New parents often lament that children are not born with instruction manuals. But an international early childhood program is offering the next best thing. Parents As Teachers, a non-profit organization based in St. Louis, Missouri, gives 'field-tested' parenting advice to families in nine countries. The program adapts its strategy to respect local cultural values.
Megan, 3, a graduate of the program, is a master of the ladybug game, one of the program's teaching tools. It's played with dice and a set of cards. Each card has a series of dots on one side - and a picture on the other. Megan rolls the dice, matches the number of dots on the cube with the corresponding card and explains, "You get the card over and you've got a ladybug!"
The game is more than a basic tutorial on insects. It teaches counting, visual association and fair play, and is typical of the approach advocated by Parents As Teachers. The early learning program, formally launched in St. Louis in 1984, is designed to promote strong parenting skills to foster a child's success in school and in life.
The sound of a mother teaching her child is pretty much the same all over the world. But how she approaches the lesson is shaped by the traditions of her country and her culture.
For example, Latino families put a premium on close interaction. Infants often sleep in the same bed with their parents. Parents As Teachers executive board member Maria Chavez says Latinos feel they can better protect their children if they stay close, and it's a feeling that can last for years. "We as a Euro-American family want them to go out and try things on their own," she explains, "and a Latino family, I think, believes in dependency and connections and staying together."
An ocean away from Latin America, dependence is downplayed. Rosalind Hill is a parent educator trainer in Scotland, where she says children are taught self-sufficiency early on. "They maybe don't have so much praise given to them when they do things well, because there's concern that they'll get big-headed. That is definitely a Scottish trait."
In central Europe, a major issue for parent educators is ethnic harmony. Hilde Nagele teaches immigrant children from Turkey and Russia in Nuremberg, Germany. In this East-West crossroad, she says she strives to respect both traditions, because "it's very important to show them language and culture, their own and ours is equal. There's nothing like 'German is more important and forget about the Turkish.' We are trying to show them both are very important."
Educator Mary Ann McGrath has seen for herself what can happen when a society's culture is suppressed. Many parents she works with in Saskatchewan are native tribesmen whose ancestors were forced by the Canadian government to assimilate. "Language was taken away from [these] people," she says, "children were taken away from families and put into residential schools." McGrath says that's left a legacy of lost parenting traditions. "So a program like Parents As Teachers, where parents' values are respected, is really very powerful."
In China, a different value determines not how to raise children…but how many to raise. With a population over one billion, China still adheres officially to its One Child Policy. But that's changing.
Lisa Jia manages a Beijing childcare center affiliated with Parents As Teachers. She notes that both urban and rural families are having second children - especially in remote areas, where male children are prized. "If the first child is a girl, then many families will try and have a second baby, in the hopes of having a boy. Some go on to have three or four children in this way." She says it's a different situation in China's cities. "[It] depends on the head of the family. Some families prefer girls, because they will be able to take better care of the family later on."
Through school districts, childcare centers and research facilities, Parents As Teachers serves 400,000 families around the world. And more are making inquiries.
CEO Sue Stepleton believes the program's success draws from the wealth of experience it has gained through close contact with families in the St. Louis area. "We've chosen to stay here so that the advice we're giving - whether it's to Sydney, Australia or Beijing, China - comes from a very deep root of practice. And that's Missouri," she concludes.
At the heart of Parents As Teachers' philosophy is the recognition that there is no single prescription for good parenting... that the correct way to raise a child depends on many factors, including a society's own values. The program's leaders say providing suggestions without judgment gives parents the tools they need to chart their own children's path to success - no matter where they live.
THIS STORY WAS PRODUCED WITH HELP FROM TYLER GAMBAL, A NEWS ASSISTANT AT VOA BEIJING