Kim and Jay Frost finally admitted that when it came to disciplining three-year-old-daughter, Rachel, screaming and spanking weren't working. "She started getting really feisty, and we wanted to learn other ways to deal with her," says Ms. Frost.
In September, the Frosts headed back to school to learn new parenting skills. The couple signed up for a five-week seminar called, "10 Steps to Positive Discipline" through Parent University in Arizona.
"The class taught us that parenting is an ongoing learning process," Frost says. "It has been really helpful; we are much more patient and I'm not yelling as much."
Frost also says the class taught her how to discipline her children in more positive ways. "We are trying to be much more communicative instead of just giving out punishments," she says. "The class taught us that when we are calm, the kids are calm."
Parents across the country are signing up for parent education programs that offer instruction on everything from discipline and anger management to improving communication skills.
Parenting courses have been popular for some years now, but parent educators say that today they're seeing a different kind of parent filling their classrooms. "Ten or 15 years ago it was more about court-ordered sessions or people who had to take [parenting classes]," says Lynne Ticknor, a certified parent educator in Maryland. "These people who are already very good parents, really good parents. They just want to be even better."
Once upon a time, Ms. Ticknor says, parenting classes stayed focused on the basics. But now they've had to branch out. "We don't even talk about neglect with these parents, or about how often to change a diaper."
Instead, she says, today's classes are apt to narrow in on topics like fostering good reading skills, learning how to encourage children, and honing better communication skills.
"Parent education programs encourage [parents] to add two or three action items to their lives to make their parenting work better for themselves and their families," adds Peggy Senn, parent education specialist at Parent University.
Last year more than 4,000 parents signed up for classes at Parent University, a program offered through the Mesa Public School District.
Senn believes the reasons parents attend classes are varied. "Some parents are at the end of their rope and need help with a specific problem and others are trying to head off a problem before it starts," she says. "Some parents only want one session on a specific topic and others want more in-depth learning."
A desire to sharpen their parenting skills drew Alan Bennett and Lea Keohane to sign up for the Incredible Years, a 12-week parent education class offered through Morrison Child and Family Services, in Portland, Oregon.
The couple felt the classes would help them better parent their two four-and-a-half year old daughters. "Regardless of how great we think we are as parents, we know that there is always more to learn." says Mr. Bennett.
In the class, Bennett says he learned about the importance of setting goals, letting kids develop at their own pace, and being as patient as possible.
"Parents are genuinely interested in raising the best possible kids they can, and parenting classes tap into that desire," says Margie MacLeod, program director for Morrison Child and Family Services, a non-profit group that began offering classes free of charge two years ago. "To encourage that, we wanted to provide support for parents."
But some parent educators suggest that one of biggest benefits the classes offer is the chance to learn from one another.
"The opportunity to bring parents together to talk about parenting issues is really helpful," Ms. MacLeod says. "Just knowing that other parents have the same concerns and are asking the same questions is very reassuring."
Bennett says he gained from observing other parents in class. "We were all there because we are trying to make our families work," he says. "We saw inadequacies in other parents that we learned to watch out for in our own parenting and we gleaned a lot of great advice from other parents."
Parent educators stress the value of sharing ideas and learning new techniques through the curriculum, but most agree that they cannot provide all the answers.
"The classes give parents ideas and suggestions for parenting their kids," MacLeod says. "We are not saying that parents should use them in every situation or that each tool is going to work for their child, but we are giving them options that will help them to feel less stressed and enjoy their kids more."
And parent education is not just about what parents are doing wrong: Frost says the class also reinforced some of the parenting strategies she was already using. "We learned that we were doing some things right, like giving her choices and letting her make the decision," she says.
Frost says the techniques she learned in class have been helpful in dealing with disciplinary issues at home.
But she admits there are times when she reverts to her old ways. "Sometimes one of us will start to yell and we have to say, 'Okay, let's go back to some of the principles we learned in class,' " she says. "It helps us stay on track."