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It's the World's Most Demanding Club

Families: Nervous, sleep-deprived new parents gather to swap tips--and take comfort that they're not alone.

January 23, 1998|DANIEL YI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One ad proclaims, "It is a tough job, but somebody can teach you how to do it." Another orders, "Be all the parent you can be," and a third reveals, "It's the hardest job you'll ever love."

The messages, emblazoned on 500 billboards throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties, are part of a campaign by the Children's Bureau of Southern California, a nonprofit social services agency, and are designed to promote an ambitious parent education program that the agency hopes will become as popular among new parents as Lamaze classes.

The program, called NuParent, is a combination support group / discussion group where hands-on parenting tips are offered. It is geared toward helping parents to navigate through those nervous, sleep-deprived first months following a baby's birth. Although classes are currently being offered at 12 locations, the program will be formally launched today during a ceremony at UCLA Children's Hospital.

The group hopes to expand NuParent throughout Southern California and eventually go nationwide. An additional 16 sites in Los Angeles and Orange counties are slated to open in the coming months.

Alex Morales, executive director of the 94-year-old Children's Bureau, called the effort "one of the most monumental tasks ever undertaken" by the organization, which has long focused on child abuse counseling and prevention.

Children and family welfare experts say the project will help fill a void in parent education courses on infant care. Currently, many classes available through hospitals, social services agencies and other groups center mostly on prenatal care and toddler behavior.

"There is a notion in this society that just because someone is biologically capable of being a parent that they know how to be a parent. . . . That's absurd," says William Meezan, professor of child welfare at USC's School of Social Work.

As extended family help--traditionally the support network for novice mothers and fathers--becomes scarce in a more mobile society, new parents nowadays are more likely to feel isolated, experts said.

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That was certainly true of the Sperlings.

When the Mission Viejo couple had their first child, an 8-pound, 10-ounce girl, last year, the first question they asked themselves was "Now what?"

"We read tons of books, but it was almost too much information," Erica Sperling, 32, says.

She enrolled in a NuParent class in October at the South Orange County Family Resource Center when her baby was just a few months old.

The class, which met for a couple of hours once a week for eight weeks, offered basic activities and instructions on baby care. But what Sperling appreciated the most, she says, was the interaction with the other mothers and babies as well as the NuParent facilitator.

"The program did not paint a black and white picture, but was there to provide guidelines and validate the choices we were making," she says.

Take, for example, the family bed. Researchers disagree on the wisdom of having babies sleep with parents. Some say it is a good way to avoid Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. Others advise against the practice, which may create sleep problems and separation anxiety for the baby later.

At NuParent classes, parents are presented with both sides of the issue so they can make their own decisions. The classes offer a supportive environment for parents, rather than espousing a particular child-rearing philosophy.

"I personally don't believe in spanking, but I can't say that a parent who does is necessarily a bad parent," says Veronica Pugin, NuParent's program director.

Virginia Mason, executive director of Chicago-based Family Resource Coalition of America, says parent education is part of a greater "family support movement" taking hold in the country.

The term refers to a vast array of public and private services that addresses issues concerning the welfare of families. The coalition estimates that more than 2 million families are served by such services nationwide.

But early parent education is underrepresented.

"There are pieces of it everywhere," Mason says. "It is still pioneer work."

Typically, there are one-day classes in a variety of topics, such as breast-feeding and infant care, and longer support group programs for parents of babies in a variety of age ranges.

Tessa Charnofsky, a program facilitator, says she is trained primarily to be a good listener.

She says one of the mothers in her group at the Children's Bureau headquarters in Los Angeles recently told her she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from having lived through the civil war that ravaged her native country in Central America.

Charnofsky says she assured the woman she could still be a good mother and referred her to counseling.

With such differing community needs, NuParent coordinators insist the strength of their program is its flexibility.

"This is not a cookbook approach," says Pugin.

Still, the Children's Bureau is confident it can package its formula and distribute it nationwide.

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