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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Child's Play; Classes Provide Answers for At-Risk Parents

LAS CRUCES - Kids don't come with instructions, but a four-year parenting study at New Mexico State University reveals that classes for at-risk moms and dads can help create happier, safer homes.

Esther Devall, center, a child development expert with New Mexico State University's family and consumer sciences department, reviews a parenting handbook with Sam and Dawn Sanchez of Las Cruces as their children Miranda, 4, and Hanna, 2, look on. A four-year study of parenting behavior at NMSU reveals that parenting education classes can significantly improve family life. (02/16/2004) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"We know that parenting education classes can decrease teen pregnancy, school dropout and juvenile delinquency rates," said Esther Devall, a child development expert with NMSU's family and consumer sciences department.

"But we've also been able to show that targeted parenting education for high-risk parents can lead to greater empathy for children's needs, a decreased belief in corporal punishment, fewer inappropriate expectations of children and less reversal of parent-child roles," she said. Some parents, especially teen parents, think their children should take care of them both emotionally and physically.

"We tend to parent the way we were parented," she said. "If our parents yelled and hit, that's what we tend to do, especially under stress. But there are more effective ways to handle stress and children's misbehavior. Parenting is a skill that can be learned."

Many of New Mexico's low income parents lack adequate resources to raise their children. The Children's Rights Council, a children's rights organization based in Washington, D.C., has rated New Mexico as one of the worst states in the nation to raise a child due to high rates of adolescent substance abuse, teen pregnancy and juvenile delinquency.

"Many parents lack understanding of how to nurture and encourage their children, and we know that both are important for total brain development in children." said Charolette Collins, coordinator for NMSU's Parenting Education Program in northern New Mexico. "They don't fully see the benefits of positive reenforcement and positive discipline techniques."

To help prevent these problems, in 1999 NMSU parenting experts began collaborating with Doņa Ana County's Women, Infants and Children nutritional program. The free program started in Las Cruces with parenting classes for teen parents and parents with infants and preschool children. A year later, with a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program expanded to 28 classes throughout Doņa Ana County, serving 368 parents and 320 children.

Now, the parenting education effort has expanded statewide with $1.4 million grant from the New Mexico Human Services Department, adding expectant families, parents and their school-age children, families dealing with divorce, incarcerated parents, military families, abusive families and young fathers.

"This program helped me realize what I was doing wrong and what I'm doing right with my child," said Las Cruces resident Maribel Salmon, a December graduate who has an 18-month-old son, Carlos. "It made me feel good about myself as a mother."

NMSU researchers found four critical changes in parenting behavior after taking these classes. Among the most important were increased empathy for children's needs, and a decreased belief in the value of corporal punishment.

"Parents enter the class believing that when the children do something wrong, they should smack them," Devall said. "They leave understanding the drawbacks of spanking and are better
equipped with more nurturing and more effective ways to get their kids to behave."

Another change is in parents' expectations of their children. Some parents do not have a clear understanding of child development and may not know what's realistic to expect of a 2- or 5-year-old.

Finally, there is a decrease in the reversal of parent-child roles. "We try to show them that they are the adult and they are supposed to take care of the child, not the other way around," said Lisa Shields, associate director of NMSU's Parenting Education Programs. Changes in parenting behavior are monitored with tests before and after the parenting courses.

The classes, which are offered in English and Spanish, meet weekly for two and a half hours for four to six months. Sessions are held in a variety of locations across New Mexico, including county Cooperative Extension Service offices, schools and health offices. During class, parents learn how to nurture their children and themselves, while the children learn through activities and play.

Classes are open to anyone, but the target audience is low income, high-risk parents, Shields said. This includes expectant, adult and teen parents, along with those parents required to attend classes because of abuse or neglect.

"Many of our participants are parents who have huge challenges in their lives from transportation issues to lack of child care, but we've found that after coming to the program they get hooked," she said. "They see the benefit of support both from the instructors and from other parents."

For more information on NMSU's Parenting Education Programs, please contact Collins in Albuquerque at (505) 332-3765 or Shields in Las Cruces at (505) 646-3434.