What Exactly Is Healthy Parenting?

I think there was something in the water way back when my career in the field of parenting education began because so many innovative programs grew their roots in the 1970s and 1980s. It seems in those decades, parents became highly motivated to learn more about children, child development, and what constituted healthy parenting.

The belief that we each want to parent well

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

What is healthy parenting? Culminating from my experience in this field of parenting education, I will focus on principles and information parents may find helpful in their journeys to be more aware, intentional, effective and healthy. I hope my writing will also be helpful to those who provide parenting education programs or one-on-one interactions.

First, a fundamental premise for me when interacting with parents, caregivers, or those who support them, is the belief that within each of us lies the ability to parent well. No one comes to parenting with a desire to hurt his or her children! Also, each of us brings our own histories and baggage that may interfere with a healthy parenting process.

Identifying and exploring our barriers to healthy parenting is an important part of the process to become healthier parents and caregivers, and we will look at barriers and potential solutions.

Unlike most in the animal kingdom, healthy parenting is not instinctive or even completely intuitive, even though we have some innate responses to children’s needs, such as knowing to cuddle and rock our babies or to feel alarmed when they cry.

A parent is a consumer of whatever information is explored

An extremely important principle of healthy parenting is to inspire parents to see themselves as critical thinkers and thoughtful consumers of whatever information they explore.

Unlike the days when there were only a few books on parenting available, today the explosion of information and advice can be overwhelming to the average parent. For parents and parenting educators alike, to determine which myriad of advice and approaches are legitimate and effective is an enormous challenge and a daunting task. It is my intention to present information based on solid research, blended with respected theoretical approaches.

I would like to encourage readers of this blog to embrace the following concept: Be careful, thoughtful consumers and critical thinkers in order to ensure that beliefs and behaviors addressed are founded on truly legitimate approaches to parenting.

I look forward to hearing from you as we explore parenting and parenting education. I am excited to hear your feedback on what you implement that has helped as well as what you might like to learn about healthy parenting.

Details about my background and experience are found at the link at the end.

Bio: Diane Wagenhals

I am the program director and curricula writer for the Institute for Family Professionals that serves hundreds of professionals, from early childhood educators to teachers and staff from the School District of Philadelphia to graduate and undergraduate students at a local university, and a myriad of others who work with children, parents, and caregivers in and around the Philadelphia region.

My Background:
My passion for exploring ways to promote emotional and relational health in children and families began when I was in my early 20s with my first job, teaching sixth grade on a military base outside of Washington DC. The children in my class had at least one parent serving in the Vietnam War. It quickly became clear to me that these children struggled to learn, and even to function appropriately in the classroom, because of the stress they experienced as a result of having parents in the war. This experience revealed to me the importance of creating emotionally and relationally healthy classroom environments so the children could actually learn.

A few years later, when I had my own two daughters, I felt almost desperate to learn how to parent them well as I recognized their dependence on me for more than just physical well-being. Clearly, my day-to-day interactions impacted who they would eventually become, how comfortable they would be in their own skins, what they would believe about themselves and others; yet, I had no training in how to do this. I had been one of the rebellious ones who did not favor “knocking moms out” when they gave birth, but who preferred natural childbirth—and in those days, mothers like me were treated with disdain by hospitals and obstetricians. I never had considered myself the rebellious type, but found what I think most mothers find—that “mother bear” reaction come to life: a powerful, almost overwhelming drive to protect and nurture my own children.

I had received amazing support for breast-feeding my children through Nursing Mothers of Greater Philadelphia and eventually became a volunteer Nursing Mother’s Counselor, providing support and education to other women who had chosen to breast-feed their babies. I then became a childbirth educator, believing once again that parents have the right and responsibility to be informed and in charge of their parenting decisions right from the start.

My second child birth class was a particularly enthusiastic group (in a later blog I will tell you about the famous person who was in that class and actually wrote a popular song in part as a result of our conversations). They begged me, after their children were born, to allow them to reconvene to discuss how to parent in healthy and appropriate ways. So, we began meeting regularly in my family room. We would engage in lively discussions around the struggles to parent wisely. My job was to research the topic of parenting and share what I had learned with the group.

You may not believe this but at that time, only three parenting books were widely-used: Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, The Magic Years by Selma Freiberg, and Child Behavior by the Gesell Institute. Today, more than 10,000 titles pop up in a book search! My, how times have changed! However, over the next few years a program authored by Thomas Gordon called Parent Effectiveness Training started to sweep the nation, and Faber and Mazlish’s groundbreaking book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, became wildly popular.

The parenting education movement was on!

That passionate childbirth class, now a parenting discussion group, encouraged me to create something more formal. Rather brashly I invited interested parents to attend a training course I had developed to prepare them to become parenting educators. I based the course on what I had learned as an elementary school teacher, a Nursing Mother’s Counselor and a childbirth educator. I even submitted a handwritten invitation to our local 24-hour news station, KYW. The station representatives actually read the invitation verbatim multiple times, resulting in phone calls and the formation of my first parenting education training group.

Fast forward a bit, a group participant and I completed a two-year Masters’ program through Temple University in Psycho-Educational Processes, with an emphasis on family therapy. Her husband was a psychiatrist who wanted the two of us to meet with some of his patients and their families to work on healthier parenting. We did this for 10 years. This experience greatly impacted my understanding of what parents need as they struggle to parent well, especially when they have emotional and mental health issues. What happened to the premier trained group? They now provided parenting education support groups and workshops in a little parenting education center at a local church.

Next, my world came crashing down when my husband of 17 years decided to leave the marriage, and I was left to figure out how to raise and support my two daughters on my own. I thought my days of doing parenting education were over. However, a friend who had attended my training course stepped up to finance an official paid position for me as the executive director of the local parenting center (there is another whole, amazing story behind all of this I will share at another time.)

A few years later and an amazing coincidences led me to meet Gerry Vassar.

I was offered a job at Lakeside Educational Network under the leadership of Gerry Vassar. In 2003, we were given the opportunity to begin the Institute for Family Professionals, which has thrived and grown to provide ongoing professional development courses for folks all across the region who work with young children, students, parents and caregivers, and those who supervise these folks. They have touched the lives of literally thousands of people in the greater Philadelphia region and continue to do so.


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