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Need help, parents? Get a coach

Experts for hire can make temper tantrums easier to deal with, thus preserving your sanity.

September 23, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Carla Hall | Times Staff Writers

In an age when you can have a coach show up at your home and tell you how to eat fewer carbs, strengthen your core or feng shui your living room, now comes the parenting coach.

An L.A. County court commissioner's order on Tuesday that pop star Britney Spears get one -- or risk losing custody of her children -- throws a spotlight on this unusual entry on the roster of experts for hire. Ruling in a custody dispute between the singer and her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, the commissioner also said there was evidence that Spears was a "habitual" user of alcohol and drugs and ordered her to undergo regular drug testing.

But most people who seek a coach aren't under court order to do so. A variety of parents, whether honing their skills as caregivers or seeking direction through the sea of child-rearing books and techniques, are availing themselves of this growing class of professionals that includes trained psychotherapists and self-styled entrepreneurs. A few members of the coaching class have popped up in the last few years under the guise of reality TV nannies who sweep into homes, scolding parents and children alike.

Of course, there have always been parenting coaches of some kind. "In extended families there were a lot of people who coached you," said psychologist and family therapist Irene Goldenberg, a psychology professor emerita at UCLA. "You went to see the wise aunt and the grandmother." Or, Goldenberg said, people wrote to newspaper columnists or called radio talk show hosts.

But today, as family generations disperse and people want more personalized help, they're turning to coaches, experts say.

"In today's society a lot of us feel the loss of a mentor," said Christian Leffler of Los Angeles, 37, a stay-at-home father who has been seeing a licensed family therapist for the last two years.

"I call her a parenting coach because that's what I use her for," he said. Leffler calls her on the phone when he needs advice on dealing with temper tantrums and other situations involving his 3-year-old daughter, Ruby. "People are too busy to be mentors. That's why you have to pay them now," he said with a chuckle.

And people who have the means are accustomed to paying for assistance of all kinds. "When you can have someone come in, cook your meals, be a personal trainer, why not have someone coach you on parenting?" said Pacific Palisades-based family therapist Zena Bartholomew, who counsels parents and runs parenting groups but does not make house visits.

Sharon Pieters, founder of Los Angeles-based Child Minded, which provides in-home parent coaching, said one big reason for the increase in services like hers was that many parents have bought into a new-age, child-centered approach to raising their children.

"It's gone from children should not be seen and not heard to children are constantly seen, heard and overindulged," Pieters said. "Gymboree, Mommy and Me, play groups, excessive stuff, activities and outings -- always keep the child entertained."

Parents often suffer from taking in too much information, said Pieters, who has been consulting for four years. "Parents have turned raising their family into a project. They've read every book out there, and all it's done is confuse them. . .," she said. "Parents need to parentify themselves as the parents. This means they need to re-empower themselves as the ones who are in charge."

Having a coach also ensures a degree of privacy -- which probably will be a blessing for the overexposed and endlessly watched Spears.

In the last few years, L.A. courts generally have ordered parents involved in extraordinarily contentious custody cases to participate in Parenting Without Conflict, a conflict-resolution program that offers group counseling. More than 1,000 people received such counseling last year.

In Spears' case, the commissioner specified that she must meet with a parenting coach twice a week for a minimum of eight hours. "The coach is to observe the petitioner's interaction with the minor children and her parenting skills," Commissioner Scott M. Gordon wrote.

"The court system has pushed it," said Jayne Major, a coach who has been teaching parents for the last 25 years. "It's helped raise the consciousness of the need for parent education. The concept of a parental shadow has spilled over. A lot of people are interested in individualizing services to the specific needs of their family."

Parenting is just plain hard, added Major, founder and executive director of Breakthrough Parenting Services in West Los Angeles. "People underestimate the complexity and difficulty of parenting children. Given what's at stake, a lifetime of misery or joy, they should run, not walk to these classes," she said.

According to Goldenberg of UCLA, most people need parenting coaching of some kind at one point. She even sympathizes with Spears, who has been caught on camera in several parental incidents including illegally holding her first baby on her lap as she drove her car.

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