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Editorial: Teaching parents skills is worthwhile investment

Sep. 23, 2013 @ 09:15 AM

Where are the parents?

When children and teens get into trouble, that is one of the first questions we ask.

Whether it is an attendance problem at school, drug use or involvement in vandalism or more serious crime, we are quick to think that better parenting might have helped that young person stay on the right path. And for the most part, we are correct.

Parents with strong values, good mental and physical health, knowledge and reasonable resources generally develop the skills to have a powerful positive impact on their children at every stage of their lives. They will all make some mistakes, of course, but statistically the outcomes are much better.

Those who lack some or all those qualities can struggle with raising their children, and society pays the price for any failures in crime costs, health care and public support.

"The United States suffers from gaps in income, education and opportunity. The most important gap of all may be in parenting: a gap that harms wellbeing, limits social mobility, and ultimately damages our economy, too," researchers Richard V. Reeves and Kimberly Howard wrote for a Brookings Institute study released last week. "If we want a better society, we need better parents."

Many of us would agree, but how do we go about it?

Society believes that parenting is important, but we also believe that it is private. Most of us feel each family should be allowed to go its own way, and direct intervention is reserved for cases of blatant abuse or neglect.

However, it makes sense to look at the parenting assistance already in place, and what can be done to make that more effective. The Brookings Institute study reports that there are two common approaches -- efforts aimed at improving parenting skills and those that provide supplementary services such as money, food or health care.

"The first seeks to make parents better; the latter to make them less relevant," the study concludes.

Unfortunately, today most of our resources go into providing those supplementary benefits, and there is a real opportunity to invest more heavily in efforts that help parents learn to do a better job.

On the local level, the United Way's Success By 6 initiative is an excellent example of a nonprofit program that provides information and skill-building instruction to young parents. Supporting and expanding that effort is a good place to start.

States also should look at the most effective home visitation programs provided by social service agencies, and consider expanding those as well. The Brookings study concludes that nationally our current programs are "patchy in quality, at best."

Although "closing the gap" in parenting skills may seem to be an almost impossible job, any progress we can make will improve chances for children and for society, as well.

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