When Theresa Espinoza’s 3-year-old son misbehaves, she faces a common parenting dilemma: how to enforce the rules in a way he will understand.
Espinoza, 23, wasn’t sure whether to spank, the question at the forefront of modern parenting debates. She’d seen other parents spank their kids and it seemed like a strong way to discourage bad behavior. But her home visitor from the Folsom Cordova Family Resource Center changed her mind.
“It was like a revelation,” Espinoza said of the lesson on spanking and discipline. She realized she never saw the other parents explain to the child what they had done wrong and what they could do differently to avoid spanking in the future.
Without the explanation, “there’s no point, it’s abuse,” she said.
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Espinoza gets a weekly 90-minute visit from a parenting coach as a part of the Birth and Beyond Home Visitation program. Her “home visitor,” Heather Lammi, teaches parenting lessons, tests 3-year-old Judah’s development and listens to Espinoza when she’s struggling to keep up.
The program has dramatically improved the parenting of low-income Sacramento County parents. In May, Birth and Beyond presented an annual evaluation showing that 73 percent of parents referred to the program by CPS had no further interaction with the agency.
Espinoza has never had involvement with CPS, but wanted to participate in the Birth and Beyond program to learn everything she could about parenting. The nine Family Resource Centers in Sacramento County are free for everyone. They are located in areas that have had a concentration of child abuse and neglect cases in the past because they were originally intended to reduce CPS cases.
Home visitors also offer lessons in empathy, self-esteem and discipline – as in establishing routine and structure, not necessarily punishment, according to Michele Nunn, director of programs for Folsom Cordova. They help parents pick age-appropriate toys, baby-proof their homes and get their kids’ forms settled for day care and school.
“Kids don’t come with instructions, it’s kind of on the job training,” Nunn said. Many parents fall back on the methods their parents used, which can be problematic when those methods are abusive or neglectful.
“A lot of our curriculum brings up parents’ experience of being parented,” she said. “They get to kind of go through a re-parenting of sorts of themselves – sorting through what happened and deciding, ‘You know, maybe I don’t want to do that with my kid. Maybe getting popped upside my head or spanked or sent to my room for six hours isn’t really good for my kid. It wasn’t good for me.’ ”
Lammi explained to Espinoza other ways to handle misbehavior. For instance, when Judah throws a tantrum because he wants candy for dinner, Espinoza sits down with him and tries to talk out the reasons why they can’t and gives him the option of cooperating in exchange for candy after dinner.
“If he doesn’t calm down, then I’ll sit him somewhere and let him regulate his own emotions,” she said.
Instead of letting feelings of frustration overwhelm her, she takes a step back and thinks about what Lammi taught her.
“When I’m reaching that point of frustration, I stand back and evaluate the situation and reference what I’ve learned in every lesson,” Espinoza said. “I think, ‘What can I do right now to get the outcome I want?’ ”
Parents who receive at least 16 home visits are 34 percent less likely than parents with similar backgrounds to have any CPS reports at all, unfounded or otherwise. Parents who have received some visits, but not a full 16, still decreased the likelihood of a substantiated report by 29 percent.
Lammi said setting expectations about child development can be an important factor in preventing abusive parenting.
“A lot of abuse stems from unrealistic expectations for children,” she said. For instance, a parent might think that an 18-month-old should be able to use the toilet, which is not the case.
“If you think they should be at that milestone, then of course you’re going to get upset,” she said. “(Talking about development) gives parents a good understanding of ‘Oh, this is where they should be at.”
Espinoza said her favorite lessons are the ones about helping Judah develop good self-esteem – an area where she feels her parents didn’t do enough for her. She wants to raise Judah to be strong-willed and passionate in everything he does.
“My parents didn’t really show me how to do that,” she said. “I’m very timid, I’m a very shy person, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I feel like they’re substituting my deficiency in that area, because we’re not all strong in every area.”