Families & the Community

Lessons for Life

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 09, 2004 10 min read
The Mesa, Ariz., school district opened Parent University 18 years ago as a place where adults could discuss and hone parenting skills.

It’s not a pretty scene when Martha A. Whitmer and her 14-year-old son, Patrick, fight.

They yell. Doors get slammed. Small incidents rekindle ongoing conflicts. Patrick may feel his mother has let his 15-year-old sister, Madolyn, get away with something, reinforcing his hunch that his mom likes her better. Whitmer may get peeved at Patrick because she thinks he’s spending too much time at the computer.

Sometimes they clash with each other Sunday evenings when Whitmer requires Patrick and Madolyn to go with her to a Roman Catholic Mass geared toward teenagers.

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But neither of them likes the yelling matches. So when Whitmer asked her son to join her in a class offered by the Mesa public schools that’s aimed at improving communication between parents and teens, he reluctantly agreed.

Patrick is usually quiet-natured, but when a topic interests him, he states his opinions directly and flashes a subtle smile. The youth, who wears his hair long and dons black T-shirts promoting his favorite rock band, Metallica, says he agreed to the parent-teen class because his mother “nagged” him. But two sessions into the six-session course, Patrick rates his willingness to continue attending at a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Educators often say that what young people learn at home about behavior and how to view themselves has a lot to do with how well they do in school. But Arizona’s Mesa school system goes further than many other districts to help parents who seek advice on discipline, communication, and other aspects of raising children. Already, Patrick and his mother seem to have steered out of a rut after being stuck in their own perspectives.

Madolyn says her mom and Patrick haven’t fought in quite a while.

Asked what he thinks is the hardest aspect of being a parent, Patrick says: “Being responsible. You have to do everything. The kids sit around and do nothing.”

As for her part, Whitmer, 46, says it’s not getting any easier to be a teenager: “There is more pressure on kids to fit into some kind of group. There’s pressure by parents for them to succeed in school. We want them to go to college.”

It’s only a start, but the shift in the Whitmers’ relationship is just the kind of impact that Mesa public school officials envisioned 18 years ago when they began Parent University.

Today, Parent University offers some 40 classes each year that provide information on child and youth development. Last year, some 4,000 adults, including parents from neighboring districts, attended at least one Parent University session. The class that Whitmer and her son chose is called “Families in Action.”

Each semester, schools in Mesa send fliers home with students inviting parents to sign up for classes. The courses are offered mostly during evenings in schools scattered along the 15-mile strip of urban sprawl east of Phoenix that makes up Mesa.

Many of the classes use curricula developed by national parenting experts such as psychologists Becky Bailey, the author of I Love You Rituals and Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, and the late H. Stephen Glenn, who wrote numerous books on “positive discipline.”

Instructors urge parents to be “assertive,” rather than either aggressive or passive. Parents are instructed to model the same kind of self-control they want their children to practice.

Parent University is offering a variety of courses this semester:

“I Hate You": Helping Youth Effectively Manage Anger

  • Night I: Controlling ourselves so that we can teach anger management
  • Night II: Strategies and structures for teaching anger management to children

Single Parents-Choices and Decisions in Relationships

The Loss of Imagination, Critical Thinking, and Family Connection

Blended Family Success: Blended Family Issues

Ten Steps to Positive Discipline (five sessions)

Developing Capable Young People (six sessions) (scroll down)

The program is expected to cost $110,000 this school year, much of which goes for the instructional staff and the salaries of a director and an assistant. Tuition—about $5 per session for parents who don’t get scholarships—covers some of those costs. State or federal grants have also been used to pay some expenses.

Mesa school leaders support the program because they recognize that “parents are the child’s first teachers,” says Peggy E. Senn, a former elementary teacher who has directed Parent University for 17 of its 18 years. The program has evolved to emphasize discipline, child self-esteem, and communication because that’s what the parents request, she says.

Participating parents say the classes offer specific, useful advice.

Perhaps the greatest frustration of its supporters is that Parent University is underused. “Some parents have access—and some parents don’t want access,” says Tony Washington, a 6th grade teacher at Johnson Elementary School who has taken classes at Parent University and found them to be well organized.

While about 3,000 parents or teachers from the Mesa schools enroll in Parent University each school year, the district has 74,700 students—and at least that many parents or guardians, meaning the program reaches a small percentage of those adults. Hispanic parents, especially, are underrepresented. Only about 60 Hispanic parents attended classes this past school year, while 30 percent of the students in the Mesa schools are Hispanic.

Do classes targeted for parents actually help improve life at home and in the classroom?

It’s hard to say, according to Joyce L. Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In general, she says, parents write on evaluations that they find them worthwhile.

Epstein says it is difficult, however, to conduct studies that compare and contrast parents who attended parenting classes with similar parents who did not attend them, and show that the classes made a difference in how the parents related to their children.

Nonetheless, she urges schools to offer such classes as part of a comprehensive effort to engage parents in their children’s education and to involve parents in school decisionmaking.

Parents in Mesa have various motives for taking parenting classes.

Laura Linam is taking “Developing Capable Young People” this semester because her daughter has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and she wants to do whatever possible to help the child do well. “If a child can’t sit well and control their behavior, they aren’t going to learn,” Linam says.

Kim S. Tenney, a mother of four children who has taken several classes at Parent University, says, “I did not grow up in a positive household, and I had to learn to be a parent.” The classes have been affirming, she adds. “I learned I’m doing a lot of things right,” she says.

Lisa Sweet, a counselor at Poston Junior High School, leads the teen discussions for this semester’s Families in Action class. She observes that Parent University attracts “proactive parents” and “reactive parents.”

Proactive parents read books on parenting and seek to prevent problems, Sweet says. Reactive parents, she says, sign up for a parenting class after they have experienced a crisis and feel desperate.

One parent, Dianne Turner, who is taking her first class at Parent University this semester, says she’d put herself in both the proactive and reactive categories. She took a parenting class two decades ago and has read books on parenting, but she signed up for the class Developing Capable Young People because her children have been under a lot of stress recently. Turner, 44, has 10 children, but only her three youngest—Ashleigh, 13, Brandi, 11, and Chaz, 9—live with her.

Although 4,000 adults attended Parent University classes in the 2003-04 school year, Mesa officials would like to see that number increase.

Turner says she’s been having some difficulty dealing with the children because of her recent divorce from her second husband.

“Parents need to be firm, fair, and consistent,” she says. “The last year, I’ve allowed my children to walk all over me because I didn’t want them to say, ‘I want to go live with my Daddy.’ ”

The divorce was final in September, but for nearly two years Turner has been living apart from her ex-husband and struggling to find and keep housing, she says. She and her three youngest children have, at times, stayed in hotels or with friends.

Turner now shares the rent for her tidy, sparsely furnished apartment with a young man who gets money for having a disability. Turner is a registered nurse who is currently unemployed and receives family assistance.

She says she sees a connection between the family’s trials at home and school life. Ashleigh is getting B’s and C’s in 8th grade, while she once got A’s and B’s. “I need to get a handle on Ashleigh and her behavior around guys,” Turner says.

Chaz is a C student in 4th grade who was recently suspended for bringing fireworks to school. Turner feels that Brandi, however, is doing well in school.

From what she’s learned at Parent University, Turner has identified at least one aspect of her parenting style that she’d like to change: She says she wants to help her children become more responsible.

“I can see I’m the directing type,” she says. “I’m directing them here and there to do this and that, and not giving them the encouragement to do it on their own.”

Instead, the course teaches parents to help their children realize they have important jobs to do themselves, such as helping to keep their homes organized or getting out of bed and going to school. It also teaches parents to let their children face the consequences if they don’t do their jobs.

In a recent Families in Action class, parents and teenagers meet in two separate rooms on a Wednesday evening to learn more about family relationships.

Sweet, the junior high counselor, talks with the students about courage. She explains how Christopher Reeve, the late actor, was courageous in creating a new life after he fell off a horse during a riding event in 1995 and was paralyzed from the neck down. She encourages the teenagers to say positive things to themselves when they face difficulties.

Only one of the five teens present contributes regularly to the discussion. The others are quiet but attentive. Patrick Whitmer is one of the quiet ones.

Meanwhile, his mother and a half-dozen other parents gather for a separate talk.

Shannon Wagner, a 20-year-old sophomore at Arizona State University, is the youngest member of the parent group. Wagner became the legal guardian of her now-15-year-old sister two years ago because of the difficulties their mother had following their father’s death four years ago.

Wagner says her sister recently came home with an F in math on her report card. And, being so new to parenthood, Wagner wasn’t sure how she should respond.

“The only thing you can do is be encouraging,” Martha Whitmer offers. “I tell Patrick, ‘I had trouble with math, too. You have to ask for help.’ ”

Mesa administrators see the classes as a way to help reduce some of the friction and distractions from home that spill over into the classroom.

Wagner continues that her sister had a tutor available, but she didn’t go to tutoring.

“Does she know she’ll have to take the class again?” inquires a parent.

“I tried to explain that,” says Wagner.

Rebecca Crozier chimes in that one of her sons has faced many struggles with math. She even hired a private math tutor for him, but two years later, he still was getting a D in math. “We would cry together,” she says.

Whitmer knows the arguments with her son are probably not completely over, though she says the strategies she’s picked up through Parent University continue to help her make more thoughtful decisions concerning her children.

She credits the Developing Capable Young People class with prompting her to give her children more responsibility. “I learned I was kind of a micromanager with homework and chores,” she says. With Patrick, she adds: “I’m trying to monitor what he does, but not lean over him while he’s doing it.”

Whitmer says she also gained new insights into the competitiveness between Patrick and his sister Madolyn through a Parent University course on sibling rivalry. “I learned they are individuals and not to compare them—and to find things that they can do on their own,” she says.

Taking away privileges is another of the strategies Whitmer has picked up on. Patrick was reminded of that in October when his grades for two subjects dropped from B’s to C’s, and his mother temporarily stopped the online subscription to his favorite game, The Dark Age of Camelot.

“If he wants it hard enough, he’ll work hard for it,” Whitmer says calmly, sitting with Patrick on a recent Saturday morning at their dining room table, which is decorated with a bright-orange tablecloth for Halloween.

Later that weekend, while returning from a Sunday-evening Mass with his mother, Patrick talks as if her tactic of taking away the online game won’t be effective.

“Will you work to get your grades up?” his mother responds.

“Yes,” Patrick says. “But it will be so I can go to college, not just for the game.”

“That’s the right answer,” says his mother.

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