September 8, 1999
Time to Teach the Fourth 'R'
By Myriam Miedzian
According to a recent poll, a vast majority of Americans think that child-rearing classes should be included in the school curriculum - a testimony to their good common sense.
No one doubts that the most effective way to teach reading, writing, math, or history is in schools. But the most difficult and important task most of us are confronted with - raising children - goes largely untaught in the classroom.
In 1996 alone, close to 1 million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to child protective service agencies. But as matters stand, it is only after children have been discovered to be severely battered that their parents are forced to take a child rearing course as a condition of regaining custody.
This is analogous to requiring no driver's license or education to drive a car, then waiting until drivers injure or kill someone before demanding that they learn how to drive.
Social science research reveals that in addition to their own suffering, children who are battered, who experience weak bonding. with caregivers, who lack parental supervision or have parents who fail to reinforce pro-social behavior are also at higher risk of committing acts of violence against others. Boys are at much higher risk than girls - approximately 85 percent of violent crimes are committed by males. Child rearing classes can help solve these problems. They teach children the basics of good parenting and encourage boys to break the cycle of irresponsible, indifferent, and often violent fathering when they grow up.
The presence of an involved, loving, nonviolent father or other such male role model is especially important in deterring a boy from violence.
As matters stand, boys grow up surrounded by endless violent sports and entertainment role models. There is no analogous encouragement for loving, responsible fathering. In fact, boys are often embarrassed to exhibit any of the feelings that are so essential for good parenting. Classes in child care can be emotionally liberating for boys - they legitimize empathy, caring, and responsibility for them as well as for girls.
In this time of deep concern with school violence. it should be noted that teachers report that classes in child rearing also lead to a friendlier, better learning environment. As for the objection that the school curriculum is already overburdened and we need to focus on basics, early-childhood research increasingly shows that good parenting in the early years increases children's learning abilities in later life.
Child rearing classes discourage battering and teenage pregnancy. Programs for younger children usually involve a mature parent bringing a baby or toddler to class once a month. The child's development is. watched over time and noted on a chart. Teachers provide information about the psychological and physical needs of children at various ages. As students talk with the parents they gain a deeper appreciation of child-rearing.
They often get their first exposure to reports from the trenches of parenting, for example the parents who say "We haven't slept through a night since she was born because she has to be fed every three hours." As a result, boys and girls begin to see raising a child as a demanding important responsibility. Girls at risk for teenage pregnancy understand that babies are not undemanding little dolls who will shower them with love. Boys move away from the notion that impregnating girls is a show of manhood. They become strongly inclined to delay parenthood until they are financially and emotionally ready.
Because girls as young as 12 are getting pregnant. it is important that these classes be introduced no later than fifth grade, then repeated as child development classes in high school.
The startup cost of such programs is less than $100 per student. Isn't it time that our political leaders put some money where their talk is and buttressed their discourse about family values with dollars for teaching the all-important 4th R – rearing children.
Myriam Miedzian is a founding director of the Parenting Project and author of "Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence."