Policy wonks talk a lot about an entire village being necessary to raise a child. But rarely do we see real ground-level community action on the scale shown this year by the citizens of Long Beach.
On Feb. 24, 600 parents turned out for an all-day conference on the importance of quality parenting. The conference targeted the city's African American parents, but it was only the first step in a five-year project designed to reach every parent in the diverse city of 440,000 with culturally relevant information and support.
If the parenting project works, co-sponsor Kerby Alvy, director of the Studio City-based Center for the Improvement of Child Caring, has hopes for the project becoming a national model.
Nadine Keith, who said she tends to react with anger to problems with her 11-year-old son, happened to hear about the conference at school. Other parents found out through churches, day care, cable TV or the newspaper. After she signed up, Keith said she was called twice, and received a reminder letter and a map in the mail and an offer for a free cab ride if she could not afford transportation.
Keith paid the $5 fee and took a bus. Like the other participants, she heard speeches by half a dozen African American professionals about how their parents' dedication and attention influenced the outcome of their lives. Keith said she picked up a few pointers, "such as sitting down and talking. If he has a problem in school and tells me about it, we can sit down and talk about the problem . . . instead of the spanking thing."
Keith was one of hundreds who signed up to learn more skills at a free one-day seminar in March on effective black parenting, an overview for a more comprehensive 15-week course. Some graduates of the course will be trained to become parenting instructors in what is hoped to become an ever-expanding "exponential web," of encouragement, information and support, said Randy Ward, founder of the African American Community Advisory Assn., which co-sponsored the conference with funding from various foundations and corporations.
The seminar was more successful than organizers had imagined, and they have already begun to work in the Latino community. The white and Cambodian communities will follow, Ward said.
Separate classes will focus on distinct cultural issues, such as immigration or historical patterns. For instance, Ward said, African Americans have traditionally protected children, especially boys, from questioning authority through harsh corporal punishment. "And yet, when you want black children to be critical thinkers and solve problems, we cannot suppress proper ways of questioning.
In the face of widespread poverty, addiction, joblessness, single parenthood and racism, parenting alone can't be expected to reverse society's major problems such as child abuse and neglect, delinquency and dropping out of school. But in Ward's view, "Parenting is the key factor and it can make an incredible difference. At some point, somebody has to break the cycle of ineffective parenting and that takes the education of parents."
By taking a positive approach before problems become serious, the activists hope to prevent extreme interventions later by police or welfare agencies.
"It has to do with all of our responsibilities," Ward said. "It's too easy to lay it on the school district, or hospitals or the criminal justice system. By the time they get there, it's almost too late."
As one participant wrote on her evaluation: "This is exactly what we need. It should have been done a long time ago."
* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Please include a telephone number.