05/03/2015 09:18 am ET Updated May 03, 2016

MOM Upside Down Is WOW

In 2003, I was the Executive Director of a nonprofit agency (Kids' Turn) in San Francisco. The mission of the organization was to help families reduce conflict -- conflict which victimized children. The primary focus was to support families during parental separation, but we expanded our scope to include those parents (primarily men) who demonstrated violent behavior toward their spouses and witnessed by their children.

One day, I accompanied one of our highly skilled parent trainers (who happened to be an African-American male) to a meeting in the Western Addition. The meeting was of family service representatives working in the African-American community, and our purpose was to encourage referrals to our program. I was likely the only white person in the meeting, and during the conversation, the topic turned to whether it is okay to spank children. The conversation was at times lively, intense and most informative for me. Hearing trained professionals examine their own family and cultural experiences around corporal punishment while contrasting them with their professional skill set, was educational and challenged my own strident views on the subject.

I thought of that experience when I saw the Baltimore mom in the yellow shirt discipline her son during the riots. I was surprised to hear pundits and community leaders immediately declare her mother-of-the-year. The reality: had that episode been seen and recorded in a different context (a birthday party, a sporting event, a mall), quite likely calls to Child Protective Services would have been made.

I do NOT criticize Ms. Graham. I cannot imagine the sheer terror and panic she felt during the violence and her surging maternal instincts toward protecting her son. Like all of us as parents, she did the best she could under the circumstances.

I am also aware of the social evolution in the history of white European immigrants in this country who, by no means, spared the rod when disciplining their children. Maltreatment of children is part of our ethnic history as evidenced by the need for child labor laws, the development of child protection units and social service organizations.

Let's just say, regarding the mistreatment of children in the United States, there is enough criticism to go around for everyone, regardless of race or economic circumstances.

During the thirteen years I ran Kids' Turn, preceded by my years as a public school administrator, it became apparent to me parent education programs were the key to changing patterns in families. Stated simply, people are not born knowing how to be parents.

Parents learn their parenting skills from their parents... who learned it from their parents... and so on. (Mis)treating children because that's how mom/grandma did it is rational justification for most people. It usually takes a crisis, followed by intervention by a social service or law enforcement system, to force parents into programs where they are taught alternative parenting strategies.

The challenge is how do we get parents voluntarily to programs before a crisis? Some enlightened schools and school districts add parenting curriculum to their junior highs and high schools. No, it does not encourage teen pregnancy. But rather, such classes expose youth to parenting without violence strategies during their formative years. These contemporary classes now have the added information of the negative impact of family conflict or violence on the brains of young children.

And in some communities, Junior Colleges, churches and nonprofits make low- or no-cost parent education classes readily available. The incentives of free childcare, potlucks or coffee hours provide a valuable social atmosphere so participating parents know they are not alone in their desire to improve their parenting.

Additionally, the free resources available on the internet can set the stage to change patterns in families. I think most parents intuitively understand there are limits to how they should discipline their children. Seeking out new ideas in the privacy of their own home and according to their time schedule, is an approach not available to previous generations.

The country collectively focused on Ms. Graham for several days. It could have been a teachable moment for us all. The importance of supporting, educating and offering compassion to parents in stressful circumstances is a community responsibility. Now, what are we going to do about it?