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Workplace seminars help parents tackle home-oriented issues

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Fran Litman is helping to nudge today's rapidly changing family situations -- working mothers, single parents, mounting child-care needs -- onto the agenda of corporate America. A mother, grandmother, and director of the Center for Parenting Studies at Boston's Wheelock College, she spends much of her time figuring out ways to help working parents shoulder their varied responsibilities.

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One of her prized projects: a program of workplace seminars for parents -- an idea that got its start in the Boston area but has sparked interest elsewhere. And there's a sparkle in Mrs. Litman's eyes as she recalls how the seminars evolved from their rather shaky beginning in the late '70s.

The goal was to share research findings and practical information with parents, but attendance at the original sessions, held at Wheelock, was disappointing. Mrs. Litman remembers the initial puzzlement over ``why parents were not attending in droves as we expected them to.'' She and her colleagues decided to look again at the ``demography.'' What stood out were the ``increasing numbers of mothers employed outside the home'' -- at that time 44 percent of those with children under 6. Now the figure is ov er 60 percent, points out the Wheelock professor.

The implication of those figures, she says, was that the seminars might have to go to the parents -- i.e., the workplace -- rather than expect the parents to travel to the college. And that's exactly what came out in discussions with representatives from New England Life Insurance, a company Mrs. Litman had been in contact with for some time. To its credit, she says, the company agreed to pilot the seminars as a ``corporate benefit.''

Thus began ``what we called `brown bag' seminars,'' she continues, ``which got a lot of acclaim, and we've been doing it ever since in corporations around the Boston area.'' A second seminar program, aimed at senior and middle managers ``who had at-home wives and whose daughters and sons were not yet involved in two-career marriages,'' soon followed.

Discussion in the ``brown bag'' series explores such eminently practical topics as what ``quality time'' with your child really means, the father's expanding role in child-rearing, and reentering the work place after maternity leave.

Among those who heard of the Wheelock program and decided to take a closer look was Elaine Scheid, a human resources manager at Ohio Bell in Cleveland. She first started thinking seriously about the need to reach out to employee-parents when she returned to her job after maternity leave. The statistics on the growing number of ``dual career'' families were, in her words, ``rather startling.'' After doing further research and looking around at what other companies were doing, she realized there were many

options besides opening a day-care center in the work place.

Seminars for working parents seemed ``a good start for us,'' says Mrs. Scheid. That conclusion led her to Mrs. Litman.

``I contracted with Fran to work with me,'' says the Ohio Bell executive, and after a trip to Boston, followed by training and test runs in Cleveland, she was ready to launch a series of noontime seminars on parenting issues.

That was in October of '83. The effort has since expanded, with outside agencies hired to run seminars at Ohio Bell's branch offices in Akron and other cities. Subjects have ranged from day care to toy safety to managing children around the holidays. A later one will deal with child-care tax credits.

Billie Young, child-care coordinator for the City of Seattle, has also drawn on the resources of Wheelock's Center for Parenting Studies. She is at the forefront of a city-initiated effort to make Seattle's business community more sharply aware of the need to ease tensions between family life and work life. As part of that effort, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer hosted a gathering of the city's corporate chief executive officers in April, at which Mrs. Litman spoke. After that, says Mrs. Young, came ``lots of calls and a lot of interest.''

She and her colleagues surveyed Seattle companies to assess attitudes toward work-and-family issues. Overall, she has been heartened that ``a lot more is going on than we had any idea of.'' Every one of the 44 companies responding to the survey was offering at least some of the things listed in the questionnaire -- on-site day care, child-care vouchers, release time for school activities, and flexible time arrangements, to name a few. Often, however, such measures were carried out on an informal, nonpol icy basis. Seventy percent of the businesses said ``yes'' when asked if they had a role to play in helping employees balance work and family responsibilities.

There's little doubt that the business community generally is becoming increasingly interested in work-and-family issues, according to Karen Hurst, vice-president of personnel for the Bank of New England. In her own company, which regularly holds the Wheelock parenting seminars, this interest springs from deep concern about ``employees' problems with regard to work and family'' and an acknowledgment that those problems can have ``a strong impact on productivity.''

That's an acknowledgment that Fran Litman is determined to widen. ``The old ethic that work and family don't mix still permeates most work cultures,'' she says.

``What I think the seminars do, what I think this whole initiative is doing, is to demonstrate to corporations that the parent who worries less works better, and that to the extent you can support parents you probably are impacting on productivity and absenteeism.''