By various means, Anthony Flores, 2, carries the book "Goodnight Moon," throughout the house--in one hand or the other, beneath an arm, under his chin. It's his second copy. The first was lost but in all probability will surface beneath a cushion, behind a chair, inside the toilet tank or in some other venue that beckons to little boys.
"Moon, moon," he says, holding the book on his head.
"OK, OK," says his mother, Jackie Delgado, seated at the dining table.
She turns off the TV, which is always set to public television, the only channel she allows her two sons to watch. There is too much violence on other channels, she says, and she is trying hard to create a safe, peaceful environment for her children.
That's why it hurts so much to know that she has been a source of violence in their lives. It scares her, the way anger seems to seize her, boil in her veins like steam in a kettle.
In bursts of anger, she has pulled her hair, pounded walls. She has spanked Anthony and her older son, Jaime Flores Jr., 3. Her boyfriend, Jaime Flores Sr., the boys' father, has told her she must learn to control her anger, and she knows he is right. But how can she?
Sometimes answers--like children's books--show up in unlikely places. About a month ago, Delgado started reading to her sons, and it changed her life. In childhood books about cows and chickens, monkeys and moons, answers emerged that are helping her achieve the most important goal in her life: to be a good mother.
"Before," she says, "I would yell at them when they wouldn't go to sleep. They would go to sleep crying, and I would too. I wouldn't tell them that I loved them. Now they go to sleep happy, and I go to sleep happy."
Delgado is 19 years old. Jaime was born when she was 16; Anthony the year after that. She knows she was too young to become a mother, she says, but what that means to her now is that she must try even harder to be a good parent.
She and the boys' father, who works delivering supplies to pharmacies, have lived with his family for the past four years in a house near the USC campus in Los Angeles. Delgado has returned to school to get her high school diploma and hopes to graduate in December, then find a job.
She attends the Los Angeles Technology Center, an adult school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that provides child care while students attend classes.
As Delgado and her sons walk to the bus stop, they sing songs, one about a turtle, another about the stars. They make note of squirrels, birds and whatever else captures their attention.
For her, it is one of her two favorite times of the day. The other is around 7 each night. After baths, she hoists the boys into matching pajamas, gets their bottles and blankets. Jaime has a green blanket, Anthony a green pillowcase.
She settles in with them, sitting cross-legged on the king-size bed all four of them sleep in. She props them up with pillows, and Anthony hands her the book.
"In the great green room," begins the classic 1947 children's bedtime story by Margaret Wise Brown. "There was a telephone. And a red balloon."
She shows them each page. Scattered about the room, an entire circus of stuffed animals looks on. The boys' paintings hang on the walls along with their photographs.
They have memorized many of the words and recite lines in unison with their mother as they climb in and out of her lap. Anthony, sucking on a pacifier, gradually slinks down against the wall until he is looking up at the ceiling.
When one book is done, they ask for another.
With so much violence in the world--on television, in music, in the streets--it's not easy to shield children. As she reads, and as Jaime Sr., 21, watches from the doorway, a police helicopter whirls overhead in the night. No one seems to notice.
Ruth Beaglehole has seen the changes in the boys since Delgado started reading to them. Jaime, in particular, has gained concentration. During story time, he no longer wanders about the room. He sits and listens, seems less rebellious.
Beaglehole, in addition to running the child-care facility at the school, also teaches a parenting class. She has written a book, "Mama Listen! Raising a Child Without Violence: A Handbook for Teen Parents," self-published in 1998.
She also is founder-director of the Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting, now in its second year.
"We work with young mothers to get them to stop spanking their children and to stop verbal and emotional violence," she says. "In our society, over 80% of preschoolers are spanked on an average of three times a week. With babies, it's 39%. That's a very hidden issue in our society."
There are misconceptions about young mothers, Beaglehole says, that they are lazy, too immature for the responsibilities of parenting. The young women she has worked with over the past 15 years do not fit that description.
In addition to caring for their children and coming to school, many work, some of them at more than one job, she says. They are eager to learn parenting skills, to break harmful cycles and improve the lives of their children.
"It's helped me to change . . . and I really want to change. . . . I'm learning how to understand their feelings and what's important to them," Delgado says of her sons. "Before, I didn't know anything about that, about patience, controlling my anger. I never thought about that."
In many ways, she and her sons are growing up together. Reading has played an important role in that process, she says. It has made everything easier.
"It's time I spend with them in a loving way. Before, I didn't read to them. I wouldn't even tell them I loved them before they went to sleep. Now I feel like I'm being a good mom to them."
As she finishes reading, Anthony is ready for bed. Jaime returns to the living room to pal around with his dad. Outside, not far away, a helicopter continues to circle.
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