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The Pioneers of Parents' Centre: Movers and Shakers for Change in the Philosophies and Practices of Childbirth and Parent Education in New Zealand

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posted on 2021-11-07, 20:27 authored by Bell, Marie

This thesis presents the voices of 17 pioneers of the organisation parents' Centre, founded in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1952. They reflect on Parents' Centre's contribution to the welfare and happiness of young children and their parents, and the challenges and satisfactions for them as 'movers and shakers' of an entrenched system. The pioneers, 13 women and 3 men, were a group of professionals and parents educated in the progressive tradition who worked as volunteers to found and develop the organisation. They challenged the well-established and generally respected views of the policymakers of the 1950s about the management of childbirth and parent education for young children. They believed that the education and care of the child from birth to three needed to be brought into line with the progressive principles and practices which had been gaining ground in the schools and pre-schools of New Zealand since the 1920s and which emphasised holistic development, especially the psychological aspects. Using Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory I set the study within the social climate of the 1950s to assess the contribution the changing times made to the success of the organisation. I identified the social and economic forces which brought change both in the institutions of society and within every day family life, particularly for young children and their parents. As researcher, I added my voice to their reflections while also playing the role of analyst. The study used an oral history method to record the stories of the participants from a contemporary perspective. My involvement in the organisation over 50 years gave me insider knowledge and a rapport with the people interviewed. Using a loosely structured interview I adopted a collegial method of data gathering. A second interview, two years after the first, informed the pioneers about my use of the interview material and gave opportunities for critical comments on my analysis. It became apparent that under the leadership of Helen Brew, parents' Centre was able to influence change. Analyses of the background of the pioneers and of the educationalists who influenced them in training, career and parenthood show that key influences on the pioneers were lecturers at Wellington and Christchurch Training Colleges and Victoria University of Wellington. The liberal thrust of these educational institutions reinforced similar philosophical elements in the child rearing practices experienced by the pioneers. Overall, the pioneers expressed satisfaction with the philosophies and practice they advocated at that time, their achievements within Parent's Centre, and pride in founding a consumer organisation effective for New Zealand conditions. They saw Parents' Centre as having helped to shape change. This study documents the strategies used by Parents' Centre to spread its message to parents, policy makers and the general public. At the end of the study the pioneers were in agreement that the change in the role of women, particularly as equal breadwinners with men, presented a challenge to the consumer and voluntary aspects of the organisation of Parents' Centre today. Some felt the organisation had lost its radical nature and was at risk of losing the consumer voice. Nonetheless, all the pioneers felt that Parents' Centre still had a part to play in providing effective ante-natal education 'by parents for parents' and a continuing role in working for change in the services in accordance with the needs of parents and children under three.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

Institute for Early Childhood Studies


Dalli, Carmen; May, Helen