Deborah has a 16-year-old son who is into drugs and into gangs. Carol is a drug addict whose infant daughter was born tainted by cocaine. Joanne’s 16-year-old boy cut school, stole a car and got caught doing it.
Tonight they are in a makeshift schoolroom in Inglewood, listening to an expert tell them how to be better parents, periodically jotting down notes as she talks. Most of them--mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians--are not here because they want to be, but because a Juvenile Court judge has given them a choice:
Go to class or your children may not be going home again.
Welcome to parenting school. How-to-parent classes, held in churches, public schoolrooms and community meeting halls in Los Angeles, are being touted by many juvenile justice authorities as a way to give wayward and abused children the best of all possible second chances.
Part of the Problem
Judges, probation officers and social workers increasingly are treating parents as part of the problem, even those parents who have broken no laws, who have amply provided for their children, who have loved their children to distraction.
“When you have a child who has been reported for abuse or neglect or who has gotten into the juvenile justice system . . . that’s a red flag,” said Dr. Kerby Alvy, executive director of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring in Studio City.
“You can be pretty sure that there are serious parenting problems. Even though some of them are good people, some very good people are very bad parents.”
Although the tactics vary from teacher to teacher and the parenting tips from course to course, the aim is the same: to put the adult back in control.
Taught by psychologists, family counselors, educators and other manner of experts, the parenting lessons mostly have to do with common-sense things--how to discipline without being too tough, how to nurture without being too tame. How to talk to a child and how to listen. How to praise, how to show love even when children are their most unlovable.
“What we seek in parenting classes is that the lines of communication be open,” said instructor Janet Clark, who teaches a weekly effective parenting class at the Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundation in Los Angeles. “They have to find the pearl within, the bond that existed when the child was new, before all the garbage like gangs happened.”
Started by educator Jayne Major, Parent Connection Inc. classes, like many of the others, are a curious blend of schoolroom lecture, group discussion and confessional. Some of the courses feature suggested readings and question-and-answer segments. And there are the admissions--sad, sometimes shocking recitations of lives in disarray.
“I’m here because of my 16-year-old son,” says Lucas, a slim, weary looking man who begins the Parent Connection’s Wednesday afternoon class by introducing himself. “He got picked up for stealing a car. . . . There’s a lot of points about raising a kid I guess I just didn’t know.”
“My children were taken away for child endangerment,” declares Valerie, a heavy-set blonde speaking next. “My husband sold drugs and I’m in treatment right now for a drug problem. . . . I’m having a bad time, a very bad time.”
“I used to punish my grandson too heavily,” continues Betty, a fragile looking woman seated nearby. “He’d start out going to school every day, but he wasn’t. Then he and a friend ended up robbing a doughnut shop.”
A Parent’s Role
Once the stories are told, instructor Susan Anderson, a perpetually smiling, former elementary school teacher, moves to the chalkboard and to the lesson of the day--a parent’s role.
She talks about rules--"Be very clear ahead of time"--and about punishment--"Only in small increments, they get the point.”
She talks about love--"They watch us, they’re our audience. We can teach them how to love--"and about consistency--"They need to rely on us, to get them up in the morning, to have meals on the table.”
She talks about expectations--"Be aware of who they are, their needs. Encourage your child for trying, don’t shout at him all the time"--and about communications--"If we don’t explain, they’ll fill it in somehow and it’s not going to be correct.”
Some of the more vocal of the students interrupt to relate their own experiences, how the lessons have worked at home and how they haven’t. And, perhaps most critical to some, they discover that their mistakes are not unique.
“I may have a problem, and the next week in class somebody else will talk about it,” says Valerie as the two-hour session comes to an end. “I end up trying what they’ve done the next week. . . . It’s knowing you’re not alone, you’re not the worst parent in the world.”
Although parenting classes have been used for much of the last decade in dependency courts in Los Angeles, where the focus is on reuniting parents with their abused and neglected children, the classes only recently have assumed a bigger role in delinquency courts, where the child is accused of wrongdoing.
“The system should figure out what the parent must learn,” said Kathryn Doi Todd, presiding judge of Juvenile Court in Los Angeles. “There are all kinds of failings on the part of the parent. . . . Parenting requires tremendous skills.”
Because orders are given at an individual judge’s discretion, it is impossible to determine exactly how many parents are being sent to the classes. Typically, judges in delinquency courts require parents to take the classes only when there is some sign that the family will benefit, some indication that the parents are amenable to help.
But Roosevelt Dorn, a Juvenile Court judge in Inglewood, requires them in virtually every case where a youngster is under 17.
“They’re absolutely essential,” Dorn declared. “Once the parent learns how to be a parent, then you can create the type of atmosphere that is necessary for the youngster to become a productive youngster. Without it, it makes it very difficult.
“I have to help children in spite of the parents. If you have a delinquent parent, if you will, who refuses to attend the classes . . . then I have no choice. . . . The court is forced to take a youngster out of the home.”
Like the other judges who order parents into the classes, Dorn relies on a section of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code that authorizes him to take such steps when youngsters are in crisis. Two dozen other states have similar laws.
Typically, the orders are accompanied by a list of suggested classes, from the tuition-free versions offered by local adult schools and community centers to private courses like educator Major’s costing $100 or more. Parents usually must take in at least 10 sessions and present the judge with a certificate or other proof of attendance at the end.
Given the varied pressures and temptations that children face outside the home, judging how much difference the lessons for parents actually make is difficult.
Skeptics say the 10 sessions simply are too little too late. In their view, many of the youngsters--from truants to budding criminals--are far beyond the kind of help that even a new and improved parent can provide.
“Our real belief is that for abusive families, for delinquents who have serious problems with their families, an order into a parenting class is a wrong and flawed order to begin with,” declared Cliff Marcussen, the executive director of Options--A Child Care and Human Services Agency in the San Gabriel Valley. Marcussen’s agency abandoned court-ordered classes for parents after concluding that the concept is unworkable.
“The court is kidding itself that it’s going to accomplish anything, that it’s going to protect the child,” he said. “Most of the parents were angry . . . that the court had sent them to parenting classes and spent most of the 10 weeks denying . . . and trying to convince everyone they were victims of the system.
“You’ve got to work with them over a long period of time.”
Although Marsha Straubing, a parenting teacher at Emerson Adult School, agrees that “10 classes don’t scratch the surface” of most parent-child problems, she sees other benefits.
“I think it helps (parents) get through the period when the child is not in the home . . . that time of humiliation,” Straubing said.
Convinced that they have been wronged, even the most receptive of parenting students begin class reluctantly, even angrily. After a lifetime of feeding, clothing and loving their youngsters, most feel they’ve been punished unfairly, betrayed by a court system that has taken control of their lives.
“I didn’t appreciate it too much,” said Cathy Ward, who voluntarily turned her 16-year-old son over to Juvenile Court authorities when the boy started habitually stealing motorbikes. “I just made it clear to them I resented coming here. I didn’t feel I should have to be here for something my child did.” By the second or third class, all of that had changed for Ward. Surprising herself, she started learning. “In the beginning they told me something (wrong) had to have been happening in the home and it was,” she said.
Through discussions with the instructor and other parents enrolled in her class, Ward discovered that she was too quick to grant her son’s every wish, too quick to rant whenever he disappointed her.
“Our children are just that, children,” Ward said weeks after taking home her parenting class certificate. “We have to reach them, reason with them on their level, to learn to tell them thanks, to make them work to earn what they want.
“So far, it’s working out. . . . His attitude has changed and so has mine.”
To avoid making mistakes like Ward’s, the experts say parents should set limits for their children and discipline them as soon as--and whenever--the lines are crossed. The idea is to be firm and consistent.
There are other basic truths, or as Major puts it “a fundamental curriculum that is absolutely basic to good parenting.”
Spanking usually is a poor way to change behavior, especially with older youngsters. But briefly denying children a favorite activity or favored possession--the telephone for 15 minutes, the television for an hour, an outing with a friend--does work.
Confrontations with a disobedient child should never take place in a highly charged atmosphere. Parents should take a chunk of time to calm down and then look at the problem.
Finally, parents should emphasize the positive. Praise, the experts conclude, is a better disciplinary tool than punishment.
Rachel, a single mother, believes she mastered those basics just in time to salvage relations with six of her seven children. The exception was her 14-year-old daughter, her second oldest.
‘She’s Just Lost’
“She’s been in about three or four placement homes and she won’t let down her guard,” Rachel said. “I always loved her but I was angry. . . . She hung out in the streets all night and I didn’t know how to control her. Now I believe she’s pregnant. She’s just lost, she’s lost in the system now.”
Once Rachel started parenting classes, she made a frank appraisal of the mistakes she had made with her unruly daughter and the rage turned to understanding. She knew she had been too permissive.
“I felt guilty once I realized I was the problem of her being like she was,” Rachel explained. “But I also started feeling like maybe there’s hope for the others.”