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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Some Find Parenting Is a Class Act

Family: Middle-class moms and dads who work outside the home discover they benefit from lessons, experts say, and they can also afford them.

July 17, 2000|MATT SURMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Davis was a bit surprised when her husband suggested they take a parenting class.

Their two preteen girls aren't wild kids. The Davises aren't abusive or neglectful. There are no screaming matches, or battles about getting the kids to stay in school.

The Davises consider themselves good parents.

"I was in the car on the way thinking 'Who's referred the other people to this class?' " she said, recalling the first drive to their Thousand Oaks class. "I found myself getting all concerned. Will someone think there's something wrong with us?"

Increasingly, the answer from middle- and upper middle-class families seems to be no. Typically considered to be only for those ordered there by a court or beleaguered by troubled children, the courses to smooth everyday child-raising battles at home are being sought by more Ventura County middle-class parents, experts say.

Parents are tired of nagging, they say. They hate the battle of wills with their 3-year-olds. They want to understand their children's feelings.

They are people who are used to doing things well and are often successful in their careers. They may be seeking techniques different from their autocratic spank-and-yell upbringings. They have been uprooted from the easy backyard advice of relatives and it-takes-a-village neighbors that their parents may have relied on.

And they are willing to pay to replace that network.

Raised on the idea that education is the answer to any challenge and accustomed to therapy or Oprah-style self-analysis, many middle-class parents say they aren't worried they will be labeled bad parents for seeking more help.

"We were good parents, but we want to be better parents," said Howard Davis, Chris' husband and a teacher at Hueneme High School in Oxnard.

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Teachers of the parenting classes say they have seen a leap in the numbers attending the classes since the Columbine shooting last year. Some parents say they suddenly saw themselves reflected in well-to-do parents of the Littleton, Colo., high school killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and wondered: Could it happen here?

"It's a fear of whatever's out there," said Deborah Critzer, a Ventura-based parenting teacher. "Parents say, 'If it can happen to them, are we all doing something wrong?' "

The truth, Critzer thinks, is quite the opposite. It's a matter of fine-tuning the approach and dealing with children by seeking to understand their motives for misbehaving.

"The parents we're talking about are parents who are already really involved," Critzer said. "They're smart and they aren't really doing anything wrong."

At a Monday night meeting of Critzer's Positive Parenting class in a Westlake Village storefront church, her students sat in a circle, discussed their successes, shared their frustrations and imagined ideal family lives. The give-and-take among these parents, often absent because of busy working lives, is as important as her teaching, Critzer thinks.

"You can have a tense day at work and show up in class and still be kind of tense," said Rick Roth, one of her students.

Roth, an earnest father of two, is an insurance auditor with an expression of intensity. He described an almost perfect moment he had with his son when the boy showed off his new flipping skills in the swimming pool.

A Thousand Oaks mother in capri pants and a ponytail bemoaned the umpteen times she had to ask her daughter to retrieve her things from the car. Margaret and Alan are trying to let their 2-year-old make some decisions for herself.

Most of the classes that draw the middle class are private, for-profit programs, aimed at parents who can afford the sessions, which run about $50 for three hours in Critzer's case.

The Sheriff's Department also offers parenting classes, which primarily focus on parents of wayward teens. Interface Children Family Services has offered classes for about seven years, but only 2% to 3% of those who attend are other than those who have been ordered to by the court, according to program manager Victoria Abernathy. Sixteen percent to 17%, Abernathy estimated, are people who have drug problems or have been involved in domestic violence situations. Those who come are clearly reluctant to be there, she said.

"There's a stigma. It has a negative connotation," she said. "They think it's saying 'You don't know what you're doing.' "

And that, middle-class parents concede, is partly why they seek out the private programs where they can meet with people of their own backgrounds with similar child issues.

Programs like the one at Interface are "for people who don't have the means like we do to do this privately," Chris Davis said. "They probably get the same service and quality, it's just that we have the ability to do this."

And with that financial ability come different pressures from those facing many Interface clients, experts say.

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