There are always people around who will tell you they know the “right” way to raise children. Yet for most of us we rely on our own common sense and judgment, as well as selected advice from friends and family, books and sheer trial and error.

However, the pace of modern life, the diversification of family structure into more single parent and stepparent families, and a reduction in the extended family support network is enough to stretch the coping resources of many a competent parent.

There has thus arisen a relatively recent source of assistance for parents — the parenting course. Advertisements and stories about these courses appear regularly in local newspapers and on shop bulletin boards. A recent call was even made to offer parents financial incentives to attend such courses.

While I certainly think it is a good idea to offer parents information and support about the challenges of raising children, to paraphrase that motor mechanic on the television: “Parenting courses ain’t parenting courses.”

In fact the whole concept of a parenting course is something entirely new to most parents and understandably many may wonder about its usefulness or be wary of its content and philosophy. Is attendance at a parenting course an admission of failure, a sinister infiltration of political correctness, or something only relevant for parents of children who run around at age six lighting fires and swearing at the teacher?

Of course the answer is none of the above.

But parents do need to be aware of what to look for when thinking about whether a parenting course is right for them. Perhaps the following mini consumer guide may be of help.

Who is conducting the course? Simply being a parent is not enough to equip you to advise others on how to deal with a wide range of issues. Appropriately credentialed and qualified trainers are able to draw on a comprehensive knowledge base about child and adult behavior and help you develop strategies for dealing with complex problems.

Has it been shown to work with children the same age and background as yours? A good parenting course will have been especially evaluated to determine just how effective it is at helping everyday moms and dads cope with parenthood.

Does it focus on more than just “problem” behavior? We as parents have a responsibility to nurture and care for our children in a way that promotes their physical, intellectual and emotional development. A course about parenting must therefore include advice on teaching children positive skills.

Does the course provide specific practical advice? Parents can only make informed decisions about raising their own children if the advice they receive is user-friendly, concrete and clearly applicable to their own situation.

Does it allow parents to practice the skills being taught? Research shows that practicing new skills is an important contributor to effective learning. All talk and no action won’t help you get out there and effect the changes you wish to make. Things such as homework tasks and takehome forms carry the content of a parenting course into the family situation and allow you the opportunity to put skills into action.

Do I feel confident discussing private family events? To gain the best from a parenting course it may be necessary to discuss exactly how you and your family deal with specific behavioral issues. For some parents this can be uncomfortable. It is up to you.

What follow-up is provided? While it’s not exactly like buying a car, after sales service in the form of further assistance and support should you require it, is something that is part of a good parenting course. Some parents may complete a course and still face difficulties. The option of further assistance should always be available.

Does it meet my individual needs? Remember that there may be other avenues to gain answers to your parenting questions that are more appropriate than a parenting course. If for example you have a specific problem with bedwetting, you might seek individual assistance from a health professional or buy a book. And one final question that can make all the difference to a busy family — does it provide child care assistance so I can actually find time to attend the course?

Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.