Schools should teach child-rearing skills

November 01, 1999|By Myriam Miedzian

ACCORDING to a recent poll, a vast majority of Americans think that child-rearing classes should be included in the school curriculum -- a testimony to their good common sense.

No one doubts that the best way to learn reading, writing, math or history is in schools. But the most difficult and important task most of us are confronted with -- raising children -- goes largely untaught.

In 1996 alone, close to 1 million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to child protective-service agencies and substantiated. But as matters stand, it's only after children have been discovered to be severely battered that their parents are forced to take a child-rearing course as a condition of regaining custody.

That's much like requiring no license or driver's ed to drive a car, then waiting until drivers injure or kill someone before demanding they learn how to drive.

Besides their own suffering, children who are battered -- and those, who have only weak bonds with caregivers, lack parental supervision, or have parents who fail to reinforce good social behavior -- are also at higher risk of committing acts of violence.

At-risk boys

Boys are at much higher risk than girls: About 85 percent of violent crimes are committed by males. Child-rearing classes can help address these problems. They can teach children the basics of good parenting, and they encourage boys to break the cycle of irresponsible, indifferent and often violent fathering.

The presence of an involved, loving, nonviolent father, or other such male role model, is especially important in deterring a boy from violence. As matters stand, boys grow up surrounded by endless violent macho role models from sports and entertainment, and little encouragement meanwhile for loving, responsible fathering. In fact, boys are often embarrassed to exhibit any of the "soft" feelings so essential for good parenting.

Future fathers

Child-caring classes can be emotionally liberating for boys. Such classes teach them as well as girls how to see empathy, caring and responsibility as legitimate goals in their lives. Teachers report that such classes lead also to a friendlier, better learning environment.

School curriculums are already overburdened -- so goes the objection. We have all we can handle, we're told, in focusing on the basics.

Well, isn't child-rearing a basic skill? Research increasingly shows that good parenting in the early years increases children's learning abilities in later life. Child-rearing classes discourage child-battering and teen-age pregnancy.

In programs for younger children, a mature parent brings a baby or toddler to class once a month. The class watches the child's development, and notes it on a chart. Teachers provide information about the psychological and physical needs of children at various ages. As students talk with the parents, they gain a deeper appreciation of child-rearing. They often get their first exposure to reports from the trenches of parenting -- for example, the parents who say, "We haven't slept through a night since she was born because she has to be fed every three hours."

As a result, boys and girls begin to see raising a child as a demanding, important responsibility. Girls at risk for teen-age pregnancy understand that babies are not undemanding little dolls who will shower them with love. Boys move away from the notion that impregnating girls is a show of manhood.

They become strongly inclined to delay parenthood until they are financially and emotionally ready. Because girls as young as 12 are getting pregnant, it is important that these classes be introduced no later than fifth grade, then repeated as child-development classes in high school.

Studies suggest that start-up costs of such programs run less than $100 per student. Isn't it time that our political leaders put some money where their talk is and buttressed their discourse about "family values" with dollars for teaching the all important fourth "r" -- rearing children?

Myriam Miedzian, author of "Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking The Link Between Masculinity And Violence," is a founding director of the Parenting Project, a nonprofit group that promotes the teaching of parenting skills to school-age children. She wrote this for the Knight-Ridder News Service.

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