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COACH FOR KIDS

Sharon Pieters helps South Bay parents regain control of their lives

Mary Poppins is a mother's dream, but Sharon Pieters is the real thing.

Once cast as the original nanny on Fox's "Nanny 911" reality series, Pieters now runs Child Minded, a parent coaching service in Long Beach associated with the Bay Area Counseling Center of Redondo Beach.

Pieters beat out thousands of other nannies to win the television role, but dropped out of the show because the contract -- which she said required her to sign away all rights to her work, life story and future projects -- was too prohibitive for her.

Now the 37-year-old South African is continuing her work locally, helping South Bay families make the most of their lives together.

"I work on the psychological issues," said Nancy Maloney, a marriage and family therapist at Bay Area Counseling Center. "And Sharon works on the practical, day-to-day parenting issues.

"I brought her in to work with us when I saw that societal trends -- like the high divorce rate and dual-income families -- were taking a toll on children in terms of what was happening in the home."

Parents are losing control of what is going on at home, Maloney said, and that's where Pieters can help.

"I usually get called in once things get crazy in the home and parents just don't know what else to do," she said. "Being a family should be fun, not chaotic with screaming and fights and messes everywhere. All that is totally unnecessary and usually quite easy to fix."

So far, she's getting rave reviews.

"When we were having sleep problems with my (18-month-old) son, Nicholas, we went through weeks where it was just awful," said Laila Rosenthal, who recently moved with her family from Marina del Rey to Alabama. "I tried everything I knew to get him to sleep through the night, but he kept waking up and climbing out of his crib and just wouldn't sleep. After six months, [my husband and I] were exhausted. Sharon came in and helped me get him to stay in bed and sleep on his own through the night. She was great, a big help."

That was more than a year ago and Nicholas, now 3, still sleeps like a baby. Since then, the Rosenthals have a new addition to the family, 4-month-old Avery, and the lessons learned with Nicholas have stuck and are being applied again.

"It's so much easier now," said Rosenthal. "Knowing that what you're doing really works and is not detrimental or scarring them is great. Now I know just what to do."

Sleep is only one of the family-life disruptions that Pieters said are common in her line of work.

Through the years, she has seen children of all ages struggle with the classic, nagging behavioral issues that have vexed parents for ages, such as temper tantrums and bad manners, as well as the chaos that results from a lack of structure and organization in the home.

Pieters, who has rosy cheeks, bright eyes, a quick smile and long, brown hair swept back in a demure twist, looks a little like Mary Poppins, but her modern methods don't involve a spoonful of sugar, for children or parents.

"I find that parents tend to allow bad behavior," she said. "Not because they're bad parents. In fact, just the opposite. It's usually because they're trying to be nice and not upset their children, or because they love their little ones so much they can't bear to set boundaries. But children love discipline.

"They crave structure."

This rings true with the Rosenthals.

"Our mistake was bringing [Nicholas] to bed with us when he woke up," said Rosenthal. "We let him control us instead of the other way around. After Sharon came in, he was perfectly happy to sleep on his own."

Pieters recognized her calling as a parent coach more than a decade ago in Europe, where she was working as a nanny during her post-college years.

"In Europe, clients started raving about the difference in their children and their home life after I'd been there," she said. "And I realized then that I had a knack for this work, an innate ability, kind of like a child whisperer," she joked.

For Torrance resident Elsia Islas, Pieters' innate ability is a godsend.

The 31-year-old mother of two left her full-time job last year to be at home with her children and has since been introduced to the travails of stay-at-home motherhood.

"This is totally new to me," Islas said. "It's really tough. I know to a lot of people it's easy, but to me it's not. I've been working outside the home all my life, and nothing out there prepared me for being a stay-at-home mother. Now that I look back, I see that the 9 to 5 life is much easier."

Islas' energetic 8-year-old daughter, Davina, vies for her mother's undivided attention throughout the day, and her 15-month- old son, Diego, has sleeping issues.

"Davina is dying to have me spend time with her, and Diego doesn't nap during the day, and I can't get anything done," Islas said.

"At night he sleeps with [me and my husband], and I'm always worried about crushing him. There have been times I've actually fallen out of my own bed because he's in there."

To complicate matters, Islas is four months pregnant with her third child.

"I'm so tired these days, I can't even begin to think about what needs to be done around the house," Islas said recently at her tidy Torrance home. "My husband is great. He helps out a lot around the house and offers to take the kids off my hands, but I feel so overwhelmed and tired all the time, I can't even bring myself to plan a day away."

It's just this kind of situation in which Pieters thrives.

On a recent initial consultation with Islas, Pieters breezed into the house, clipboard and colorful carpet bag in hand, and got right down to business, listening sympathetically to Islas' concerns, chatting happily with the kids and visiting each of their rooms.

In under an hour, she had assessed the situation and was playing with Diego, who laughed in her arms.

Davina appeared crushed when it was time for Pieters to leave.

"I'll be back," Pieters promised with enthusiasm. "And when I do, I'll have all sorts of fun ways in which you can help mommy. Is that OK?"

Davina approved.

On her next visit, Pieters brought bins in which to organize the kids' toys and posted schedules for everybody in the family, which included daily, dedicated Davina time. She then set about correcting Diego's sleep issues.

That night Diego cried for almost an hour, Islas said, but eventually he fell asleep and stayed asleep, in his own bed.

"It was tough to hear him cry," she said. "But [Sharon's method] worked."

Despite her success with and love of children, Pieters has none of her own.

"Ironically, the fact that I don't have kids is one of the main reasons I'm good at my job," she said. "I have objectivity without the deep, emotional bond of parenthood. But I've worked with a lot of families, and from that I feel as if, in a way, I've had hundreds of kids."

The cost of Pieters' coaching varies, and is assessed on a case- by-case basis. But she said fees generally range from a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars or more. Initial consultations are free.

For the Thomas family of Long Beach, it was money well spent.

"I tell my friends about how awesome Sharon is and how much she has helped our family," said Joyce Thomas, mother of 6-year-old Jaden and 3-year-old Logan. "And they say, 'I don't know if I want to spend the money.' But for me, even though we're on a budget, it was well worth the money. For peace of mind and the emotional health of the family, it's priceless."

Rosenthal agrees. "I'd never really heard about [parent coaching] before Sharon," she said. "I wish I'd done it long before I actually did, because we would have saved a lot of time, tears and fights."TODAY* Information: For more on Sharon Pieters and Child Minded, call 310-488-8133 or 562-434-0545.

* Go to: childminded.com.

Daily Breeze - Torrance, Calif.
Author: Kate McLaughlin, DAILY BREEZE Photos by Robert Casillas, DAILY BREEZE
Date: Jan 5, 2006