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Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Program Builds Young Students' Parenting Skills

Program Builds Young Students' Parenting Skills

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Sitting in a circle on a classroom rug, the 2nd graders at Ellwood Elementary School sing and do hand motions to "Itsy Bitsy Spider." Their task is to find out whether little Jeremiah Carmichael, a baby whose growth the students have been tracking since he was born, will imitate their movements.

But the 10-month old is working on another skill today: He's standing alone for the first time.

"This is a new one, guys. He hasn't done that yet," Jeremiah's mother, Tanya, says excitedly as the children clap and cheer.

The proud moment is part of Educating Children for Parenting, a 25-year-old program for elementary and middle schools here that is designed to introduce even the youngest students to the responsibilities and joys of being a parent.

Instead of offering such instruction only to teenage parents or requiring it for someone who has already abused a child, supporters of such programs say, preparing the next generation of parents should be part of the curriculum for every student—even those who haven't been out of diapers long themselves.

Mary L. Jones, a program facilitator for Educating Children for Parenting, says she's even offered the program in Head Start preschool classrooms.

Some child-development specialists and policy experts question whether programs to teach young children parenting skills are worth the time and money they require—and, beyond that, whether such parenting lessons are even developmentally appropriate for youngsters.

Mary Lou Hyson, an associate executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington, said it certainly could be beneficial for young children to be exposed to babies, because it could help the children become more nurturing and sensitive. But she expressed doubt that learning about child development—even the most elementary concepts—would have much impact on the pupils who take the classes.

"What will stick in the long run are more general attitudes than specific knowledge," Ms. Hyson said.

David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., echoed those thoughts, adding that children in preschool or elementary school are too young to be learning about how to be a good parent. "People aren't interested in child development until they have a baby," he said. "It's hard for kids at that stage to reflect on their own behavior and to take on the parent's role."

Not 'Good' or 'Bad'

Proponents of programs like Educating Children for Parenting, however, see advantages to an early start.

In a kindergarten class at Philadelphia's Ellwood Elementary one day recently, teacher Elisa Feinberg was measuring 7-month-old Layla Moss' head and length, as her mother Luann Moss sat nearby. The figures were then added to a large graph that displays how the baby has grown over time.

As the children inched closer to Layla, trying to make eye contact with her, Ms. Feinberg gave them questions to consider.

"Why isn't Layla eating steaks and hamburgers and hot dogs yet?" she asked. "When her shoes get too small, what does the mommy have to do?"

Ms. Jones, the program facilitator, said that it's useful for students to see different babies during the year so they can learn that not all children progress at the same rate. And while both Jeremiah and Layla appeared to be in exceptionally good spirits during their visits to the school in May, Ms. Jones said there had been plenty of times when babies evidently were not in the mood to be on display.

"We stress that there's not a 'good' baby and there's not a 'bad' baby," she said. "[The students] need to know how to deal with a baby who is cranky or who is sick."

Parenting lessons can be modified to fit various grade levels. Activities for preschoolers, said Janet Pozmantier, who coordinates Houston's version of the program, might focus on how words can be helpful or hurtful to a young child, while the curriculum at the high school level includes much more sophisticated information on child development and discipline strategies.

Toby Rothstein, a 1st grade teacher at Ellwood, said she believes the "baby program" can teach children to be more gentle. "You see so much pushing and shoving going on," she said.

While advocates of such programs want them for all children, they say they are especially impressed with the effect that being around babies seems to have on boys.

Exposure to babies permits boys to show a more nurturing side of themselves and can help them grow up to be better fathers, said Miriam Miedzian, a co-founder of the Parenting Project, an umbrella organization for the Philadelphia program and similar initiatives in Chicago, Houston, and Toronto. Ms. Miedzian reviewed research on fathers and boys in her 1991 book Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence.

"The research really showed that a caring, involved, nonviolent father decreased the odds of boys' becoming violent," she said.

That's why she believes parenting education should not be just an optional part of a school's family- or consumer-studies curriculum. "It needs to be mandatory, or else the boys won't take it," she said.

Joel Grubman, a counselor at Ellwood, said the parenting curriculum has helped him in his own work with disruptive students. He used a snapshot of a particular boy holding one of the visiting babies to remind the student that he had other personality traits besides being rough and intimidating.

"Here was this big bruiser holding this little baby," Mr. Grubman said. "Deep inside, he's a nice kid."

Still, some boys are quick to make jokes in front of their friends.

When prompted by Mr. Grubman, one 3rd grade boy said that after going through the program, he learned "that babies drool." In all seriousness, however, the boy added that he certainly wouldn't smack the baby for doing so.

Beyond those lessons, Mr. Grubman added that, especially in inner-city neighborhoods like Ellwood's, parenting education can be of immediate help because some children in the elementary grades are expected to help care for their even-younger siblings. The lessons they learn in school about parenting, he said, can give them some knowledge and support that they will actually use now.

States' Interest

Parenting education has largely operated on the fringes of education, because most schools see it as outside their primary role. That is even more so with programs that teach parenting skills to elementary- or preschool-age children.

But there are some signs of growing interest in parenting education among policymakers, especially in programs for secondary school students.

Beginning with those entering high school this coming fall, students in New York state will have to complete a parenting education requirement before they graduate. The curriculum will be taught by family- and consumer-science teachers or in health education classes. The legislature, however, did not appropriate any money to help districts offer the program.

Efforts to get a similar requirement have been unsuccessful in other some states, however.

In Connecticut, for instance, a coalition of organizations has been pushing for four years for parenting education legislation, but have run up against resistance among policymakers, who do not want to add more subjects to an already broad high school curriculum.

And while parenting education is part of the 7th and 8th grade curriculum in California middle schools, legislation to require it for graduation was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis in 1999 and again in 2000.

When the Democratic governor vetoed the bill last year, he said that schools weren't doing a good enough job of fulfilling their primary mission—teaching basic academic skills. They need to fulfill that mission first before thinking about offering parenting education, he said.

Besides, he's not even sure schools are the proper place for children to learn parenting skills.

"Although laudable as a goal, I do not believe the teaching of parenting skills is the appropriate role of schools," Gov. Davis said in a statement after vetoing the legislation. "Rather, this is a subject that is rightfully the domain of parents, families, faith-based entities, and nonprofit organizations."

Houston's Program

Advocates for parenting education counter that they are filling a need and that many people appreciate such programs.

Ms. Pozmantier, the program coordinator for the Houston program, called Parents Under Construction, said that in the 10 years she has been operating the pre-K-12 program there, she hasn't heard any political opposition to the concept. (Texas has no parenting education requirements for its schools.)

The greatest obstacle her program has run up against, Ms. Pozmantier said, is that such programs get pushed aside when teachers and administrators are worried about how their schools are going to perform on the state's standardized tests, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS.

"Every year, it gets harder and harder for teachers to do the program," she said. "I'm at the point where I'd like to see the program mandated and even tested on the TAAS."

To bolster their arguments for more parenting education, advocates point to surveys suggesting that parents often have questionable beliefs about child development and good parenting.

A survey last year of 3,000 parents of young children, for instance, found that many held opinions about child development that didn't agree with what parenting experts recommended. More than 40 percent of those surveyed said that picking up a 3-month-old every time he or she cried would spoil the child. Experts, however, say picking up a crying infant provides reassurance, and poses no danger of spoiling the child.

In addition, more than half the parents said a 15-month-old should be expected to share a toy—something that child-development experts say is unrealistic.

Zero to Three, a Washington-based nonprofit organization and one of the groups that sponsored the 2000 survey, also conducted a parent poll in 1997, which found that many parents said they were confused about how to be a good parent.

Looking for Evidence

Studies on five different parenting education programs—Baby Think It Over (for teenagers), Educating Children for Parenting (K-8), Learning How To Care: Education for Parenting for K-12, Parents Under Construction (pre-K-12), and Roots of Empathy (K-8)—have found beneficial results.

Compared with their peers who did not participate, students who went through the programs were often more caring and were more likely to have problem-solving skills for child-rearing situations, the researchers found. The studies measured students' attitudes about caring for babies or toddlers before and after the students participated in the programs.

Beyond that, the studies found that adolescents said they were more knowledgeable about the responsibilities of being a parent after taking part in such a program, and girls who said they wanted to have a baby were less likely to say so after participating in the program.

While Houston's Parents Under Construction program uses dolls instead of real babies, Ms. Pozmantier said high school students still leave the program with a clear message.

"The kids come out saying, 'I am nowhere near ready for this,' " she said.

While the results of the evaluations are generally positive, Carol Lewke, the president of the Parenting Project, based in Boca Raton, Fla., said the true test of the programs will be a longitudinal study to find out whether children who receive such instruction actually become better parents.

"We cannot say with any validity that this is preparing parents," she said. "That's the next step."

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Pages 1,12-13

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