SEATTLE — When she was young, Kathy Slattengren took care of abused kids, nurturing an interest in the amazing impact parenting has. Throughout college, she studied counseling and worked with runaway teens. And somewhere, in the back of her mind, she was sure that when she had kids, she'd know exactly what to do.
Her children were a surprise, because she figured out pretty fast that this thing called parenting was not as easy as it looked. So she did what she had always done when she wanted to know about a topic: She took classes, read books and talked to other parents.
Heather Ouida had a similar dose of reality when her children were born: "I promised myself that when I had children, my kids would never watch TV, stay up too late, eat junk food, scream in the supermarket, be fresh or throw sand in the sandbox," said the New York City mom. "I was so judgmental that I didn't realize I was even being so — until I had my first child."
These days, Slattengren and Ouida teach the classes. Slattengren conducts both in-person and online seminars on parenting through the business she founded, pricelessparenting.com. Ouida is co-founder and owner of mommybites.com, along with Laura Deutsch.
These mothers are all part of an increasingly popular stop on the cyber superhighway: Online parenting classes that help folks figure out what to do as they face the challenges that grow along with the kids. Parents are connecting to experts and other parents by the thousands, usually by computer but sometimes by telephone. Technology has made help and research available to pretty much anyone who wants it, in a format that matches schedules and how people learn.
People who take online classes are as varied as the classes themselves. Slattengren is working with one mom who was raised in India by parents who told her what she should do. She did it.
Now that she's a mom herself, but in the United States, she finds what worked for her mom is not working for her or her 6-year-old. Recently, they've been talking about getting the results they want. The daughter has meltdowns when play dates are over.
"I talk about setting expectations beforehand," Slattengren said.
The woman is learning to tell her daughter how she expects the play date to end: The little girl will help clean up and say thanks to whomever invited her. Then they'll leave. It's that simple and that complex.
Debbie Godfrey of Ojai, Calif., started teaching parenting classes in 1995. When her oldest child was 6, she took a parenting class, not knowing it would not only give her skills to deal with her children, but awaken a desire to help others as it helped her. Eventually, she trained to teach a class and has been honing what works and why ever since. Her online classes reach a broad audience through her website, positiveparenting.com.
Godfrey also instructs, in person, some classes sponsored by different agencies. Ventura County, for example, offers her class to its employees. She teaches online, focusing on topics rather than age groups. When people sign up, they think they want a class as parents of a child who's 2 or 5 or 10.
"But it goes by so fast," she said. "I found in classes that in a nice rounded group of parents with toddlers and teens, they all benefit. Parents of young children see what's coming up. Parents of teens remember what it felt like to feel big and love their kids that way."
Some parents of teens are miserable in the moment, but tools like solid communication span age brackets. That is probably one of the most common questions Godfrey gets, she said: How do you get your kids to listen? There's a surprise in the answer.
Parents come into parenting classes thinking they need to change their kids. They soon learn that the parent changes. "How am I communicating effectively or ineffectively? I see as many parents over-parenting as under-parenting or those who parent too harshly," Godfrey said. "If you educate yourself, you can set the balance better."
Deutsch believes most parents could use advice or benefit from learning what others are doing. But it's not always easy, she said, to ask. Slattengren agreed.
"There's a lot of bias: 'If you were a decent parent, you wouldn't need classes.' I think a lot of parents wait until they're in pretty big trouble before they start looking for outside help," she said. "It's important to realize there's no reason not to get some of this information and get started on the right path before you're in trouble. By that time, there's usually pain and grief" in the relationship.
Minneapolis-based Search Institute (online at search-institute.org), which runs classes through its parentfurther.com, has long gathered data on children and families, particularly adolescents, said Gene Roehlkepartain, vice president of research and development.
"We're focused on supporting families around healthy development of kids," he said. "There's a real need for families to focus on basic strengths kids need, and we help families be good families."
Parenting classes are a very practical way of connecting with families. One of the hottest topics, Roehlkepartain said, is online and media use for kids — something parents may not have learned from their own parents because many of the tools kids use all the time today didn't exist a generation ago.
Developmental issues — "the ages and stages," he calls it — are a perpetual favorite for parents. The Search Institute has a popular webinar class on bullying. Deutsch and Ouida note that some subjects, like potty training, never get old because there are always new moms waiting to learn. Like parentfurther.com, some of the classes are conducted by staff; for others, outside experts are brought in.
Roehlkepartain, dad to kids 16 and 22, lights up over the joys of parenting teens. "Kids introduce us to thinking we never would have thought of before," he said. If there was just one thing he could teach the parents of teens, it would be this:
"Your teenager still needs you," he said. "That message is important because kids that age are naturally and developmentally starting to separate from their parents."
Parents react to this in different ways. "Sometimes, as kids push away, it's easy to say, 'If she's going to do that, I'm out of here, it's too hard.' But stay connected, stay engaged," Roehlkepartain said. "Working with a child is critical for them to move through adolescence well. And there's a lot of fun in learning to love your kid as a teenager."
Surveys show teens are strongly influenced by their families. "Parents and families are critical in the decisions they make. You can't control them, but you matter," he said.
All of the experts noted many different ways to be good, effective parents. With so many approaches to parenting classes available, Godfrey said it's sometimes hard to figure which one you want. She recommends finding someone you can stand to listen to who offers practical, usable advice.
"If someone's talking down to you or their voice drives you crazy, it's not going to work," she said.
There are also price differences. Many parenting classes charge a small fee per class. Both parentfurther.com and mommybites.com offer resources free online. Others may have price variations: Some offer classes at a small fee each, or charge based on time (three months or a year, for example).