallen into about how they think about parenting. That it is overwhelmingly difficult and it cannot change. So by not feeding into that language and that mind set, you have a greater opportunity of engaging them in a really useful conversation about their children's safety and wellbeing. Rather than to talking to them about their ability to parent or inability to parent. It's not about good or bad parenting, which is such a very difficult place to come back from.

MR DEAN: Thank you very much for those responses. I think we've got time for one more question. We've had a couple of questions just about the nature of the research and how these metaphors may or may not apply to diverse populations. Thinking for example of culturally and linguistically diverse communities or Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander families for example. Was there anything – or were there any differences in how the metaphor of the lighthouse and choppy waters might apply to different populations?

MR McCORMACK: Yes. Absolutely, very good question and a natural question to ask living in Australia. We have such a diverse population, we have so many contexts of support. What do these metaphors mean? What – as explanatory tools, what do these and other explanatory tools mean, if you're working in very different context. The simplest answer is a metaphor is essentially a kind of a story or a way of thinking about the topic. You can adapt it, as long as you're holding through to the basic idea, that it can be adapted and reworked for the context you’re in.

The metaphor is not about using the exact same words in different contexts. You might use its main sort of notions. You know there are safe places for support that are our lighthouses, that are guiding parents along their choppy waters at certain times. That notion, could be used in different ways, be using slightly different words in the context that you're working. Also, the point around the metaphor is, or any of the explanatory tools is you might feel that it needs quite a lot of adapting, or you might feel that you need a different explanatory tool for your setting. And if that's the case, that's all good. The main message there would be it's always important to test, what you're aiming to use before you use it. Because you might be saying A, but they're hearing B. Lesley do you want to comment on, from your perspective, on the context and how things might need to be different metaphors or otherwise.

MS TAYLOR: If there is a current metaphor that's well received and respected and understood in a culture, then that's where you can work. If it's working already, then you can, you know, take advantage of that knowledge that exists within communities around their own – at their own – understanding their own use of metaphors. So, yes, so, use what works.

MR McCORMACK: Yes. And the Frameworks Institute do also recommend this idea that you can build on what's there, in terms of a story or a narrative or a metaphor. If you're going to use something new just ensure it's been tested and tailor away.

MR DEAN: All right, thank you very much both of you. I'm just looking at the time, we have to wrap up pretty quickly, thanks Derek and Lesley and thanks everyone for attending today and all your questions. Just before you head off, I just want to mention that if you weren't aware that AIFS is hosting 16th Biannual Conference next year and we've got a call for abstract submissions. It's closing in seven weeks on 21 October. So if you have a paper that you'd like to present at the conference, please head to the AIFS conference website and make a submission. Please also follow the link on your screen to our website to continue the conversation. And as you leave the webinar a short survey will open in a newer window. We'd appreciate your feedback. Thanks again everyone and we'll see you next time.



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The Commonwealth of Australia, represented by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS), is not responsible for, and makes no representations in relation to, the accuracy of this transcript. AIFS does not accept any liability to any person for the content (or the use of such content) included in the transcript. The transcript may include or summarise views, standards or recommendations of third parties. The inclusion of such material is not an endorsement by AIFS of that material; nor does it indicate a commitment by AIFS to any particular course of action.

Slide outline

1. Putting children first: Changing how we communicate with parents to improve children’s outcomes 
Derek McCormack and Lesley Taylor  
CFCA webinar  
11 September 2019

2. House keeping

  • Send through your questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar.
  • Let us know if you don’t want your question published on the online forum following the presentation.
  • All the slides will be available after the webinar.
  • Our webinars are recorded.
  • The audio and transcript will be posted on our website and YouTube channel in the coming week.

3. Changing how we communicate with parents to improve children’s outcomes

Alt text: Partner logos - 

  • Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS)
  • National Association for Prevention of Child abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN)
  • Parenting Research Centre (PRC)

4. The partners

  • Frameworks
  • Department of Social Services (DSS) logo stacked
  • New South Wales (NSW) Government Waratah
  • Parenting Research Centre (PRC)
  • Victoria State Government - Education and Training

5. Why Think About Framing?  
How Can We Reframe Parenting?

6. Why Think About Framing?  
A quick overview

7. Why think about framing?  
Because sustained social change requires culture change

8. Understanding is Frame Dependent

Given the importance of free speech, would you favor allowing a hate group to hold a political rally?→Importance of free speech→85% in favor

Given the risk of violence, would you favor allowing a hate group to hold a political rally?→Danger/risk/others→40% in favor

Sniderman & Theriault, 2004

9. Vox Pops video: Showing the before and after questions framed differently about parenting.

10. Australian Public Service Commission

It has become increasingly clear that a major barrier to governments ‘delivering’ key policy outcomes is a disengaged and passive public… policy makers and program and service model designers need a more sophisticated understanding of the factors influencing human behaviour.

Australian Public Service Commission

11. Why think about framing?  
Because you have a problem

12. You Say...They Think

13. You Say...They Think (cont.)

Vox Pops video: revealing the different cultural models people believe about parenting

14. So, how can we reframe parenting?

15. Heading in the right direction

16. 7 ways to win hearts and minds on parenting  
More than 15,000 Australian respondents

17. #1 Understand what you’re up against & get strategic 

18. Video: What comes to mind when you think about parenting and what it means to be a good parent.

19. Cultural models of parenting


  • Choice and Decisions
  • Information is Everything
  • Good Parenting=Caring
  • Good Parenting=Natural
  • One-Way Parenting
  • Infinite and Absolute Variation


  • Government as outside director (-)
  • Government as partner/resource (+)
  • Government as incapable (--)


  • Men=Important
  • Women=Responsible (bad parenting/challenges)


  • Importance of Integration and Appropriateness
  • What Surrounds Us, Shapes Us

20. Victoria artwork

Artwork by Nuha, Age 7, Vic.  
Caption reads: Children thrive when parents have the support they need to navigate life's choppy waters.

21. #2 Change the Big Idea

FROM: Effective parenting  
TO: Child development

22. Attitudes and Policy Support

Alt text: A graph depicting the strength of three different frames used for the same policy initiative.

23. Behavior

Alt text: A graph depicting the strength of three different frames used for the same policy initiative. The three frames were Effective parenting, Child Development and no frame

24. Avoid / advance

Text description: Table showing examples of communication to facilitate a more child development focused frame. The examples are communication to avoid and communication to advance in use.

Rebutting or disproving ingrained ways of thinking about parenting - Telling a positive, consistent story about supporting child development

Talking about how all parents struggle and that parenting is ‘hard work’ - Start with children and their needs

Talking about improving parenting or pointing to ‘effective’ or ‘good’ parenting - Build understanding of child development and the support parents need to raise thriving children

Using statistics that show poor outcomes for children to argue for parenting support - Explain how circumstances affect parents and families using the Navigating Waters metaphor

Starting communications with the idea of parenting skills - Focus on parenting skills after establishing how circumstances affect families

Talking about evidence-based parenting or the ‘science’ of parenting - Explain why parenting matters for childhood development

25. South Australian artwork

Artwork by Kate, aged 8, SA  
Caption: Children thrive in strong, supportive communities...

26. #3 Don’t Inadvertently Judge or Evaluate

27. Obvious Judge-y-ness

28. Media mentions: Good and bad parenting (Herald Sun)

Alt text: Screenshot of a Herald Sun article - Psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg lashes out against 'crappy parenting' in new book

29. Media mentions: Good and bad parenting (The West Australian)

Alt text: Screenshot of The West Australian article - "Poor parenting can harm kids" by Bethany Hiatt.

30. >Media mentions: Good and bad parenting (Parenting)

Alt text: Screenshot of Parenting website article - Poor parenting is to blame for bad behaviour in the classroom

31. Less obvious (but powerful) Judge-y-ness… 
and how to reframe it

32. Framing

Framed with Good/Bad Parenting & List of Recs.

Children look up to parents and family members and copy what they do. Some ways to be a good role model are to: be positive about life; talk about the good things in people; stay calm, even if you feel upset; deal with problems in the best way you can; admit when you have made mistakes; have a healthy lifestyle. Think about the messages you are giving if you use drugs, or are violent or racist.

Our children have what it takes to achieve great success in life. Good role models can help them get there!

Framed with What Kids Need

Children learn by interacting with those around them. They need caregivers who model positive behaviors and engage with them in productive ways. When parents and family members show children how they respond to a difficult situation, they can help children learn to respond to deal with challenges in productive ways. For example, when parents remain positive about life and talk about the good things in people, it can help children learn to have a positive outlook and manage emotions. When parents admit when they have made mistakes, children learn about self-reflection and awareness. Children look up to parents and family members and learn from what they do. When we realize this, we can help children learn and develop in positive ways!

33. Tasmanian artwork 

Alt text: Artwork by Erin, TAS  
Caption reads: Families need support to navigate life's choppy waters

34. #4 Use Metaphor to Provide a Mental Image that Sticks and Shifts

35. Navigating

Raising children is like sailing on open water. Things like health problems, financial difficulty and stress can make the waters rough and hard for parents to navigate. But we can build lighthouses and safe harbours to guide shelter parents during heavy storms by providing things like counselling services, high-quality childcare, and assistance with housing. These things offer safety and protection during hard times and help all children thrive.

Key components:

  • Raising children=navigating
  • Challenges=rough waters
  • Supports=lighthouses and harbours

Strategic way to redirect:

  • Individualism
  • Natural Parenting
  • Fatalism

36. Poster

poster.pdf (parentingrc.org.au)

37. Department of Social Services NCAR strategy video

38. Australian Capital Territory artwork

Artwork by Jiya, age 9, ACT  
Caption: We can all be a lighthouse in the life of a child

39. The Shark Cage

Alt text: The Shark Cage Framework logo. was created by Ursula Benstead.

40. Indigenous artwork

Alt text: National Child Protection Week poster with aboriginal artwork by Shirleen

41. Children need to be on an even keel

Alt text: A collage of Australia-wide artwork based on the theme of the lighthouse metaphor.  
Caption: Children need to be on an even keel. Let's all help to build the lighthouses that families need.

42. Poster (cont.)

poster.pdf (parentingrc.org.au)

43. #5 Order Is Everything

Lead with “effective parenting” or advice → Parenting in natural; Parenting is objective → Blame parents and/or reject message

Establish wider context, then get into parenting practice → What surrounds us, shapes us → Parenting is contingent; need for support

44. #6 Show Don’t Tell: Explain Development

45. Serve and return

The story to tell

Brains are built through back-and-forth interaction. Healthy development happens when young children “serve” through babbling, gestures, or words, and adults “return” by getting in sync with the child.

Moves thinking towards:

  • Interaction drives early development
  • By getting in sync with kids, parents can support positive development
  • The kinds of things that might get in the way and the need to address them

46. New South Wales artwork

Help build the safe harbours that families need.  
Alt text: Artwork by Cate, age 11, NSW  
Caption: This girl is overlooking the vast ocean with her little puppy as the lighthouse guides a boat to safety. This is showing that we need guidance.

47. #7 Tell a Story

48. A New Master Narrative 
Support Child Development by Supporting Parents

Why does this matter? 
The BIG Idea: This about the health & development of kids & how to help parents supporting this development

How does it work and what threatens it?  
Navigation Metaphor: Navigation is essential  
Waters can get rough  
Success = skills + supports

Parents shape development  
(Brain Architecture + Serve and Return)

What do we need to do? 
Give parents what they need so kids get what they need by building skills and contexts

49. Making the metaphor

Alt text: Poster for the National Child Protection Week.  
Artwork by Anamika

50. The partners recap

  • Frameworks
  • Department of Social Services (DSS) logo stacked
  • New South Wales (NSW) Government Waratah
  • Parenting Research Centre (PRC)
  • Victoria State Government - Education and Training
  • Benevolent Society

51. Who is coming along the framing journey

  • Department of Social Services (DSS) logo stacked
  • New South Wales (NSW) Government Waratah
  • Parenting Research Centre (PRC)
  • Victoria State Government - Education and Training
  • National Association for Prevention of Child abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN)
  • Raisingchildren.net.au. The Australian parenting website
  • Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS)
  • Queensland Family & Child Commission
  • Queensland Government

52. Continue the conversation…

Please submit questions or comments on the online forum following today’s webinar.

Related resources

Related resources


Derek is a Principal Specialist at the Parenting Research Centre focusing on knowledge translation. In his role, Derek oversees a number of programs and projects, with his core activities including consultation, strategy development, planning and, in many cases, managing the development of evidence-informed resources for a range of stakeholders and clients. For example, Derek has a senior management role in the development of the Australian parenting resource raisingchildren.net.au. Derek’s passion is the translation of research and best practice into the day-to-day practices of parents and those who support them.

Lesley is the National Manager Prevention Strategies and Northern Territory Manager at NAPCAN. In this role, Lesley lives and breathes child abuse prevention. Having worked in front line child protection for more than 10 years, Lesley knows that by the time a child has reached the statutory system, we have already failed them. Instead, Lesley’s work focuses on the need to support families, invest in connected child-safe communities, and embrace a culture of compassion and shared responsibility for the wellbeing of children. Lesley actively advocates for this approach to achieve better outcomes for individuals, families, communities and government budgets.