Play provides time for parents to be fully engaged with their children, to bond with their children, and to see the world from the perspective of their child, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But for low-income families, playtime is often considered a luxury not afforded when daily living is all about making ends meet.
Fortunately, Deborah Gross has dedicated 30 years of researching, crafting, and evaluating programs aimed at helping parents from low-economic and diverse backgrounds cultivate positive parenting skills—and the results are surprising when put to the test.
“I am particularly interested in families under stress with children less than 5 years old living in low-income communities in Chicago,” Gross wrote in her bio in 2007 on the Chicago Parent Program of Rush University blog.
Gross has an extensive background researching parent-child relationships, including how to prevent mental health problems in parents and young children.
She is a doctor of nursing science, a registered nurse, a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, and the Leonard and a Helen Stulman Endowed Chair in Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.
Gross said that there are a lot of parenting programs out there, but that many were originally designed for middle-class families.
The Chicago Parent Program aims at helping families from low-income and diverse backgrounds find positive ways to deal with everyday parenting challenges at home and in public places such as the grocery store.
According to Gross, parents should be clear about what their values and goals are.
“What are the things that you really want your child to feel about themselves deep down inside?” she asked. “What would you want your child to do that would make a parent very proud?”
The program, which was developed in collaboration with parents of young children, uses over 150 videotaped vignettes of parents and children in everyday situations, and the videos show positive strategies for managing situations in which parents might typically feel stressed.
The program has been used by Head Start—the federal pre-K program for low-income families—as well as other pre-K programs, and it was recently added to the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
“Many children misbehave because they want their parents’ attention—and they get it when they misbehave,” Gross said.
According to Gross, some of the parents that they have worked with feel that playtime is a very white, middle-class value—thinking that such parents have leisure time.
But Gross said that playtime is really “child-centered time.”
1. Child-Centered Time
Child-centered time is time parents spend in activities with their children that focuses on the child’s interests. One important strategy for engaging children during child-centered time is following the child’s lead.
2. Family Routines and Traditions
Reading together with your children every day is a very important family routine. It teaches family values and it is child-centered time.
3. Praise and Encouragement
It’s important for parents to think about the feelings and behaviors they really value in their children and support them by giving those behaviors more attention.
4. Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
Often, children do not do what their parents ask because the parents have been inconsistent in following through with their commands in the past. Children learn quickly that they can get out of doing something if their parents can be distracted or talked out of it.
5. Ignore and Distract
No one likes to be ignored, especially a child. However, research has shown that if parents consistently ignore certain behaviors, they are less likely to see them again in the future.
6. Using Time-Outs
Giving a time-out is another way to ignore misbehavior. However, it’s important to truly ignore the child’s behavior during the time-out, otherwise it doesn’t work. This means parents should avoid all conversation and eye contact with the child until the time-out is over.
Source: The Chicago Parent Program of Rush University
“The idea is to spend 10 to 15 minutes—or more—every day with your child focused on what they would like to do,” she said.
Child-centered time can happen cooking together in the kitchen, in the grocery store, at bath time, or while making chocolate milk, according to Gross.
It happens when the parent follows the child’s lead and interests, and in return, the child feels valued and that the parent is paying attention to them.
“Attention is really what the children want. So we try to help parents identify the valued behavior they want to see again in their children and give those behaviors more of their attention,” Gross said. “After they do that, regular misbehavior is reduced.”
Some families that have used the program have never celebrated a birthday or have no traditions or routines in their lives.
“Family meal time, a set bed time, and a routine to getting up in the morning—we talk about how important these routines and traditions are in children’s lives,” she said.
Routines and traditions create a sense of safety, security, and predictability, she said, adding that they give “meaning to things that you really value.”
Reading is a routine that the program encourages among families.
Parents Are Not Alone
Similar to a parents’ meet-up group, the Chicago Parent Program is designed to get parents together—sharing and listening to each other about challenges and solutions within parenthood.
Although it is a challenge organizing group sessions, Gross said that when parents are with other parents, epiphanies happen.
When parents discover that other parents have the same problems as themselves, they no longer feel isolated, at fault, or insecure about their parenting abilities.
“It’s normal for a 2, 3, or 4-year-old to not do what they are told the first time,” Gross said. “They are not alone.”
When parents get together, they can encourage each other and give each other ideas.
“We tell the parents that they are the experts of their children—they just might not yet be experts about the most effective strategies for changing their children’s behavior,” Gross said, adding that the parents learn these strategies in the program.
After 11 weeks in the program, parents write down a problem that they are still experiencing with their child. They put the paper in a hat and then take turns pulling other parents’ problems out of the hat.
They collaborate, offering solutions to another parent’s problems using what they learned in the program. Confidence helps parents follow through, according to Gross.
“It’s feeling unconfident that causes parents to not follow through and start grasping at the straws,” she said.
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