Two dozen women dressed in shorts and T-shirts sat on the floor of a sunny classroom, clutching wiggly 2-year-olds and singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “I’m a Little Teapot.”
As the melodies grew, the grinning children’s personalities began to shine like the morning sun filtering through the windows. Some cautiously watched the group from their mothers’ laps. Others enthusiastically belted out the lyrics and pantomimed along with the nursery rhymes. One red-haired girl--freed from mommy’s grasp--ran up to the front of the room to lead the rest of the class.
Watching kids being kids is the joy of parenthood, according to the philosophy fueling the morning’s activity at Pasadena City College’s Parent Education Class.
“We believe there is tremendous value in play and in children learning through discovery and hands-on experiences,” said Mayris Wells, coordinator of the parent education classes offered free through the college’s continuing education office.
Sit in on a session of the course and you will not find super-babies or flash cards, nor will you hear computer keyboards clicking. But you will find swings and sandboxes and hear silly songs about popcorn popping and monkeys jumping on the bed.
“Academic learning is not the goal of this program. We’re creating space for the child to learn on his own,” said Judy McCord, a 15-year veteran teacher of the program, who says the classes are as much for parents as they are for children. The children and their parents--or full-time baby-sitters--attend the courses offered at 10 San Gabriel Valley sites.
“When you send your child away to preschool or you drop them off at a baby-sitter, you miss a lot of the joy that goes with parenting,” McCord said. “We happen to believe that parenting is a relationship, not a role. To have a relationship you have to be connected, to have shared experiences and time.”
The no-credit parent education classes are funded entirely by the state and are organized for specific age groups of children, from newborns to pre-kindergarten. Each three-hour session includes time for free play, singing and motor development, and an hourlong discussion for the parents on a variety of topics related to the family.
The course reflects the philosophy of Gertrude Laws, a Columbia University graduate with ideas about early childhood that were considered outlandish in the 1930s. Laws and another woman, Pauline Gartzman, started the parent education classes at Pasadena City College in 1933, said Ann Reynolds, the college’s assistant dean of continuing education.
Most adults at that time saw childhood as an annoying stage that should be grown out of as soon as possible, and they were taught to treat children as miniature adults, Reynolds said.
Laws, on the other hand, believed that there was value in childhood and believed that parents ought to learn about children’s behavior from their own offspring, Reynolds said.
Laws’ theories, which now coincide with those of many early-childhood experts, endured and so did the classes she founded. Like many other things in Pasadena, they became a tradition, passed on from generation to generation for nearly 60 years.
One of the teachers in the program today took the class as a child in 1938. And Pat Edmunds, a 65-year-old Pasadena grandmother who attends a class with her 2-year-old granddaughter, also attended 38 years ago with her daughter, Caryn.
Still, the classes have changed over the years. Fathers now attend regularly, McCord said, a phenomenon she never witnessed until a few years ago.
Wells said a new class that was started this year for Japanese-speaking parents was so successful that it will be repeated next year. Two bilingual Spanish-English classes are also offered, and Wells said she would like to see more bilingual classes for Armenian, Korean and other parents who aren’t native English speakers.
Although the classes, held on weekday mornings, attract mostly parents who are homemakers or work part time, Wells said she hopes to be able to include more full-time working parents by offering night classes in the fall that focus more on parenting skills and deal with all age groups, up to adolescents.
A large focus of the classes is on establishing support groups for the parents, who say they form lasting friendships there.
In the 2-year-olds’ class on a recent Wednesday morning, parents were sharing advice about preschool, potty training, temper tantrums and social interaction.
In the newborn classes, McCord said, the parents discuss colic, sleep deprivation and the impact a baby has on its family.
“Just the fact that you get out of the house, share what you’re going through, listen to other people, is helpful,” said Karen Tanner of Arcadia, whose son, Miles, spends much of the playtime on the swings. “It’s good to see all these other kids, doing the same thing your kid is doing that’s driving you crazy.
“Parenthood can be really task-oriented and a lot of it can be drudgery. This makes it a lot easier.”
The morning’s discussion focused on how to keep marriage interesting despite the sometimes-numbing stress of having young children.
McCord gave out advice gleaned from her own experience of rearing five children. “There’s one thing to do,” McCord said. “Turn off the TV.”
One mother looked at her in mock horror. “What do you do-- talk ?”
Another woman chimed in to recommend a plan used by her neighbors who couldn’t afford a vacation. They parked their three children with a friend for the weekend and spent the time in their own back yard, lounging around the pool, barbecuing and drinking pineapple drinks with umbrellas stuck in them.
Creative ideas like that motivate McCord to continue teaching the classes after 15 years, she said.
After working with the victims of child abuse and with troubled families in her private marriage-and-family counseling practice, McCord said, she likes to remind herself that there are caring, healthy families.
“It’s real personally enriching for me to see how much these parents are willing to invest in their kids. These children are going to be people of value. What they’ll have is a real good sense of self.
“Whatever they have to do, they’ll be equal to it because these parents are educating their children simply by being with them.”
Pasadena City College’s free Parent Education courses will be offered at 10 sites this fall.
The semester runs from Sept. 10 through Jan. 30, and preregistration is recommended.
For more information, call the college’s Office of Continuing Education at (818) 578-7338.
The classes, organized according to children’s ages, are offered at:
Child Development Center-Community Skills Center, 325 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena.
Eddie Park, 2017 Edgewood Ave., South Pasadena.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, 1881 S. 1st St., Arcadia.
First Christian Church of Pasadena, 789 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena.
First Lutheran Church, 838 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena.
Jefferson Primary School, Room 26, 1500 E. Villa St., Pasadena.
Knox Presbyterian Church, 225 S. Hill Ave., Pasadena.
Mother’s Club Community Center, 526 E. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena.
Sierra Madre United Methodist Church, 695 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre.
Temple City Westminster Presbyterian Church, 9642 Live Oak Ave., Temple City.