Parenting skills can be taught to toddlers

June 25, 1993|By Martha Woodall | Martha Woodall,Knight-Ridder News Service

In the early 1970s, Philadelphia psychiatrist Henri Parens made two discoveries that would shape his life's work.

While studying a group of mothers and their babies for a research project on human attachment, Dr. Parens found that not only adults could learn how to be good parents, but so could very young children.

He noticed too that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, children didn't wait until the Terrible Twos to display aggression: It began to crop up after the first few months of life, in a baby's persistent grabbing for a spoon or a new toy, for instance.

Scrapping his study, Dr. Parens turned his attention to his new findings, and to his suspicion that if children were taught the skills of parenthood, they'd be better adjusted -- as kids and, eventually, as grown-ups.

"Parenting education"

Dr. Parens had stumbled across a rich research field, which he dubbed "parenting education." And for the next 20 years, while juggling a private practice, teaching and writing several books, he would mine it assiduously.

There were skeptics along the way who wondered whether little children could absorb such complex concepts. Dr. Parens told them, "I work with 3- and 4-year-olds. I assure you they are interested in issues that pertain to being a mommy and being a daddy and having a home. When they play games, that is what they play."

Over the years, Dr. Parens has seen it in innumerable mother-infant research groups he has run. As he answered mothers' questions about why their children were behaving in certain ways, "You would see 18-month-olds just nodding their heads," he said.

Today, Dr. Parens also is convinced that teaching youngsters about parenting and child development is key to stemming two plagues on society -- child abuse and adolescent violence.

"Our philosophy is this," said Dr. Parens. "If we can help children understand how a child develops . . . what makes an infant tick, they will be able to come up with solutions to handle a child that are . . . more reasonable."

Aggression in a child is not necessarily a bad thing -- at least not in Dr. Parens' lexicon. He has redefined the term.

In its basic form, he says, aggression is a positive force, one that drives children to master new skills and assert themselves.

Engine of childhood

"If you watch infants from 7 or 8 months to 2 years of age, you will see they are so busy," he said.

"They are always doing something. And a child really has no control over it. It is as if an engine has been turned on."

How parents set limits for their tiny explorers and help them manage this inborn drive, said Dr. Parens, is critical.

If children's efforts to discover and control their world are frustrated all the time, their aggression can evolve into hostility.

"One of the things that is really so painful is how many really caring parents make mistakes with their kids," he said recently. "It's not so, that we are born knowing how to parent. If there is an instinct to parent, it is really, I assure you, damaged and battered by human experience."

Parenting gains credence

Parenting education and childhood aggression are hot topics today, but they weren't when Dr. Parens began studying them.

In the late 1970s, a handful of child-rearing programs began cropping up, but they were aimed at people who already were parents.

"There were very few programs even for high-school-aged students who were pregnant or already had babies," said Sally Scattergood, a retired elementary teacher who joined Dr. Parens' research group in the mid-1970s. "Now they are totally common."

Dr. Parens' research team spent several years writing and refining a school curriculum titled "Parenting Education for Emotional Growth."

"More people work as parents than do any other kind of job . . . . Yet, don't you need to be trained to be a parent?" said Dr. Parens.

"Of course, there is a lot to cover, so we thought it should be a curriculum that is taught on an equal level with English, reading and writing and arithmetic . . . and should start in grade K and go all the way up to grade 12."

Dr. Parens' curriculum is so encyclopedic he has not yet tried to introduce it into a school; the voluminous lesson plans and teaching guides are tucked away in a filing cabinet in his Philadelphia office.

Still, his theories have found their way into classrooms via another route.

Lesson plans for schools

Chafing at the slow pace of drafting Dr. Parens' curriculum, Ms. Scattergood and another teacher left the original research group to found Education for Parenting at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia in 1978.

Based on Dr. Parens' work, the teachers wrote their own less-detailed lesson plans, which have been adopted by public and private schools in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and Alaska.

"We believe that if you can reach children at a very young age you have an opportunity to put into their whole emotional system a different vision of what parenting might be," Ms. Scattergood said. "It offers children an alternative, if they are experiencing poor parenting themselves."

Dr. Parens believes that parents who understand the internal forces that drive their children, that sometimes make them angry and combative, will do a better job teaching the children to resolve conflicts.

"My position is, look, let's be realistic about this," Dr. Parens said. "Do we want the next generation of kids to have the same problems that the current generation of kids are having?

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