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The Kid Tamer

When the Dixons signed a family coach, they already knew they had a good life and good kids. They just weren't sure, in these uncertain times, that good was good enough.

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By Karen Houppert
Sunday, December 21, 2008; Page W08

Sheila and Ernest Dixon are perched uncomfortably on the edge of a couch in Lisa Carey's Springfield home office. Parents of three boys -- Damon, 11, Dorion, 9, and Darron, 3 -- the Dixons are describing their chaotic home life. They offer up examples like weary travelers laden with suitcases, hoping Lisa will take a few and lighten their load. There is Dorion's exasperating inability to ever locate his shinguards in time for soccer practice. There is the lunch appointment an overwhelmed Sheila completely forgot about. There is Damon's shyness. Darron's reluctance in potty training. Worries about the boys' future.

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It gets worse, they say.

Sheila explains that Ernest, who works the night shift as a pharmacist at CVS, will be opening his own pharmacy later in the fall. He'll be working doubletime -- one shift at each place. She worries about how she will manage the kids' complicated schedules and whether she can simultaneously be a good parent and run her own growing business providing information and networking opportunities to women entrepreneurs. Sheila tells Lisa that she is concerned about what will become of her family as they all struggle with the more chaotic pace. She feels overstressed already, and the hard part hasn't even begun. "I'm just tired," says Sheila.

Lisa sits forward in her desk chair and listens as this tale of woe unfolds, nodding sympathetically. She is a round woman wearing dark slacks and a white polo. Inscribed on the shirt's upper left side, below an embroidered lighthouse, is her company motto: "Carey Coaching: Lighting the way to success."

Lisa Carey is a "family coach" -- the latest offshoot of the coaching industry that has penetrated every nook and cranny of our culture -- and she is meeting with the Dixons for the first time to offer advice on how to streamline their lives and fine-tune their parenting. Her system is based on the "Parent as Coach" method created by Diana Sterling, author of a book of the same name and proprietor of the Parent As Coach Academy, run out of her New Mexico office. The premise: Sterling trains family coaches like Lisa, who in turn coach couples like Sheila and Ernest to be better parents, while those parents coach their kids to be better people. As Lisa meets with the Dixons that first morning in May, she is sympathetic about the challenges of parenting, as she shows them a copy of Sterling's book and explains how it changed her life.

"My daughter, Joanne, was about 11 years old when she decided she wasn't going back to school after seventh grade," Lisa tells them. Joanne, who is now 19, had a visual-processing disorder. Trying to get her through 20 vocabulary words a week was brutal, Lisa recalls. Frustrated, her daughter would melt down in tantrums. Lisa didn't know how to help her. Then one day, Lisa heard a broadcast of Sterling discussing her parent-as-coach dogma.

"The hair stood up on my arms," she says. A week later, Lisa was flying out to take Sterling's workshop.

"Joanne is now a student at Penn State," Lisa says proudly as she hands the Dixons their personal copy of "Parent As Coach."

Sheila, who has been nervously fingering her handbag straps, grasps the book as if Lisa has tossed out a lifeline. But Lisa cautions that the parent-as-coach program she offers will take some serious elbow grease. Are they ready for that?

Both Ernest and Sheila nod; they are. In her gut, Sheila knows her boys are low maintenance, compared with some children. But a vague unease suffuses Sheila's parenting, which is what drove her here in the first place. Is that flightiness a character flaw she must nip in the bud or just a stage her middle child is passing through? Should she downplay the solitary B that Damon got in math last year because he is so hard on himself, or are his worries justified? Will little things become bigger things that grow till they jeopardize the boys' later success? Sheila finds herself anxiously wondering, Am I the best mom I can be?

***

Such deep-seated anxiety among modern parents, combined with unprecedented affluence, has spawned a $2.1 trillion "mommy market," according to BSM Media, a marketing firm specializing in the field. The market bulges with everything from DVDs that promise to teach your infant genius sign language to Music Together groups for the 1-year-old wunderkind to etiquette classes for a polished, ivy-primed preteen. And worried parents buy.


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