When Kathy Hedge was growing up, children in her home didn’t question parental authority. Her father, a Greek immigrant, didn’t tolerate back talk. But times changed. She became a parent. And much to her chagrin, her kids talked back. Instead of doing exactly as they were told, they dared to ask: Why?
You may know kids like that. Might even have some at home. Handle with care.
As Hedge’s authoritarian style of parenting led to more intense conflicts with her oldest son, she sought guidance from the Parent Encouragement Program, based in Kensington, Md. PEP, as it is sometimes called, offers parenting classes in a small group format. There is also role play, in which conflicts between parents and children are reenacted and dissected in class.
“I’m watching a role play, and the mom is yelling at the child exactly the same way I yell,” Hedge recalled. “But I was also able to see the world from the child’s perspective, why the kid no longer believed that the mother was on his side. And I started to cry, ‘This is what I am doing to my child.’”
She came to realize that her goal of developing trust, mutual respect, self-discipline and self-motivation in her children would be achieved not by yelling and screaming, but by more effective communication.
In this age of global networks — Zoom, smartphones, Instagram, instant messaging, texting, Facebook Live — many of us still have difficulty talking to our kids. Or perhaps listening is the big fail.
The crisis among teenage girls in the United States highlights an urgent need to improve on these skills. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1 in 3 high school girls said they had seriously considered suicide, a 60 percent rise in the past decade. Nearly 15 percent had been forced to have sex, and about 6 in 10 girls were so persistently sad or hopeless they stopped regular activities.
And yet, teen girls interviewed by The Washington Post spoke of hiding their emotional and physical pain, saying that adults, even their parents, either didn’t listen, doubted them or dismissed their concerns as drama.
That American boys are responsible for so much of the harm shows that they also need — at the very least — a different way of being parented.
Hedge, now executive director of PEP, believes that parents are doing the best they can.
“I don’t like the idea of ‘good parents’ and ‘bad parents,” she said. “Some parents just have more tools and approaches that work for them.”
The Parent Encouragement Program was started in 1982 by Linda Jessup, a Montgomery County mother at wits end over her lack of effective parenting skills. The program draws on the research of social psychologists Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, who theorized that democratic societies work best when families promote values such as mutual respect, personal and social responsibility, social equality, and contributions to the community.
The classes last four weeks and cost $199.
Many other courses, including an eight-week resiliency program, are free or no more than $25, depending on the parents’ eligibility. It is essentially the same program funded with a state grant.
The lessons, aimed at parents of children age 3 to 18, are reasonably simple to understand. But not always easy to implement. Parenting is a lifelong endeavor, and the PEP motto is “progress not perfection.”
Mary Douglas, a parent facilitator for the resiliency program, said one challenge is getting parents to see that punishing children is not the only way to change behavior — and is not even the best way.
“Adults don’t do well when they’ve been treated badly, and neither do our kids,” Douglas said. “We don’t have to shame, blame and inflict pain on children to get them to do right. People will say that’s how they were raised. But how many of us need to be in therapy because of it? How many of us are not being honest about our mistakes? How many of our children don’t come to us when they’ve gotten themselves into a mess because they know that we will shame and blame them?”
Jermaine Gary, another parent facilitator, said he had to tweak parts of the program to account for the reality he faced as a Black man. “We saw a video that described a child acting out and the response was to let the child express himself, let the child know that you are listening and you are concerned,” he recalled. “If I let my Black son act out in public, he’d end up being labeled an ‘angry, misbehaving Black boy,’ and I could end up in handcuffs for defending him.”
Gary’s tweak would involve telling the kid to take a deep breath, walk him outside, and then let him know you’re listening and concerned as you work to resolve the problem together.
“I agree wholeheartedly with the basics — the listening and caring,” Gary said. “The rest of it is just the way I see it. I want my son to know that, in our society, many of the actions he takes will not only impact him but also every boy who looks like him.”
PEP has some important lessons for parents, and nothing less than a child’s life and well-being are at stake.
“Kids who get involved in activities that don’t lead to great outcomes tend to be discouraged children, and that discouragement comes from not feeling like they belong,” Hedge said. “It’s a basic human need to feel a part of something, like you matter, and that first unit you belong to is the family.”
Protecting the child’s sense of belonging — keeping a child under the influence of the parent, not under the parents’ power — may be a mom’s and dad’s most important job.
A previous version of this article stated that the classes offered by the Parent Encouragement Program lasted eight weeks. The classes last for four weeks. This article has been corrected.