SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT PARENT INTERVENTION PROGRAMS
by Peter Ernest Haiman, Ph.D.
In rearing children, when is a parent not a teacher? When fathers or mothers
talk to their child about the child’s fears, are they not teaching?
Is it not teaching when the parent models adult speech or helps the frightened
child differentiate between what is real and what is imagined? Teaching is
imbedded in and throughout parenting. Will not efforts that successfully improve
the quality of parent-child interaction patterns also improve the role of
parents as “primary educators” of their children?
Parents do not
have to be taught to be teachers of their children. Parents become teachers
whenever they interact with their children. The content and teaching strategy
employed by parents may not, however, lead to the development of academically
successful children. The purpose of intervention programs is not to make parents
teachers of their children, but to influence what parents teach and how and when
they teach it. This differentiation is an important consideration for program
planning because it highlights the fact that intervention efforts must be designed
to alter already existing patterns of parent behavior. Instead of only focusing
on teaching new parenting strategies and instructional techniques, programs designed
to alter existing patterns of parent behavior must be based on an appropriate
theory of adult behavior and attitude change. Before it is instituted, an intervention
program designed to alter parent behavior must explain how it will motivate parents
to modify their behavior—to drop old parenting practices and adopt new
Parent education programs need to be undertaken with caution. Since research
showed that Head Start did not develop enduring educational gains in disadvantaged
preschool children, what reason is there to believe that a similar compensatory
education program will develop improved and enduring child-rearing skills
and attitudes in low-income parents? Head Start program planners have come
to recognize that environmental reinforcements are necessary to maintain Head
Start gains. If the development of environments in the home and at school
that reinforce the educational goals of Head Start are believed to be important
to the development and maintenance of its educational objectives with children,
might it not also be important to help develop the family environment and
family support systems conducive to the success of a program designed to improve
the child-rearing skills of low-income parents? The compensatory model of
parent or child education is not likely to produce enduring changes if other
personal and/or life influences and demands do not reinforce those changes.
Although individuals and families find their own ways to negotiate the problems
of poverty, might improved parenting be made possible if economically disadvantaged
parents and families are helped to cope more effectively?
Helping agencies must realize that the dynamics of low-income
families could be adversely affected by the changes that the program advocates.
As a result, some low-income parents may resist making changes in child-rearing
practices that they do not want or do not feel are in their best interest,
even when they are encouraged to make these changes by social service and
education agencies. Consequently, a more comprehensive approach to educational
intervention is necessary—one
in which the helping agency attempts to overcome resistance but not impose or
advocate any specific kind or method of change. The process would include providing
parents with choices in a supportive environment, one in which some of the emotional
needs of the parents, which were too frustrated or inadequately met in their
own childhood, can find, in adulthood, cathexis to experiences that they may
then choose to share with their children.
Since it is unlikely that merely providing
child-rearing information and advice to parents will cause them to modify
their parenting practices, what theories of adult behavior and attitude change
can be used? What will motivate low-income parents to change those deleterious
child-rearing practices that have become a functional part of survival in
poverty, and that develop from the needs and demands of daily life?
It is apparent that welfare and social service agencies
should not begin to help any low-income family if that help is didactically
imposed, as opposed to being chosen or requested by a family, without first
deriving an adequate understanding of the effects that specific intervention
effort may have on the constellation of dynamics within a family.
A family is made up of many interdependent subsystems.
Parenting behavior is one of the subsystems of family life. Changing parent
behavior can have profound repercussions on other aspects of family life.
Parents may resist adopting prescribed child-rearing techniques if they feel
that to do so will be disruptive to some other aspect of their family life.
Each low-income parent and family will have
a wide spectrum of needs which may begin, on the one hand, with food, shelter,
and clothing and end with more subtle intra- or interpersonal needs. A responsibility
of the helping agency is to gain an accurate picture of this spectrum for
each family and to assess the interplay of these needs and the influence each
has upon the rest of family life. This mandates direct observation and includes
conversations with family members. As this process develops, the agency can
obtain an understanding of the interplay of family dynamics and family needs.
Then the agency can better help the family focus on dynamic fulcrums of change
and offer options to change in these areas.
frequently receive constructive child-rearing advice, but do not make it part
of their teaching style. For example, a low-income parent who severely restricts
and limits the young child’s behavior may be told that it is
important to talk to the child and encourage the child to talk. The parent may
also be taught that it is important for the child to play with toys and be allowed
to explore the home environment. Although the parent may understand that the
child could benefit, encouraging the child to do these things at home might create
more movement, noise,and stress in an already small and overcrowded family apartment.
Thus, the parent, realizing that the delicate and precarious balance of family
dynamics in the home might be disturbed if the parent were to adopt the prescribed
teaching style, may ignore the proffered advice.
Accordingly, programs that seek
to improve parent-child interaction need to help parents incorporate the new
teaching strategies into their home life in such a way that other potentially
responsive family dynamics are not adversely effected. It is for this reason,
I believe, that the direct teaching or imposition of help is frequently rejected
by the family. Consciously or unconsciously, they realize that the help will
cause adverse repercussions elsewhere in the dynamics of their home life.
It might be better, therefore, when working with low-income parents
(each of whom have individual personalities and individual life situations),
to create an ongoing program in which the parents can choose “what” and “how” they
wish to be helped. Thus, families would feel that there is nurturance and support
offered upon which they can rely if they choose to change. My experience at the
Cleveland Parent and Child Center suggests that when different educational and
social services are offered by a multi-disciplinary staff in a supportive environment,
parents will choose the areas where they are, by their needs and motives, willing
Since it may frequently be impossible to provide the kind of trained
staff that have the sensitivity, experience, and knowledge of low-income family
life and the training necessary to know where and when to encourage change
in a parent or family, it might be best not to actively intervene. In these
situations it is best to provide choices so that parents will, if and when
they feel like it, actively choose from a variety of family support services.
This does not mean that the staff cannot suggest alternative ways of behaving
in various situations. However, staff must guard against the tendency to seek
to impose upon parents specific changes in behavior that they, the staff,
have deemed to be desirable.
at the Center found themselves in an environment that offered choices and
made suggestions, but did not try to teach or impose a specific change in
their behavior. Parents could choose to become involved with the social worker,
a variety of relevant home economics activities, children’s activities,
help the cook, etc.—all in a continuously supportive environment. Individual
mothers chose to get involved in their particular way, and by that active choosing
and consequent involvement, took away something for themselves that they wanted
and needed. They gained a measure of satisfaction that then encouraged them to
make additional program involvement choices.
Role playing can be an effective
means to modify adult attitudes and behavior. The role of teacher might be
played by giving parents an opportunity to plan a curriculum, choose games
or toys, and make observations about their child’s
progress (or if in a center-based program, the progress of the other children).
modeling can also be an effective way to develop child-rearing practices.
Parents who exhibit good child-rearing and teaching practices and who are
respected in their community might be used to work with parent groups or make
for parents to meet together and talk about their child-rearing concerns are
frequently very effective. At these times parents can learn from each other,
share feelings, and learn about child development. It is often reassuring
for a parent to learn that other parents have similar questions and concerns
about their children. Parents often find reassurance from the realization
that their child is no different from others at his or her stage of development.
do you intervene to improve the child-rearing attitudes and practices of those
parents who, when young children, did not receive the love and attention necessary
to create emotionally adequate parents? Can their unsatisfied infant needs
be met or neutralized so that cathexis to more positive child-rearing attitudes
and practices can be formed? Many low-income parents did not have their dependency
needs gratified when they were young infants. Inconsistent parenting or the
absence of parenting during the first years of their own lives constantly
threatens their ability as adults to provide a nurturing and emotionally supportive
childhood to their own children. This pattern is extremely difficult to modify,
even with intensive psychotherapy. Surprisingly, some improvement has been
observed after these parents have let themselves enjoy the activities of childhood.
opportunity often not adequately satisfied in the early childhood of low-income
parents is play. Play for adults can have many of the psychological qualities
and need—fulfilling properties present in child’s play.
However, the adult is not a child. Although some low-income adults from emotionally
deprived homes do gain a real measure of satisfaction from playing with children’s
toys and games, more adult play opportunities may also need to be provided. Play
can be attractive to a parent and help meet emotional needs, thereby reducing
the competition for need satisfaction that parents experience when raising their
infants and young children.
I have observed a teacher encourage a parent to play
a game with her child. The child was on the floor. The parent sat next to
her child. The parent began to play with the blocks, building a little house,
absolutely enthralled and enjoying the experience. The child was not engaged
in play by the parent at all. The two sat next to each other, engaged in parallel
The parent played with the blocks
for several short periods of time over the next week or two. After her personal
need for enjoyment was satisfied, she introduced the blocks to her child and
encouraged the child to play with her. It was as if she were saying to her
have gained enjoyment from playing with these blocks, and now I want to share
what I have enjoyed with you.” Isn’t
that exactly what the best parents do?
The purpose of all this is to provide enjoyment
to the parent in activities that can be of developmental importance to their
children. The parent then may derive enough satisfaction and personal identification
with the activity to want to share it with his or her child.
Parents frequently share with their children those
experiences from which they derived emotional gratification as a child and
with which they developed a childhood cathexis. Many of the most important
cathexes in early childhood are developed as a result of parent-child interactions.
Since many deprived parents did not experience developmentally and socially
appropriate emotional gratification as children, they often have difficulty
providing it to their children. Coming from emotionally restrictive or punitive
childhoods, they find themselves, as adults, in conflict with the emotional
needs expressed by their own children. Since the parent has more power and
control than the child, this conflict can lead to another cycle of childhood
deprivation. This is all the more likely when, as is often the case with low-income
families, severely limited resources exacerbate daily living.
Some parents have profoundly unmet personal needs. They can be timid or
belligerent, loquacious, or passive, thin or fat. Often, they are suspicious
and defensive. In one way or another, they either hurt inside and/or hurt
those around them (most frequently their children). These parents often continuously
test program staff in an attempt to plumb their strength, their endurance,
and their trustworthiness.
S. constantly and severely abused her twin two-year-old sons. They came to
the Center covered with welts, bruises, and the other scars of beatings they
had endured at home. This mother had great needs and desperately needed help.
One would think that the Parent and Child Center would have been a sight for
her sore eyes. You would never have known it by her behavior. She continually
accused the staff members of doing this or that to upset or hurt her or her
sons. On and on she tested the teacher, social worker, and even her community
worker. She tested them to see if she dared yield her needfulness to them,
or if they would prove to be as depriving, punitive, and unreliable as the
society in which she lived and was reared. It took more than a year before
Mrs. S. began to trust the Center staff. Slowly, after trial and testing,
this severely damaged woman started to accept help—started to trust. Unfortunately, there are many
other such Mr. and Mrs.
Programs designed to teach parents how to educate their
children frequently have little or no success because they fail to comprehend
that parent-child interaction patterns are influenced by forces that impinge
on adult and family life. Inadequate housing, poor health, tensions and emotional
stress, and problems with welfare often interfere with child rearing and are
instrumental in fostering deleterious child-rearing conditions and practices.
It is often necessary to ameliorate or neutralize those conditions before
changes can begin to take place in parenting practices.
Low-income families consistently face many problems, with limited resources
to call upon. It is unlikely that efforts designed to improve a parent’s
teaching skills will succeed without first intervening to help the family cope
more effectively with some of their most pressing problems. Experience has shown
that when a serious social, economic, or personal problem affecting family life
is eased, parenting practices often improve, sometimes without direct attention
to child-rearing practices!
Is child rearing only the responsibility of the biological parents?
Or is it the responsibility of society as a whole? The trend in federally
financed programs and the current rash of books and articles with child-rearing
formulas and advice seem to place the responsibility for child rearing exclusively
in the hands of parents. However, rearing children is a task that all segments
of a society share. Some social institutions, such as the media and public
schools, are not as responsible as they should be. Funds and efforts on behalf
of parenting and young children might be productively spent developing within
the business, labor, religious, political, education, and communication sectors
of society an awareness of their responsibility to help meet the developmental
needs of parents with young children.
This article was published in The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior
March 1998, 14(3).