Building a better parent

More groups are tutoring parents on how to raise children, as a key to curbing everything from poverty to joblessness. But, with kids, there’s no simple how-to manual.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Parents of young children participate in a parenting workshop in Boston, Mass. This is the cover story in the May 19 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

The women sitting in this small, fluorescent-lit meeting room in a gritty neighborhood of South Boston are starting to dig down into the heart of the evening’s lesson, “Love and Discipline,” when instructor Pam Bailey turns to the list of parenting personality types she has taped to the wall.

“ ‘Drill Sergeant’ – the parent is always right,” says Ms. Bailey, herself a mother of three and a longtime educator with Families First, a Boston-area nonprofit that has run parenting workshops for more than 25 years. She nods toward Pamela Williams, a mailroom employee for The Boston Globe who regularly cares for her young grandson in a nearby housing project. “This is you, right?”

“Mm hmm,” Ms. Williams says. She is determined that this child will not go off track like his father did.

“ ‘Permissive’ – the child gets what he wants,” Bailey continues, and scans the women’s faces.

Taina Guerrero, a relatively recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic, raises her hand, with an expression of one admitting guilt. 

Bailey, who exudes an empathetic poise, gives a smile. “Now we have to think,” she says. “Is this style effective? What are you trying to teach?”

There is silence as the women focus on the table. Eventually Ms. Guerrero looks up. 

“I got a problem,” she says glumly.

The women break into laughter. Of course she has problems – she has a 3-year-old and a 4-1/2-year-old at home. Besides, that’s why she and the others are gathered here – to share problems and get advice they hope will alleviate their stress as moms, help them build better relationships with their children, and generally turn them into something that has become a sort of American obsession: a better parent. 

The stakes are high. Parental improvement might seem like a national pastime these days, given the unprecedented volume of advice books, blogs, and lectures coming at moms and dads across all demographics. But for lower-income women like those in this classroom, and others like them across the country, improved parenting skills can not only increase a family’s happiness, it can also dramatically improve a child’s long-term educational achievement, lower the chances of juvenile delinquency, improve health measures, and reduce poverty, according to a growing coalition of child-development experts and scientists.

“Research has shown that the one piece that helps children come out the other side and achieve is a strong relationship between the parent and child,” says Elizabeth Cohen, executive director of Families First. 

A groundswell of new science linking caregiver behavior in a child’s early years to behavior and biology in later years has bolstered this perspective. And as policymakers bemoan the failures of other social interventions intended to alleviate poverty, such as welfare and school reforms, they are increasingly putting faith – and funds – into parents such as Williams and Guerrero, and parent instructors such as Bailey. 

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act allocated $1.5 billion for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program to expand parent home visitation initiatives, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, which pairs registered nurses with pregnant, at-risk women. School systems across the country are collaborating with programs such as Families First to expand their parent education classes. 

Local governments are also getting involved, coming up with their own ways to try to improve parenting. (Providence, R.I., for instance, recently launched the Providence Talks program to “close the 30-million-word gap,” a reference to the difference in the number of words spoken to a baby with lower-income parents by the age of 4 compared to a child with higher-income parents – a difference shown to have long-term educational repercussions.) 

In a way, all this represents the extreme edge of the American parenting-skills movement: the belief that moms and dads – or grandmas and grandpas, aunts and cousins, whoever is in the caregiver role – are the answer to American inequality. They just need to learn how to be better parents.

Behind all the classes and social experimentation, though, looms a fundamental question: Can parenting really be taught?

The answer to that – and the nitty-gritty of how a growing number of nonprofits, school districts, and governments are trying to define what “good parenting” even means – is more complicated than is often suggested on book jackets and in evening seminars. 

“There is still wishful thinking that occurs in all of this: ‘We could solve poverty, we could solve the education gap if we just tell parents how to raise their kids better,’ ” says Stephanie Coontz, cochair and director of research and public education of the Council on Contemporary Families. “There is a very large kernel of truth that parents are very important.... But it’s important to recognize there is a lot more going on.”

• • •

It is far from a new concept, of course, that a parent’s impact extends well beyond an individual child or family. Historians such as Harvard University Prof. Nancy Cott have written extensively about the way American family structure and values have formed in response to public needs, particularly the desire to raise educated citizens. In one of her lectures, she quotes John Adams from the late 1700s. “The foundations of national morality must be laid in private families,” the former president wrote in his journal. 

Colonial authorities went into homes to check whether parents were teaching the alphabet. Later, in the middle of the 19th century, says University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Rima Apple, doctors began to write childcare books that mothers were expected to read in order to understand the “science” behind parenting. 

“It’s the beginning of what I call ‘scientific motherhood,’ ” says Professor Apple, who wrote the book “Perfect Motherhood: Science and Childrearing in America.” 

Parents Magazine launched in the 1920s, and as the idea of proper parenting expanded throughout the middle class, so did the desire to help others who might not have the same skills. Soon, doctors and nurses were going into tenements, explaining to impoverished women what they should do to raise healthy children. 

“It’s important to remember that this is not a new phenomenon,” says Apple.

But it is within the past 20 years or so that the idea of “parenting” – a verb, a job, a learned skill – has swept over the American cultural landscape, bringing with it an unprecedented amount of advice on everything from breast-feeding to baby-wearing to guiding a teenager through middle school. Indeed, whole sections of bookstores are now filled with treatises – often passionate, conflicting, and written by an also-rapidly growing group of self-described parenting “experts.” They analyze how (and how not) to get babies to sleep, what to feed them, how to feed them, how to play with them, how to discipline them, and how to not worry about any of this and just live in the moment.

Web forums are rife with emotional debates about spanking, curfews, preschool, the alleged toxicity of crib mattresses. Schools increasingly offer parenting classes, citing the oft-repeated phrase that “parents are a child’s first teacher.” Hospitals, hoping to make public health gains while they have a captive audience, give lessons to postpartum mothers about the dangers of “co-sleeping” (though the practice of parents sleeping next to their infants is still hotly debated) or shaking babies (which everyone agrees is bad). 

Implicit – and often explicit – in much of this advice is the idea that parents who do not develop these skills will somehow fail their children. If the baby is not sleep trained, she will flunk out of school. If he does not learn appropriate meal habits, he will be obese. If Mom and Dad are too strict, too lenient, too involved, too uninvolved, the child will grow up to be, essentially, an unhappy loser. 

All this information inundates parents all the time, even though the vast majority of popular parenting advice is unsubstantiated. Professor Coontz’s students, for instance, surveyed parenting advice books and found only a tiny fraction to be peer reviewed. They also found the advice to be fickle. 

Take self-esteem. For years, experts said it was important for parents, teachers, and others to help children build a positive sense of themselves, saying it was essential to their success in school, relating to others, and generally going out into the world with a healthy outlook. 

Now, scads of research suggests that approach was wrong – the opposite, in fact, of what a child needs for success. Kids with excessive self-esteem are underachievers and bullies, this new research shows. Instead, qualities such as “grit” and “determination,” and the development of characteristics known collectively as “executive function,” which includes the ability to plan and work for delayed rewards, are now seen as important.

The conflicting messages are enough to make parents throw up their hemp-diaper-filled hands. In many cases, they simply revert to what they are most inclined to do anyhow: behave toward their children as their parents behaved toward them.

This is where those four parenting types that Bailey had taped to the board come in. In the 1960s, University of California, Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind began a series of experiments that led her to name three essential parenting styles, expanded by other researchers in the 1980s to four: Authoritarian, in which parents have strict rules and punishments, and expect obedience without questioning; Permissive, in which parents make few demands on their children and tend to avoid conflicts; Authoritative, a middle ground, in which parents show clear standards and consequences but also a responsiveness to their children’s needs and desires; and Uninvolved, in which parents have basically checked out.

Thousands of studies show that, in general, “authoritative” parents produce the best results – with some variations, says Philip Cowan, who, with his wife, Carolyn, is one of the country’s top authorities on parenting instruction.

“Their kids tend to have better tested cognitive skills, better grades, better relationships with their peers – not aggressive, not shy or withdrawn – better mental health, just about anything you can measure,” Mr. Cowan says. 

But shifting parental behavior from one of the other categories toward the “authoritative” realm is tricky. It has less to do with a particular set of behaviors than how those behaviors are perceived by the child, Cowan says. It also has to do with an interconnected set of relationships between caregivers, between parents and their environments, between the child and parents, and the child and other children.

“This is [about] an overall set of relationships, not any little tricks,” Coontz says. If parents don’t have a solid relationship with their child – modeling ways of behaving, creating a healthy family dynamic, respecting the child, etc. – other parenting adjustments will have little effect. The basic principles are “much more important than any specific techniques,” she says.

And an overall set of relationships is far harder to adjust than, say, the number of words a mother says to her child before the age of 4.

For Sherry Wilson-Bey, a public health nurse who has been working for 13 years with low-income, first-time moms in Philadelphia through the Nurse-Family Partnership, this means that there are a number of different topic areas she addresses with her clients. These include the new mother’s personal health, such as prenatal care, her support network of family and friends, the resources she might be getting from health and human services, the environmental health for her new baby, and her education and life goals. “Maternal role,” or how the new mom envisions herself parenting, is another crucial pillar, but only one of many.

“It has to be holistic,” says Ms. Wilson-Bey. 

• • •

Philip and Carolyn Cowan came to a similar conclusion years ago. The couple began their work on parenting not long after they moved, in 1963, to Berkeley, Calif. It was a heady time on the UC Berkeley campus, where Philip had gotten a new job – student activism was rampant, women’s liberation promised a new system of gender roles and family, peace and civil rights protests gave hope for a new, kinder future. Families, the Cowans noticed, were also falling apart.

“We were young, our kids were young, and we were seeing families coming apart all around us,” Carolyn Cowan recalls. “These were smart, kind, well-intentioned people.”

They saw that the only support offered on any wide scale for soon-to-be parents was childbirth classes. So they decided to create a support group for new parents, starting in the third trimester of pregnancy, continuing through the baby’s third month. But being academics, they also closely tracked the effect of this group. Their initial focus was on the parents’ relationship. But it turned out that the impact of their work on the child, and on the parent-child relationship, was just as significant. 

That early research evolved into some of the country’s most rigorous, long-term studies on family dynamics and parenting. The Cowans followed the parents of babies for years, and then did a second study of parents whose children were starting elementary school, following those families until the children were in 11th grade.

“We kept seeing that if we worked on the relationship between the parents – the parenting part and the more intimate part, communicating the way they handle problems – we see all of that play out in their satisfaction and their feelings of well-being and in their [children’s] academic performance, skills, behavior,” Ms. Cowan says.

To make sure they weren’t misdirecting their attention, the Cowans set up a study that compared families receiving more traditional “parenting skills” instruction with families in programs that focused on the parents’ relationship with each other, and then with a control group that had no intervention at all. While the parenting-focused groups had more family improvement than the control group, they found that the group in which the families benefited the most was the one that had focused on the couples’ relationships. 

As Mr. Cowan puts it, it’s hard to be a warm, involved, engaged parent when you are at war with your spouse.

About 10 years ago, with funding from the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention, the Cowans extended their work to lower-income families, with a particular focus on fathers. Although many low-income mothers are categorized as “single,” the national Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, run by Princeton and Columbia universities, found that about 80 percent of low-income mothers were still in romantic relationships with their baby’s father when they gave birth, even if they were not married. That father’s role is crucial, the Cowans believe. And if the father is not around, then the relationship between mom and whoever is parenting with her – a sister, a new boyfriend, a grandmother – is crucial.  

The Cowans’ low-income family programs, with a focus on the importance of fathers, have seen measurable success in terms of parental involvement and satisfaction, as well as a decrease in neglect and abuse. They have expanded across California and are now being adopted internationally. 

Domestically, the Cowans worry that many parenting-skills programs ignore the key component of the couple’s relationship. But they are relieved that a growing number do focus on the idea that “good parenting” is far more complex than a skill set.  

Wilson-Bey’s Nurse-Family Partnership, for instance, is one of the more prominent, and intensive, national parenting-assistant programs. Nurses such as herself visit the first-time mother regularly from pregnancy through her child’s second birthday. They meet in the home as often as once a week during more intensive parenting periods.

For mothers such as Iris Reyes, of Philadelphia, the steady advice – on everything from the basics of swaddling and nursing to life coaching and financial planning – has proved invaluable. “I don’t know what I would do without her,” Ms. Reyes says of Wilson-Bey.  

Reyes and her high school sweetheart, to whom she is now married, were young, scared, and expecting their first baby when they met the nurse. Since then, Wilson-Bey has helped her with everything from pregnancy to postpartum depression to understanding the developmental steps of her energetic toddler, Delilah. 

When the child started trying to stand on her riding toys rather than sitting on or pushing them, for instance, Reyes said she assumed the girl was being defiant and naughty. Wilson-Bey gently suggested that developmentally, the girl was doing what she was supposed to do, exploring her environment and experimenting with different ways to use objects.

“She helps me discuss my fears and helps me open up about them,” Reyes says. “She helps me realize that everything I find terrifying, other parents have gone through as well.”

Many other organizations are also focusing on a more comprehensive approach to parenting. At the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a coalition of practitioners, researchers, and philanthropists are using neuroscience to guide their work, building on research showing the impact of nurture – and neglect – on the architecture of the brain. Affiliated programs use everything from video coaching for families in the child-welfare system to group programs for parents intended to build their executive function. They are also pushing for policy changes that reflect the new science.

In order to help children, these practitioners say, society must build the capacities of caregivers and the community. 

Which, in a way, brings the matter of “teaching parenting” full circle. Good parenting may be the answer to any number of social ills. But until a mom or dad gets relief from those social problems – poverty, violence, lack of education – it’s hard to be a caring, respectful, and patient parent.

“It’s important to recognize that the best way to help parents is to relieve their stress,” Coontz says.

• • •

The laughter starts to quiet in the scuffed-wall classroom in South Boston. 

“I would argue with my mother,” Guerrero says. “And now, it’s the same.... I lose my patience easily. I explode.”  

The room is quiet.

“I know I’ve got to deal with this,” she continues. “I’ve criticized her my whole life – then I do it. I’m mad at myself.”

Williams speaks up.

“My mom would call me names.”

“What names?” Bailey asks. 


“And how did that make you feel?”

“Ashamed. I used to feel so ashamed, in front of my friends. Then I was doing it to my son. He was 16, 17. It was in my head, so I said it to him.”

“OK,” Bailey says. “Let’s stay right here.”

Bailey understands firsthand the importance of what is going on in her class this evening. She was 30 years old with her first baby when she saw a flier for a “positive parenting” class at the Dorchester, Mass., YMCA, put on by Families First, the organization she works for today. She was intrigued. A planner by nature, she had been trying to learn as much as she could about parenting techniques, particularly for young African-American men. In her own family, the women had done well, as she put it, while the men had not. She wanted to break that cycle.

She would eventually have three boys – “one with ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder], one autistic, and one strong-willed,” she says with an “if you can imagine that” look – all of whom she has guided safely to adulthood. But she knows how much work it has been, and how much reflection is needed to shift family patterns.

Williams talks a bit more about the relationship with her son, who ended up in jail. Then Bailey turns back to Guerrero. 

“So, Taina, in what situation do the boys make you go zero to 60?” 

“Everything,” she says.

“OK, what time of day?” Bailey asks.

The class starts brainstorming. Is it in the evening, when she is trying to get dinner on the table? When the older son comes home and wants attention? What’s happening in her life that makes her have a short temper? What about in the kids’ lives?

Some of the other moms throw out ideas. Could she use paper plates some evenings? Make a dish ahead of time and freeze it?  

On one side of the room, Maria Baker smiles. With three boys ages 5, 9, and 15, she is a Families First veteran, and looks forward to her Wednesday nights. She would like to be a parent educator herself, someday. She knows that it is not just the advice that matters here, but the sharing and the support network they are building. Just recently, she and Bailey spent some time talking privately about her relationship life; already she has felt her home situation improve tremendously, as well as her parenting.

“The first class you learn about parenting skills, but after that first session I thought, ‘Oh, I want more,’ ” she says. “Each time I learn something different.” 

After the class wraps up, they all linger. They want to talk more. It’s hard sometimes, as Ms. Baker puts it, to find those minutes when they can just pause to reflect – on their kids, on their own goals as parents, on the pace and joy and challenges of their lives overall. 

“I love the work that I do,” Bailey says. “It really is nurturing families.”

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