In her second grade classroom in Lafayette, La., Joanne Navarre says students often show up hungry and sleepy. In winter some arrive without socks or sweaters. “Half the time these children seem to me to be neglected emotionally as well as physically,” says the teacher with 21 years of classroom experience.
In the last five years these once uncommon signs of parental inattention have increased markedly, she asserts, blaming the phenomenon partly on young parents’ ignorance of even the minimum basics of child rearing.
Fed up but unsure what to do, she discussed her concern with a friend, who recommended Kerby Alvy, a Southern California clinical child psychologist who heads the Studio City-based Center for the Improvement of Child Caring.
The call from Navarre earlier this year was just one of many Alvy, a specialist in parenting, has been getting lately as his career synchronizes with national concerns about child abuse, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency and other problems--often intertwined--in which parent-child relationships are deemed a crucial factor.
“People are seeing helping parents as an antidote to all of these problems,” he says. “What’s happening now in child abuse, for example, is everyone is beginning to focus on prevention. The problem is so gigantic--2 million kids reported last year for being abused and neglected . . . As people look at this over and over again, including the National Committee on the Prevention of Child Abuse, it’s become real clear that if you really want to make a dent in our lifetime, you’ve got to focus on prevention.”
In fact, Alvy has been doing pretty much the same advocacy work since the mid-1970s, mostly in Los Angeles. “We haven’t done anything too different since we started but what we’re doing seems more relevant to people,” he says.
Now, 16 years after he founded the private nonprofit center, Alvy is consistently exporting programs he helped develop there to such places as Detroit, Chicago, Schenectady, N.Y., Oklahoma and North Carolina, as well as Northern California. Furthermore, he believes that he is on the verge of making the center a national resource, a national “broker” of parenting programs that matches community needs with professional expertise.
“We haven’t created them all but we know about them because of our work,” he says. “If somebody wants a program for handicapped kids we say, yeah, we can bring you the program in Tallahassee.”
Last summer Alvy, a UCLA graduate with a doctorate in psychology from the State University of New York at Albany, got his first shot at being a national guru when he keynoted a series of conferences sponsored by the federal Office for Substance Abuse Prevention. Attended by drug abuse prevention workers from all 50 states, the conferences focused on “parenting as prevention,” says Alvy.
As a result of this and other developments, Alvy--at age 51--is making his big move. By summer’s end he plans to resign his professorship at the California School of Professional Psychology to devote full time to the center, in the past widely publicized locally for its Latino- and black-oriented parenting programs. He says he also is putting together a planning group to work out strategy for raising the center’s national profile.
Some might say that what Alvy does is elementary--and he probably would agree.
The white-bearded, low-key psychologist develops and runs programs that ultimately teach parents how to be loving yet strong with their children, to walk the straight and narrow despite impatience, anger and frustration that inevitably occur with children.
Alvy says his interest in parenting programs has its roots in his work at a mental health center in Watts in the early 1970s, when he was first confronted with the hardships and strains imposed on families by poverty.
As an advocate of children’s rights, he also wants to see a fundamental shift in the way children are treated in this country. The center, he notes, supports a drive to end corporal punishment in the United States.
“It’s like mother and apple pie, hitting children in this society,” he says “The Swedes have outlawed corporal punishment in the home, in the home .”
The programs take nothing about child rearing for granted, says Linda Passmark, director of Oklahoma’s child abuse prevention and parent education programs. Alvy’s programs focus on parenting techniques such as “teaching a child something as simple as setting a table,” she says. “It had never occurred to (parents) to do it because nobody had ever done it for them.”
All 40 of Oklahoma’s state-employed child specialists have been trained in one of his programs, Passmark said, adding that over the last five years parenting programs generally have become more accepted.
Alvy’s techniques are innovations, elaborations and refinements of Parent Effectiveness Training programs that became widely in vogue some 20 years ago. But today, with increased sensitivity to cultural diversity, Alvy’s programs for black and Latino parents--Effective Black Parenting and Los Ninos--are in demand.
The reason is simple, says Alvy. “They’re the only two (such programs) that exist.”
Alvera Stern, head of the prevention section of Illinois’ department of substance abuse, confirms Alvy’s statement. “We pretty much researched what was available nationwide,” she says, adding that traditional parenting programs are aimed at whites rather than minorities. Her department has chosen the center’s black and Latino parenting programs for “a rather massive” drive to educate parents on prevention of drug and alcohol abuse.
Stern says her department contracts with Alvy’s center to train trainers who then hold sessions with parents who sign up through local government agencies and community organizations. By the end of the year, Stern estimates that programs developed by Alvy and his colleagues will reach 14,000 parents.
Moreover, she says there is a waiting list for training slots. “We have been very, very pleased,” she says “Of all the trainings we have offered over the last 10 years, these are the most popular.”
Typically, a parenting course developed by Alvy’s center consists of 15 three-hour sessions. Parents are taught to change their behavior and that of their children through the use of praise, verbal confrontation rather than physical punishment and a “point system” through which children earn time for play or other activities. In the black and Latino programs, the courses are framed to emphasize pride in cultural heritage as well.
His own research shows that the Effective Black Parenting program shows positive results, including a “significant reduction in delinquent behavior” for both boys and girls, Alvy says. The research also found that parent behavior tended to improve, including a significant increase in the use of praise to reinforce approved behavior.
Alvy’s involvement in minority parenting programs has not always been popular. When the black parenting program was put into use about four years ago, Alvy kept in the background to minimize unfavorable reactions from black parents displeased that the parenting program was developed by a white man. However, parents who discovered that Alvy had developed the program dropped their hostility when they saw the results of the program.
When it comes to parent training, Alvy’s vision is all encompassing.
“We feel that everybody needs it. I need it in my relationships with Brittany and Lisa,” he says referring to his daughters, ages 4 and 7. “It helps me to know some of these things (about parenting), to get along better with the kids and make a nicer life for them . . . When you think about the difficulties of raising kids, I think it is really quite foolish that we don’t have universal parent training.”