A clinic in Highland Park has become the setting for an experimental program to teach low-income, Spanish-speaking Mexican-American parents the skills they need to care for their infants.
"Modern Parents," or "Padres Modernos," is a Spanish-language version of a 10-week program called Minnesota Early Learning Design (MELD), developed in 1973 to teach parenting skills to middle-income Caucasian families and used in 90 cities throughout the United States.
The Carnegie Corp., the James Irving Foundation and Stuart Foundations are paying for a four-year, $500,000 pilot program to adapt the curriculum to low-income Mexican-Americans who do not speak English.
Highland Park, with its heavy Mexican-American population, was identified by MELD as an ideal setting for the experiment. Northeast Community Clinic on Figueroa Street, which already provided medical, legal and psychological assistance to nearby residents, agreed to give "Padres Modernos" a try.
MELD officials say little or no research has been done on Latino parenting programs that concern children younger than 2 years old, and they hope to fill this void by developing a culturally specific curriculum that can identify and correct developmental problems in the early stages of the infant's life.
On Saturday, the third group of the pilot project got under way. Participants sat on folding chairs, forming a circle in the clinic's small classroom--two couples expecting their first children, a pregnant woman, a young mother, two social workers and volunteer Toni Valdez, a mother of eight who acted as discussion leader.
After a round of introductions, Valdez reminded the group why they were meeting with the social workers.
"There's a lot of information from the American psychologists and sociologists that we can use, mixed with what we've learned from our experience," Valdez said in Spanish. "We have always adapted to different customs in order to survive, without losing touch with our roots. That's why we are 'Modern Parents,' " she said. The participants nodded and smiled.
The subject of this meeting was child abuse. Valdez asked Maria Santana, one of the MELD social workers, to talk about sexual molestation.
Sexual abuse by parents, baby-sitters and relatives is more prevalent than most people suspect, Santana explained. "Know your babies' bodies," she warned the parents. "Open their little legs, look for bruises and watch for abnormal behavior too, like excessive crying or if the baby is afraid of somebody. Sometimes rapists don't leave marks."
For two hours, they talked about different forms of sexual, physical and verbal child abuse and how to prevent it. Santana and Eddy Farias, the social workers, identified the problems. Valdez, a feisty, talkative and often funny figure, interjected anecdotes from her own experiences and told of some mistakes she made in raising children. The parents seemed at ease. Slowly, they began asking questions.
"Sometimes one baby is darker than another, and people treat them differently," Adelina Verdugo said. "Some people think the one with the lighter skin will be smarter and better looking. Is this true?
Nonsense, Farias replied. This kind of inadvertent discrimination is just as dangerous as it is prevalent. The darker child suffers from a lack of self-esteem, and the lighter child may feel that he cannot fulfill his parents' expectations.
"What's the difference between the way American parents raise their children and the Mexican way of doing it?" Antonio Zepeda asked.
American parents tend to stress individualism and personal achievement, whereas in Mexico there is more emphasis on the unity of the extended family, Farias answered.
Role of Church
Also, he said, the Catholic Church plays a bigger role in the education process in Mexico, with the local priest often serving as the family adviser. In the United States, on the other hand, religion is more focused on satisfying spiritual needs, Farias said.
These are precisely the type of questions that the "Padres Modernos" curriculum needs to address before it is fully developed and ready to use, said Karen Leaf, MELD evaluation coordinator.
"The idea is not to tell parents what's right and what's wrong, but to analyze and examine both cultures so parents can choose what values to pass on to the child. We want to empower parents," she said.
"This is a group of parents that traditionally has not a received a lot of attention from service providers or the academic community," she added.
The MELD method combines the professional experience of trained child-care experts with the practical experience of a "volunteer parent coordinator" whose role is to bridge the cultural gap between the experts and group participants by relating the discussion topics to anecdotes and personal experiences that group members can relate to.