Parenting offers the most wonderful and daunting challenges in the world. Parents are their children's most important teachers and mentors, and they bear primary responsibility for nurturing their sons and daughters while keeping them safe. Yet parenting is one of the most undervalued and least prepared for roles in America. Virtually everyone who has children wants to be a good parent, but some do not know how to do that, and many lack the support of extended family or community resources. So instead of judging or assigning blame when parents come up short in providing care and protection to their children, we should recognize that what many parents need is help.
Nobody raises a child alone and many parents need support from a spouse, parent, sibling, friend or neighbor. That support may come in the form of respite for an hour or two of alone time once a week or the ability to attend church while a friend sits with their children. Parents, grandparents or other caregivers of children or teenagers can benefit from support groups organized by faith-based or other community organizations where they can find help for coping with the challenging behaviors of their children or extra support to address their children's special needs.
Many parents are plagued by poverty or unemployment that can make it particularly difficult for them to balance parenting with job searches or work. A parent who worries about the impact on their children of an impending job lay-off or eviction may at some point vent their frustration on a child. Stress grows as parents become more isolated.
Help for many families comes through home visiting programs that engage parents and keep them from being isolated. Home visitors work with parents to understand and address their children's developmental needs while strengthening their parenting skills. Some home visiting programs offer a variety of supports to families with differing needs, but most seek to help parents beginning right after childbirth when they are especially receptive to advice and assistance.
The Nurse-Family Partnership®, a successful home visiting program, has the longest track record. It engages young women during pregnancy, focusing on improving the health, well-being and self-sufficiency of low-income, first-time parents--many of them young single parents--and stays with them through the child's second birthday. The nurses work with mothers on health-related behaviors during pregnancy such as cigarette smoking, drinking and drug abuse, and educate them about the physical and emotional needs of their children.
The Healthy Families home visiting programs target mothers at risk, connecting with them at the hospital and following up with visits, to some parents and children through age five. The Parents as Teachers program offers home visiting to parents with newborns through the schools. Recognizing that parents are their children's best first teachers, families receive child development instruction and parenting support in their homes from a trained parent educator for the child's first three years, and in some locations, until the child enters kindergarten. All of these home visiting models have been highly effective in strengthening parenting skills, promoting healthy child development, and addressing child abuse and neglect.
For parents facing special challenges, such as substance abuse, comprehensive family-based treatment brings parents and their young children together so that attention can be given to the parent-child relationship as well as the child's development. These programs also help parents prepare a recovery plan as they transition back into their communities. As a component of some programs, mothers in recovery serve as wise parent mentors to counsel others parents going through treatment.
Support for families in need through community-based organizations, schools or public agencies must fully engage parents, other family members and the children and build on the strengths of all of them. Helping adults become better parents reduces child abuse and neglect and works to prevent crime and delinquency when children's special needs are caught early. Ultimately, this type of intervention benefits children and all of us over the long term by helping to make the futures of those served more productive and by lowering public expenditures.
Marian Wright Edelman, whose latest book is The Sea Is So Wide And My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation, is president of the Children's Defense Fund. For more information about the Children's Defense Fund, go to www.childrensdefense.org.