[ Note added, as I am posting on Memorial Day: On this solemn day let us all remember those who fight on our behalf and those whose deaths this day recalls. They allow us to enjoy a peaceful day. I gave this talk at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., on Sunday, May 27, 2018, the day before Memorial Day. ]
Thank you, Sarah, Porter Square Books, the baristas at Zing! and each of you attending and those of you who are reading!
In planning what I wanted to share with you – on the topic of parenting education in general and parent peer support in particular – a phrase from the Ted Radio Hour came to mind: “We had to believe in impossible things!”
Seeing how difficult it has been over the past 25-plus years, since 1992 when a long-time friend Chris Bates said she would help me organize a nonprofit, this effort has, more than once, seemed next to impossible.
Let me give you my view of the big picture of parenting education and some bits of Parents Forum’s history. Then I will read a page or so from Where the Heart Listens, the handbook I wrote for the program. I will take questions and comments, then close with our call to Stand Up for Parents.
First, the big picture: we can look at parenting education by asking the reporter’s usual questions: WHAT, WHO, WHERE, WHEN, WHY.
WHAT: Parenting education involves three things: practical skills, knowledge about child and adolescent development and, finally, emotional support to keep up — as best as we can — with what our children and the process of childrearing demands of us.
Many programs have been studied and found to be successful in improving outcomes for children. One of these, The Parenting Journey, based in Somerville, Mass., will receive a percentage of the store’s sales today. There are lists of successful programs and any number of models of delivery of curriculum: parent coaching, classes, individual consultations, videos, and of course, books and blogs. One column I read years ago was called ‘Attack of the parenting experts’ . . . sometimes it can feel as if there is almost too much information.
Now, the WHO of parenting education. Many people teach us, or can teach us, what we need to know how to do and what we need to know and can help keep our spirits up. They are doctors, teachers, counselors, family members and friends, colleagues and especially parenting educators! There are courses and certifications in the field of parenting education and I strongly recommend the services of these professionals.
I want to stress that I am not a professional parenting educator. I trained as a language teacher. I have the greatest respect for friends who work professionally as parenting educators. I see parent peer support, what Parents Forum offers, as slightly different, something that can serve as either an on-ramp or an off-ramp to the teaching and counseling provided by them. Parenting education is an investment that we all need to make. More than an ounce of prevention, maybe we should call it a ‘pound of prevention’!
WHERE: Parenting education happens informally in lots of places — among parents in the bleachers at a ball game or waiting for the school bus — but it needs to happen formally also, in classes and meetings at schools and clinics, in the workplace and in faith communities.
Some exchanges among parents are, of course, less than candid. It is all too easy for parent chatting — and Instagramming — to become a game of one-up. This serves only to increase our insecurity and even foster denial about real problems that we or our children are experiencing.
WHEN does parenting education happen? Simply put, not often enough. Kindergarten was once a radical innovation, now, kindergarten along with early childhood programs for preschoolers are recognized as essential to children’s success in learning and in life. Parenting education is just as essential and just as effective.
And the last question: WHY. The costs of neglectful or damaging parenting are borne by children, of course, but they are also borne by every one of us, at every level and in every sector of society.
Matthew Stewart’s cover story, in The Atlantic June 2018 issue, addresses the serious and growing inequality in our country and elsewhere. He wrote, “We should be fighting for opportunities for other people’s children as if our own children depending on it [because] it probably does.” He did not, unfortunately, mention parenting education, a proven strategy to support children’s wellbeing.
Next, let me tell you about how Parents Forum came to be. It is a case of life giving you lemons and making lemonade. I realized, during the times when my sons were going through some normal and some extreme adolescent difficulties, that other parents were my best help!
I came to understand that, in learning to talk about feelings, I had essentially learned a new language. As a language teacher, I ought to be able to figure out how to pass on the learning I had acquired. Since the key element in the help I had gotten was other people listening to me, I decided to make questions the format for the curriculum of Parents Forum and wrote eight questions about family life issues. These form our Agenda.
In answering each question, we use a conversational formula “I feel__ about__ because__,” providing a list of feeling words as a cheat-sheet. We present this in a mini-workshop called ‘How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear’. When I present this session, which I have done in a variety of settings, from prison to university, and various locations (Manila, Ougadougou, not yet in China or India though), it feels like a combination of playing school and doing standup comedy.
Yesterday I was speaking with a participant in the program we have going in Winthrop, Massachusetts. This single dad had come to Parents Forum hoping to learn something, but also hoping to have a chance share his experiences. Ideal motivation! His comment on the next effort that we need to undertake — training facilitators for other groups — is that the program is only 20% teaching. The other 80% is the experience: listening and being listened to. It is difficult, but not impossible, to learn the patience to do this well.
We agreed that a Parents Forum facilitator needs to become comfortable being vulnerable and to let go of the wish or need to be an authority, while maintaining a confident manner. Projecting confidence while being present with one’s own sometimes strong feelings as well as with participants’ feelings is a subtle balancing act. .
Not long ago one of the paying guests in my home gave me a copy of Morrie In His Own Words. You may have read, or heard of, Tuesdays with Morrie. Let me share with you some of his words.
I don’t think anybody has a pure relationship with anyone else. There are always negative factors and those negative factors stir up unpleasant feelings. Face them, or they can make you angry and bitter.
After accepting the negative feelings, I had a greater appreciation of the positive ones.
Acceptance is not a talent you either have or don’t have. It’s a learned response.
If we can learn emotional awareness, what keeps us from practicing it! The short answer, I guess, is that nobody likes to feel bad! But ‘feeling bad’ …acknowledging resentment, confusion or anger, or whatever… is a necessary step towards resolving negative emotions. If we do not acknowledge them and, especially, if we do not teach our children how to do that, a cascade of ill health, both physical and mental, and a cascade of family dysfunction and violence will continue to plague us.
Let me step back from Parents Forum, the program itself, and the challenges we face personally and consider the challenges of implementing parenting programs on a social level.
You would probably agree that it is very difficult to tell someone that you think they are making a mistake, even a small one, in how they are handling a situation with their children. There is tremendous stigma associated with bad parenting. None of us wants to be labeled neglectful or wrong, especially when it comes to our kids.
My thought is that we can find a way around this stigma only if we make parenting education and parent peer support both accepted, normal parts of society. This will involve NORMS RE-ENGINEERING, a phrase I hear recently. We all used to ride in cars without seatbelts. Many adults — including my dad, who died of a heart attack at age 49 — would smoke cigarettes wherever and whenever. Few people do these things any more.
We need to make parenting education available, accessible, affordable and attractive to all parents. We want parenting and family life education to be offered at each key stage in family life: to newlyweds, expectant parents, parents of newborns, and thereafter to all parents at appropriate intervals throughout children’s development, from the earliest years into young adulthood.
Acceptance of parenting education across peoples’ lifespan can, I believe, come about only as a result of a concerted social movement coupled with public health campaigns targeted to individuals and direct lobbying efforts targeted to policymakers and administrators throughout society, particularly in media and entertainment industries.
Some years ago, at a time when we were struggling to find a way forward with Parents Forum, I had the good fortune to sit down with David Maher, then mayor of Cambridge and now president of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, and Ellen Semenoff, now assistant city manager for human services. What they told me confirmed our original intent to focus our efforts on parents of children ages five to ten, that is, from kindergarten through grade five.
These city officials described an abundance of programs for parents of little ones but acknowledged that both program offerings and parent participation taper off when children enter school. As children entered the sometimes difficult tween years and the dependably challenging teen years, as they saw it, next to no programming was available for parents. At that stage, too many parents were, as I had been, desperate.
I believe that we need to do two things: We must Stand Up For Parents and, at the same time, help parents stand up for themselves in the early grades, so that they can stay on a good track and help their children do the same. We must make concerted efforts both to provide solid programs and to promote parents’ participation.
Parents Forum won’t ever put helping professionals, including parenting educators, out of business. Nor would we want to. Rather, I believe that our work can help parents and others in parenting rules address concerns when they can be addressed successfully before problems become entrenched and intractable.
Let me read a little from Where the Heart Listens, then we can talk together. The following is from Chapter Seven: Raising Parents.
How can we better prepare to feed… love… teach… play with… and help our children find their way in the world? We need to take time to prepare, but how can we find the time when so many of our daily tasks are not optional? A crying baby needs to be fed, changed, or soothed. Toddlers need to be picked up or dropped off at daycare. Preschoolers need an art activity or a trip to the park. A school-age child needs a hug, or homework checked, or a story read. A teen or young adult child needs advice (seldom), needs a ride somewhere (often) or needs money (still more often!) A supervisor insists on a report or a customer needs an order by the end of the day. An appliance signals (the microwave beeps, the clothes dryer buzzes) calling our attention. We are lucky to have them, of course – the kids, the work and the conveniences – but taking breaks between those urgent tasks is as essential as the tasks themselves. We also need food, friendship, information and skills, fun times and a chance to become involved in our community. Parents Forum and other programs for parents play an essential role in community life. Businesses, government and community agencies can help by recognizing parenting education as a cornerstone of family support.
Let me mention that our program’s basic curriculum is available in two adaptations: ‘Spotlight on Conversation,’ for young adults age 15 and up and for adults in the workplace, and ‘Learning What We Live’ for middle school students ages 11 to 14.
Let me mention also this calendar note: On August 1, 2018, Respect for Parents Day, we will offer a facilitators’ training from noon to 3pm, in Central Square, Cambridge. If you are interested in organizing Parents Forum in your community, please write to us firstname.lastname@example.org
Before I hear what you have to say – comments are welcome – let me share this quote from Steve Jobs, from Walter Isaacson’s book on Da Vinci. Jobs wrote, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
It may be impossible. We may be crazy. We must be the change we want to see in the world and make parenting education universal, starting now and where we are. Thank you.