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A New Language for Parenting

Lessons in positive parenting may help Mexican immigrants adjust to American child rearing – but first, health officials have to get them in the door

A New Language for Parenting


In a spare multipurpose room, a handful of Latino parents gaze at Mario Guerrero as if he held the answers to success, translated. 

They've gathered at the Burbank Housing Project on this Wednesday for an adults-only version of back to school.  Subject: Parenting in a new world.  

Developed at Queensland University in Australia, Triple P is a positive parenting program, designed to strengthen bonds and reduce child abuse by encouraging praise and open communication within families.

In April of 2010, First 5 Sonoma County, a nonprofit organization sponsoring early childhood initiatives, started offering Triple P training for free, ultimately training over 300 service providers, hailing from non-profit, government and for-profit agencies specializing in family health.

In the next month, they're ramping up the program, starting an advertising and social media campaign to promote their Triple P network and to help lift the mental health stigma throughout the county, said Carol Ewart, First Five’s Health Information Specialist, who administers the Triple P program.

Community officials are also beginning to suspect that strong parenting may be the route out of generational poverty; a mindset popularized by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Childrens’ Zone, an education system designed to lift the entirety of Harlem’s youth into the middle class – starting by teaching parents how to parent.

Canada’s system’s been lauded in a book, a movie and most recently, by policy makers: In 2010 the Obama administration distributed $10 million in grants to community organizations to found their own version of Canada’s ‘cradle to college’ model.

But, amending Triple P, a method created by an Austrailian professor, which has largely been tested in white and African American communities in South Carolina, for Sonoma County’s Latino population – most of whom immigrated recently and hail from the most rural communities in Mexico – raises a different set of cultural issues.

To teach ‘Triple P” to Latino immigrants, Guerrero first took a class for educators, then translated the provided lecture slides to Spanish, then simplified them to a 3rd grade reading level, and then, finally, abandoned the slides altogether, when he realized most of his students couldn’t read quickly enough to follow along.

But according to Guerrero, Triple P may serve a more crucial purpose for the newly immigrated Mexican population within Sonoma County, whom officials say need the help.

Guerrero, who runs the Sonoma County Community Intervention Program, which connects at risk Latinos with government services, says that parenting classes are also an easy in for health officials to discuss tricky topics – like domestic and sexual abuse and mental illness – with populations of recent immigrants, who, though they might be bearing similar issues, will usually shun the taboo-ridden field.

 “When I say, ‘I have a class for parents,’ they get very excited; it’s very close to them,” said Guerrero. “If you say I have a workshop on depression, that just doesn’t work.”

Currently, Guerrero offers Triple P twice a year at community centers and Latino organizations in Petaluma, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, targeting newly immigrated parents, who may need the help more than their American peers.

“You learn about parenting from your mom, from your neighbors from the people in your community and here they are separated from that – lost,” said Gabriel Sánchez-Navarro, a program assistant at Nuestra Voz, a Latino community organizing group which hosts the Sonoma seminar. But this community needs the anti-violence stance of parenting education to help adjust to American life and combat what Sánchez-Navarro calls ‘the machismo”.

“‘Stand up; be a man; do it,’ that was my father’s mantra,” he recalls.  The father-knows-best mentality is taken to its extreme in rural communities, says Sánchez-Navarro, where men expect obedience from their offspring with no explanation: “They raise little adults rather than children.”

Match that stoic attitude with American ‘helicopter’ parenting and you’ve got one word: trouble; a traditional Mexican parent sees praise as an indulgence, and is more likely to feel insecure than combative in a parent teacher conference.

“Language, confidence, status – there are a lot of fears [that kids face].  In our culture, we worry if we show affection they’ll be spoiled,” he said.

“Here we tell them if you project confidence to your children they’ll respond – at school or with friends – in a very positive way.”

The positivity is particularly needed in Sonoma County, where Latino students struggle behind their peers. About 4.4 percent of Latino students drop out of high school each year– the highest drop out rate of any ethnic group in the County – and only 7 percent of Latinos hold any degree past high school.

Despite the statistics, and just three sessions into the parenting program, Fernanda Flores, a bright-eyed 39-year-old, feels optimistic about her daughter’s prospects after the training which she says has changed her family interactions. 

”We used to just come in from school and watch TV; now they come in and they have to eat their dinner and then do their homework,” said Flores, clutching her 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, who came along because Flores didn’t have childcare.

“Is bribery alright?” one mother asks Guerrero, as long as she’s using it to improve her daughter’s schoolwork. Answer: Not really. “Make the child feel useful and they’ll behave without it,” Guerrero advises.

For a class that’s supposed to be about strengthening families, Guerrero’s had a tough time garnering regular attendance. Sometimes two-dozen parents show; other times, like today, just a handful.

And, it’s a tough sell getting dads to show up.

But, Gustavo Yanez, 34, the lone father in the room, said he finds himself fielding questions from other confused parents, who now look to him as an expert since he signed up for the class.

Recently, a friend asked Yanez for advice on coping with a rebellious daughter.  His advice: “talk to her more,” “understand her better,” – language lifted from the Triple P handbook.

The Triple P training relies on this kind of parroting to produce the community-wide results that the program claims to deliver, beyond the reach of an individual.

In Guerrero’s classroom, he encourages them to spread the gospel: “Tell them what changes you’re making. Give examples,” he tells Yanez.

It hits at the heart of what Guerrero’s teaching: namely, actions influence more than words.

So when Mariella Oliveros, 29, tells Guerrero of her regular pleas with her husband to listen better to their 10-year-old daughter, Guerrero turns the tables back to her.

“If you make the changes in the way you treat your daughter, your husband will notice and it will affect his behavior,” he responds.  

Though Guerrero is enthusiastic about his students’ progress, he’s discouraged by the limited attendance at the seminars; despite weeks of advertising, hundreds of flyers and even door-to-door house calls, Nuestra Voz’s session attracted, at most, a dozen families.

 Starting in the spring, he’s changing strategy: partnering with six Catholic churches across Sonoma County, hoping that endorsements from a faith-based organization will help recent immigrants to value the class. (In Sonoma, he’ll teach next at St. Francis Solano in March.)

 “Traditionally we do children’s therapy, but we know the better way is to do preventive work – teach the parent and teach the couple. If the couple is doing well, the children will see that and they will do well,” he said.

“They need to recognize when their kids are doing good things, good effort and recognize it in a personal way,” he said.

To sign up for a Triple P training session contact First 5 Sonoma County. To sign up for one of  Guerrero's sessions, contact Sonoma County Mental Health

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