Science-based parenting classes help moms and dads deal with discipline

02/28/2012 12:00 AM

02/28/2012 10:40 AM

"No one said it would be easy."

So say the posters that advertise free parenting classes from the Sacramento First 5 Commission's Birth & Beyond program – and ain't it the truth?

The words "parenting" and "class" don't normally spring to mind in the same sentence. Most moms and dads go on experience, advice and intuition.

There is also some science to it – an entire field, in fact, which has produced hundreds of parenting-education courses on everything from discipline to anger management.

"There really is a whole field of science that very specifically relates certain aspects of parenting at different developmental periods with important outcomes for kids," said Laurie Miller Brotman, director of the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development at New York University Langone Medical Center.

Research has found that certain parenting strategies affect how well kids do in all sorts of areas, she said: "children's behavior, mental health, physical health and academics."

Brotman and other psychologists say the lessons taught, and the science underlying the lessons, can help everyone – any parent who has known the bafflement of a tantrum, the wish to help a child succeed, and the feeling of being at wits' end.

All techniques, however, don't fit all situations. Researchers say parents should try various strategies, see how children respond, and choose those that best suit them.

The Birth & Beyond programs in Sacramento teach the techniques as a tool to prevent child abuse and neglect, targeting parents at risk of falling into the behaviors, such as parents who were abused as children or those suffering extreme life stress.

While some participants are ordered to the classes by Child Protective Services, others come voluntarily because they want to learn.

"If I had known there were parenting classes out there when I got pregnant with my first child, I would have been there," said Tracie Hall-Burks, program director at the Effort North Highlands family resource center and mother of two.

Families are anything but formulaic, yet an essential formula applies to parenting all kids, Brotman said. Put simply, it's a good balance between discipline and love.

Fourteen parent-students came to the Make Parenting a Pleasure class at the North Highlands center last week to learn how to strike the right balance. They were as diverse as their hairstyles, including a mohawk, a buzz cut and a plain brown braid. But all had come with the desire to do right by their kids, perhaps better than their parents.

"I'm hoping we can find a level of consistency together, so we can be more of a parenting team," said Melinda Ortega, there with Tyson FitzGerald, her partner of 14 years.

The North Highlands couple have seven children under age 13, and the family is hurting for money these days.

"It's hard to love the kids when you're always mad at someone or someone's fighting," Ortega said.

Parents in the Birth & Beyond classes brainstorm ways to show love and support, such as getting on the floor with kids to play games, read, sing, or simply cuddle. Facilitators urge them to carve out individual time for each child, even if it's just 10 minutes a day.

Researchers have found that forging that bond makes kids respond better when their parents discipline them.

What good discipline looks like, however, is complex.

Parenting curricula, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, generally discourage physical punishment such as spanking.

A 2010 study in the journal Pediatrics found that children spanked frequently at age 3 are more likely to be aggressive themselves at age 5, regardless of demographic factors or the kids' innate personality traits. A study this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reviewed two decades of research on physical punishment and concluded that no study showed long-term positive effects, and most showed negative effects.

The studies don't prove cause and effect, but they show a strong association.

However, in a country where surveys show that well over 50 percent of parents use the tactic, parenting coaches say it's not sensible just to pronounce, "Don't spank."

"Most parents are not wedded to spanking. They just want to have consequences for kids if they're misbehaving, which is appropriate," Brotman said. "They just don't know what else to do."

Facilitators in the Birth & Beyond classes promote alternatives such as timeouts and logical consequences (such as helping to clean crayon marks off the wall). They teach that discipline is learning.

"If you're about to discipline your child for their behavior, you're about to teach them something," said Afi-saran Farrar, the facilitator in the North Highlands class and a mother of two. "So by yelling at the child, what are you teaching her? Is that what you want to be teaching her?"

Timeouts may not click at first with children used to smacks on the bottom, researchers say, but within a few weeks parents usually see kids adapt and behavior improve.

Managing expectations

What's a parent to do, though, when your toddler repeatedly grabs at your food when you're just trying to have a snack?

"Five times, cool," said Charles Davis, a 30-year-old dad in the North Highlands class, of his daughter Alyssa. "When you start getting to six, seven, eight, nine, 10 times, jumping on the bed next to me. " He trailed off in exasperation.

A huge part of parenting success, the research says, is understanding what coaches call "ages and stages" – keeping reasonable expectations of what, say, a 20-month-old such as Alyssa understands and can do. So, the curricula explain child development.

"I have to get in my mind that she's a little girl, and she doesn't know how irritating she's being," Davis said.

Lots of parents "have big expectations for little people," Farrar said.

"They think their 2-year-old should be potty trained," or that if you tell a 4-year-old to clean her room, she should do it. When the child fails, it fuels frustration and conflict.

In fact, Farrar explained, many 2-year-olds aren't ready to be potty trained. And the 4-year-old with a messy room "doesn't understand you. You're giving her too much to do at one time."

Instead, Farrar coaches parents, break the instructions into bite-size pieces. Tell the child to put her shoes in a basket. Wait until she does. Then tell her to fold the blanket and show her how.

Support group

Easier said than done.

It's one thing to read about research-based strategies, and quite another to figure out how to enact them with the demands of family schedules, work, financial strains and individual personalities.

That's where the companionship of fellow parent- students can help. The classes provide a much-needed support group. Done right, the classrooms can become like collaborative laboratories, where parents share strategies, test them out, and report on how they worked.

"In the right setting and with the right approach, it's not so hard to make small changes, and the small changes are what matter," Brotman said. "They really do grow over time, and the impact on kids is pretty impressive."

It's never too late to learn new parenting techniques, Brotman said – though the earlier you start, the easier the transition.

In Sacramento, tests at the start and end of classes have shown that parents' knowledge of child-development stages and child-rearing strategies improves. Those are paper-and-pencil exams, though, not the same as real life.

Michelle Jaynette Perry, a 27-year-old mother of three, plus three stepchildren, was taking Make Parenting a Pleasure last week for the second time.

Since her previous class, she said, "I take more time to actually interact with my kids. I used to rush through things."

Now that she plays, sings, reads, and watches TV more with the children, she said, "They come to us more with their problems."

Perry has some past experiences to vanquish. As a child she lived in 36 foster homes in 16 years, and she wants to give her kids a better childhood.

Everyone who embarks on the magical, maddening, mettle-testing voyage that is parenting has much to learn.

"I read every book," said Sheila Boxley, CEO of the Child Abuse Prevention Center in North Highlands, "my husband and I both had graduate degrees, I had a wonderful, loving family and community, and I thought I knew it all.

"And you know – I didn't."

Parents, ask yourselves ...

Afi-saran Farrar, a facilitator in Sacramento's Birth & Beyond program, coaches students in the Make Parenting a Pleasure class to ask themselves four questions when choosing a discipline method for their child.

1. What do I want my child to learn from this experience, situation or opportunity? This question helps the parent identify why the child is about to be disciplined.

2. Is what I am doing helping my child to learn that?

3. Are there any negative effects from my discipline choice? This question allows the parent to reflect on the outcome.

4. If so, what can I do differently? If the discipline choice did not achieve the desired result, then the parent has the opportunity to change it.

For more tips and information, try these resources:

New York University Child Study Center

www.aboutourkids.org/families

American Academy of Pediatrics

www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/ family-dynamics/communication-discipline/

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