Parenting Education

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Parenting Education

Parenting education may be defined as any deliberate effort to help parents be more effective in caring for children. There are many different processes for educating parents, including group meetings, resource centers, newsletters, radio programs, home visits, mentoring, Internet resources, support groups, and books. The content of these different efforts varies substantially, ranging from behavior-management approaches to relationshipenhancement approaches. What the programs have in common is the conviction that parents play a vital role in the development of children and that it is possible to help parents be more effective through training and education.

Parenting education is conducted in many settings: school, health and religious organizations, and the community. It is conducted by people with different backgrounds including human development, nursing, psychology, social work, and education.

There is a growing awareness in society that many social problems are the result of inadequate parenting education; parents are not automatically equipped to deal with the challenges of childrearing. Moreover, many social changes put additional pressures on families and limit their connections with family members and others. For example, since World War II there have been increased numbers of mothers working outside the home, increased rates of divorce, greater distances from extended family, increased involvement with negative electronic media, and more overloaded family schedules. All of these changes can make the job of parenting more challenging.

Content of Parenting Education

There are many different approaches to parenting education, each with different assumptions about the nature of humans (Are people basically good or bad?), the optimal outcome (Do we want an obedient child or an independent thinker?), and the process of change (Are people motivated by command or by invitation?). Advice given to parents centuries ago emphasized that children should submit to parents. With the growth of serious research on child development in the twentieth century, the definition of effective parenting has changed dramatically. Since the 1930s, there has been a clear recommendation that parents provide loving, supportive, involved care.

Research on parenting shows that parents who are supportive of their children and provide reasonable controls are more likely to have socially competent children. Social competence includes confidence, independence, responsibility, and achievement. Low levels of parental support are related to low self-esteem, deviance, and risk-taking behaviors. The vital role of parental support is well established.

Although the need for support has been clear for many years, research has been less clear on what constitutes reasonable control. At times experts have recommended a nonrestrictive role for parents. Recent research suggests that some control is necessary, but the type of control—and not just the amount—is important for effective parenting.

In research on parenting behavior, methods of control have commonly been divided into three categories. The first type of control is the use of power by parents. Such techniques, in which parents attempt to force or pressure their children to behave in certain ways, are associated with children who are less socially competent. When parents use power to control their children, the children are likely to see their choices as governed by external forces. They do as they are told but only as long as there is a power to make them. They may become passive or rebellious.

A second type of control is love withdrawal, in which parents show disapproval for behavior that displeases them. It may include ignoring, shaming, or isolating the child. The use of love withdrawal shows mixed results in its effects on children; some studies have found it to be acceptable, whereas other studies have found it resulted in dependent or depressed children. New research on parents' use of psychological control may have identified what parts of love withdrawal are especially toxic. When parents use guilt or manipulation to control their children, the result is anxiety and depression for children. In contrast, when parents use reasonable monitoring and negotiated control of behavior, children are less likely to get in trouble.

The third type of control is induction. Induction includes reasoning with children and helping them understand the effects of their behavior on others. For example, a parent might say, "When you yell at your sister, she feels very afraid and sad. She feels that you don't like her." Induction is the type of control that is most likely to result in socially competent children.

There are also clear benefits for a child's moral development when a parent uses induction because induction teaches children to think about the effect of their behavior on others. Induction both activates and cultivates the child's own logic and compassion. Children raised with induction are more likely to have internalized standards for behavior, better developed moral sensitivities, and less vulnerability to external influence.

Each traditional school of thought in parenting has a different emphasis. For example, Rudolf Dreikurs (1964) stressed meeting the needs of children, a democratic family, and avoiding power struggles. Thomas Gordon (1970) emphasized the importance of appropriate communication and of allowing children to make their own decisions. Haim Ginott (1965) underscored understanding and respect for the child. A more recent and controversial approach developed by Lee Canter and Marlene Canter (1985) has stressed control of behavior.

The content of many parenting education programs remains similar to the roots of the programs in the 1960s and is based more on clinical wisdom than empirical research. The programs are largely based on their authors' assumptions about human nature and on commonsense recommendations that may or may not be in harmony with research. Many of the commercial programs have not yet applied recent research to their curricula. For instance, there is new interest in fathering, family time, marriage, character education, and parental beliefs. Many new research findings have not been incorporated into popular parenting programs. Parenting programs sponsored by universities or research-based organizations are more likely to incorporate the new discoveries of research.

Many child-rearing issues remain subjects of debate. For example, Sandra Scarr (1992) has suggested that children are born with strong adaptive capacities; if parents provide basic opportunities and a good enough environment, children will develop into healthy, capable adults. Some scholars are concerned that parents need to be actively and directly involved with their children in order to facilitate their development. This controversy is really another form of the longstanding nature-nurture debate.

The content of a parenting education program should allow for the diversity of life circumstances and values of parents. Some of the needs of limited-resource teenage mothers of infants will be different from the needs of middle-aged parents of teenagers. Information on feeding, changing diapers, dealing with sickness, and using community resources will be vital for parents of newborns; parents of teenagers are more likely to be interested in communication, limit setting, and problem solving.

As society becomes more diverse, program developers need to take into account a growing number of varying populations. Different parenting circumstances, such as step, single, divorced, noncustodial, teenage, foster, urban, rural, and low-income, call for different parenting education. When parents participate actively in the process of parenting education, including the choice of program, they are more likely to be invested in the outcome.

Some models of parenting education also include initiatives for larger social change. For example, one youth development model that seeks to educate parents while building community capacity is the asset model that seeks to reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors. Several asset or positive youth development models exist, including those developed by the Search Institute, the Asset-Based Community Development Institute, America's Promise, and Communities that Care (see Bibliography for web addresses), but all focus on creating social change through the involvement of community-members, including parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, businesspeople, and ministers. Every member of the community is seen as a potential asset builder.

To discuss the content of parenting programs in more detail, it is necessary to divide them into two broad categories: behavior-management approaches and relationship-enhancement approaches.

Behavior-Management Approaches

Based on social learning theory, these approaches use behavior modification, including reinforcement, punishment, and modeling. Reinforcers may be material or social rewards. Reinforcers are provided contingent upon appropriate behavior. Punishment, in the form of withheld social attention (e.g., ignoring the child) or other penalties, is provided in response to inappropriate behavior.

Modeling involves showing the child the desired behavior. Modeling is based on the idea that children observe and imitate the interactions of others they view as successful. Children are more likely to imitate models whom they observe to be powerful, competent, and prestigious.

Gerald R. Patterson (1982), a leader in social learning approaches, asserts that children naturally produce certain undesirable behaviors, which are reinforced when they attract parental attention. Nagging by parents may teach children that they only get attention when they misbehave. It is easy for parents and children to get caught in a destructive cycle: The parents try to control the child; the child resists; the parents become more aversive; the child becomes more resistant or rebellious; the parents relent; the child continues the destructive behavior. Behavior-management approaches attempt to break this cycle with sensible behavior-management tools.

In behavior-management programs, parents commonly focus on two or three problem behaviors in their children and are taught to reinforce appropriate behavior and to ignore or punish inappropriate behavior. Parents learn, usually through play sessions, to recognize, acknowledge, and reward appropriate child behavior. Parents receive immediate feedback from trainers. They also learn to communicate clear instructions and to reward the child or give a time-out, depending on child compliance. Evaluation of effectiveness, usually based on parent report or observation of child behavior, generally supports a decrease in problem behaviors.

Behavior modification is accepted as an effective method for controlling specific problem behaviors. Some form of behavior modification is present in most parenting education programs. Due in part to its relatively quick results, its systematic focus on changing behavior, and the relative ease with which researchers can evaluate its effects, behavior modification has been a credible model in parenting education since the early 1970s.

However, the behavioral approaches have also drawn substantial criticism. Some people fault such approaches for making the parent the source of authority: Parents define desirable behavior and manipulate children's experience to assure certain outcomes. Such approaches may not encourage mature autonomy and decision making in children. Reliance on behavioral approaches does not lead to mature, internalized moral behavior. A child may become focused on the rewards rather than internalized standards or sensitivity to others.

Because of their ability to manage specific behaviors, behavior-management approaches are likely to have some role in effective parenting. Yet they may be most effective when combined with relationship-enhancement approaches.

Relationship-Enhancement Approaches

In contrast to behavior-modification programs, relationship-enhancement approaches place more emphasis on relationship quality and the emotional needs of the parents and their children. Such approaches teach parents to develop an accepting, supportive atmosphere for their children using such skills as active listening. Most of the humanistic, communication, and democratic parenting programs, such as those based on the works of Dreikurs (1964), Ginott (1965), and Gordon (1970), can be seen as relationship-enhancement approaches.

It is common for parents to react to their children's behavior with lectures. Relationship-enhancement approaches suggest a different reaction. Parents who use active listening skills might say things like the following: "I would like to understand how you are feeling. Will you tell me more?" "Let me see if I understand how you feel. Do you feel like . . . ?" Taking time to understand the child's feelings helps the child feel loved and helps the child deal with emotions. It also helps the parent and child work together for solutions. It is clear from research that a supportive parent-child relationship as endorsed by relationship-enhancement approaches is important for the developing child.

John Gottman (1997) has emphasized a helpful way of responding to children's emotions. Rather than responding to a child's emotions by dismissing them, disapproving of them, or being confused by them, a parent can be an emotion coach. Emotion coaching involves understanding the child, accepting the emotion, and helping them label and make sense of the emotion. Emotion coaching helps a child learn to understand and regulate his or her feelings and helps the child learn to solve problems.

Support, which is the basis of the parent-child relationship, is more than telling children that they are loved; it is behavior that helps a child feel comfortable and valued. Support might also be called acceptance, affection, love, nurturance, or warmth. One important way to help a child feel support is through efforts to understand their feelings.

Relationship-enhancement approaches have different strategies for dealing with misbehavior. For example, Ginott (1965) recommended that parents set clear limits, but also take time to understand what children feel rather than blaming or lecturing. His emphasis on compassionate understanding combined with clear limits is a reason that his books still remain popular and respected.

In some programs such as those developed by Gordon (1970), parents are trained to use I-messages in order to describe nonjudgmentally the problem behavior and its effects on the parent. The general outline for an I-message is: "When you (child behavior), I feel (statement of emotion) because (effects)." Properly used, I-messages can minimize blame and allow parent and child to identify the problem, list alternatives, choose a solution, decide on an implementation strategy, and evaluate the results.

Dreikurs (1964) suggested that parents understand the need expressed through the child's behavior and then help the child meet that need. In most relationship-enhancement approaches, control may be maintained by some combination of clear limit setting, reasoning, natural or logical consequences, and helping the child meet needs appropriately. The development of a warm, trusting relationship is expected to prevent many behavior problems. In addition, parents can improve their management of a child's behavior by being aware of what specific behaviors are developmentally appropriate or normal for that particular child.

Many programs emphasize parents' use of consequences for child misbehavior so that children learn to understand the connection between their behavior and the outcomes. An example of a natural consequence might be that children who fail to clean their bedrooms suffer messy rooms. On the other hand, a logical consequence might be that the children are not allowed to go out and play until their rooms are in order. Parents are encouraged to reduce their own power by avoiding spanking, shaming, or criticizing children. Parents can facilitate the children's self-control by allowing them to be responsible for their own actions and experience the results of their behavior. This is in contrast to the use of rewards and punishment in the behavior-management approaches that make parents the controlling agent in the child's life.

The debate continues about whether spanking has any place in the effective parent's repertoire. Murray Strauss (1994) argues that spanking is always unhelpful and unnecessary. Diana Baumrind (1996) has suggested that appropriate spanking may be used without serious consequences. She defined appropriate spanking as mild, immediate, calm, private, and combined with reasoning. She also suggests that the child must be older than eighteen months and younger than puberty.

In considering both behavior-management and relationship-enhancement approaches, it is clear that some common recommendations, such as monitoring children's behavior and providing an environment, support good behavior. Nevertheless, the language and focus of the two schools of thought are different. Behavior-management approaches emphasize parental control; relationshipenhancement approaches emphasize a caring relationship. Effective parenting programs should draw on the sensible response to problem behavior, as suggested in the former, and on the communication and relationship skills, as stressed in the latter.

The National Model of Parenting Education

To better define the essentials of effective parenting, the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service gathered a team of parent educators to develop a model of parenting education called the National Extension Parent Education Model (NEPEM) (Smith, Cudaback, Goddard, Myers-Walls 1994) that is intended to provide a common ground and common language for any person involved in parenting education. The heart of the model is a summary of critical parenting practices. Parent educators can draw on this core to structure and guide their program efforts.

The report identifies six categories of critical parenting practices:

  • Care for self;
  • Understand;
  • Guide;
  • Nurture;
  • Motivate; and
  • Advocate.

Care for self includes self-knowledge and management of life demands, as well as developing and using support systems. Parents who have learned to care for themselves effectively are more likely to provide a secure, supportive, and predictable environment for childrearing.

To understand a child includes the parents' knowledge of child development in general as well as insight into the style and preferences of each of their children individually. Understanding developmental issues, specific preferences, and circumstantial presses for each child, can help parents tune into and respond helpfully to the needs of each child.

To guide includes behavior that establishes boundaries or limits. Because flexibility and balance are vital to effective guidance, the most effective parenting will allow the child to make as many decisions as possible.

Nurture includes the expression of affection in ways that are effective with each child; basic care-giving, listening, and providing a sense of heritage are also elements of nurture.

To motivate a child means to stimulate imagination, curiosity, and ambition. Effective parenting performance in this area is presumed to develop children who are more effective in school and who are more likely to be lifelong learners.

Advocate, which stresses the identification and use of community resources to benefit children, recognizes that parents are in a unique role to advocate for their own children specifically, and for social change in general.

Each of these six categories in the model is discussed in the report along with a summary of key research findings.

NEPEM is an attempt to focus the content of parenting education on core issues. The model with accompanying discussion was distributed to county Extension offices and is available on the web (see Bibliography for web address).

Processes of Parenting Education

There are many ways to reach parents with messages for more effective parenting. Group meetings are the traditional way of teaching parents new skills. Meetings may include lectures, discussions, videos, role-playing, and opportunities for practicing skills. It seems likely that, if group meetings are to help parents be more caring and understanding, they must be conducted by leaders who are caring and understanding (Orgel 1980; Powell and Cassidy 2001). Although group meetings may be difficult for parents to attend regularly, the group can offer much-needed social support.

Many parents turn to books to inform their child-rearing efforts. There are classic books such as Ginott's Between Parent and Child (1965), and Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) that are still useful. Unfortunately, there are also many books on the market that are not in tune with research recommendations. Parents can find help in identifying good books and web sites through use of books such as Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources in Mental Health (Norcross et al. 2000).

The Internet is becoming an increasingly important avenue for delivering parenting education. Courses, articles, and parenting tips are available at many sites. As the versatility and sophistication of web-based technologies increase, parenting education resources on the Internet will likely incorporate more sound and video components. The Internet has not only become a significant source for parenting resources, it has also created opportunities for virtual conferencing and training. Webcasting will allow parent educators to provide or participate in conferences or training over the Internet. Web-based tracking and diagnostic tools are increasingly being used to customize information. As this evolving technology is incorporated into parenting information databases, users will have easy access to information that is relevant to their own needs and preferences. One challenge will be to clearly distinguish between parenting education and virtual counseling or therapy.

Resource centers are another way of providing parenting information. Sometimes a community center, library, or public school develops a special collection of books, tapes, or other materials to help parents. Resource centers are especially likely to be useful when they are easily accessible to parents.

Newsletters make an important contribution to parenting education. Newsletters are commonly used with parents of newborns and include information about development, feeding, and caring for young children. They can be educational, supportive, and affordable. Even the most isolated families can be reached through the use of newsletters.

Some communities provide radio programs in order to reach parents who might not otherwise receive parenting information. The most effective radio programs provide a series of carefully planned and related messages.

Parents at risk for neglecting their children seem to benefit from one-on-one home visits that focus on childcare issues. Although home-based parenting education may be costly, the visits offer a good opportunity to monitor a child's environment, teach highly relevant skills, and provide support to isolated families.

Mentoring programs have been one response to shrinking budgets and a desire to invest a broader volunteer base in social programs. Mentoring programs draw on trained volunteers to provide information and support. Mentoring programs include such models as godparent programs, where trained volunteers visit with mothers of newborns in the hospitals, or Big Brother/Big Sister programs, where mentors work directly with children and youth, and indirectly with parents. Grand mentor programs establish a grandparent figure in the lives of children and youth. Though some parents may resist this direct involvement, they may benefit from the example and instruction of mentors who are working with their children. In the best mentoring programs, volunteers have regular opportunities to provide support and guidance over an extended period of time.

Support groups provide an opportunity for parents to meet and share experiences and information. Specialized parent-support groups can gather parents with a common challenge to learn from each other and to provide support for each other. Effective support groups facilitate the establishment of support both outside and inside the group. They teach parents ways to use social support in coping, and promote parents' problem-solving abilities.

Some programs bring parenting classes to work sites during regularly scheduled lunch hours. Creative ways of getting parenting education to parents will be increasingly important as parents struggle with crowded schedules.

Family resource programs attempt to provide a variety of services so that families do not need to go from one agency to another. They allow families to become comfortable with staff and maintain better access to services such as parenting education, latchkey programs, childcare, and social welfare programs. The traditional ideal of a self-supported, closely knit family may generate feelings of isolation for many families. Family resource programs are based on several premises: parenting can be challenging; parents can benefit from parenting education; support should focus on family strengths and enhance skills parents already have; and parents can serve as important sources of support for each other.

Cross-Cultural Perspective

Virtually all of the research on parenting education is based on modern Western culture. In fact, most of the research that has been done on parents and children has relied on a Western perspective (Bennett and Grimley, 2001). There are many differences between such an orientation and those in different places and at different times. For example, the desired outcomes of childrearing are reported to be more oriented toward obedience and compliance in economically disadvantaged countries whereas the desired outcomes in more prosperous countries favor independence and risk-taking (Harkness and Super, 1995). For the most disadvantaged cultures, training focuses on working together to merely sustain life (Bennett and Grimley, 2001), which is highly adaptive in a culture where survival is a continuing struggle. In contrast, "the main preoccupation of families in Western societies is not basic survival, but rather the pursuit of happiness" (Bennett and Grimley 2001, p. 101).

Substantial differences have also been discerned between geographically proximate ancient cultures. Valerie French (1995) compares parenting in various ancient Mediterranean cultures. Egyptians delighted in children, granted them prominence in family life and assigned fathers a vital role in training them. In contrast, Mesopotamian parents considered children a difficult burden and were more emotionally distant from their children.

Different cultural perspectives have also resulted in differences in processes for training parents. Traditional cultures favor apprenticeship in which parenting is learned by observation whereas modern Western orientations favor direct training through books, classes, and formal training (Rogoff 1990). Some cultures even minimize the parental role and seek to increase the socializing influence of professionals such as school teachers.

It is not possible to make simple generalizations about the training of parents and the prescribed manner of child-rearing but it is clear that cultural differences span both time and place. Even within countries, such as the United States, there are clearly observed differences in parenting styles and valued child outcomes (Lamborn, Dornbusch, and Steinberg, 1996) reflected in parenting education programs. Still, John Bennett and Liam Grimley (2001) found information about age-specific development and basic human needs to be relevant and adaptable across cultures. They describe ways a developmental parenting program was adapted for use in countries as diverse as the United States, Northern Ireland, Spain, and Macedonia. They also describe the delivery and focus of parenting programs in France, Turkey, China, and the Philippines.

Looking to the Future

There are challenges related to parenting education. For example, no established standards exist for parent educators. Groups from the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) and U.S. Cooperative Extension are grappling with issues of certification and professional standards. In some models of certification, a bachelor's degree in a related subject is required. Some argue that such a requirement unnecessarily eliminates people who could be effective in working with parents. According to criteria of progress toward professional status (Czaplewski and Jorgensen 1993), parenting education has a long way to go to become fully professionalized.

Other problems in parenting education include the wide range of approaches and orientations, including some programs that are not in harmony with research; it is difficult for parenting education to be sensitive to differences in cultures and values; it is also increasingly difficult to motivate parents to participate in group meetings. There is still much to be learned about how to change parent behavior.

Nonetheless, parenting education continues to play a vital role in preparing people for parenting. In the challenging tasks of parenting, most parents welcome the help that it offers. As research continues, both the content and process of parenting education can be expected to improve, resulting in better family relationships and healthier, more balanced children.

See also:Adolescent Parenthood; Attachment: Parent-Child Relationships; Childhood; Conduct Disorder; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Discipline; Divorce: Effects on Children; Family Life Education; Family Literacy; Family Ministry; Fatherhood; Motherhood; Parenting Styles; Sexual Communication: Parent-Child Relationships; Spanking; Therapy: Parent-Child Relationships; Transition to Parenthood


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Other Resources

america's promise. available from

asset-based community development institute. available from

children, youth, and families education and resource network. available from

communities that care. available from http://www.

national extension parent education model. available from

search institute. available from http://www.

h. wallace goddard steven a. dennis