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Media

Sunday, January 8, 2006

PARENTING 1-ON-1

Coaches and consultants are helping frazzled parents navigate child-rearing strategies.

By THERESA WALKER
The Orange County Register

Joyce Thomas crouches on the floor next to her son Logan to pull on his shorts so they can leave for a doctor's appointment.

Logan, 3, isn't cooperating.

He buckles his legs, even as Thomas explains why he needs to get dressed.

Then the frustrated mom looks up at Sharon Pieters, who stands nearby in Thomas' dining room, watching.

"OK, Sharon," Thomas asks, "what do I do?"

Pieters doesn't hesitate with her reply, sounding all the more authoritative for her British nanny accent: "You're going to tell him if he doesn't put his shorts on, he's going to get a timeout."

Thomas follows the advice. Logan goes along without a whimper or a whine.

It could be a scene from a TV show - minus the extreme family dynamics and dramatic editing that fuel "Nanny 911" and "Supernanny."

Pieters, a former nanny in the U.S. and England, has been there and done that.

The South African native was initially cast for Fox TV's "Nanny 911." She laughs when she shows Thomas a publicity still that has her dressed in a cape, hat and nearly knee-high black boots, while holding a carpet bag that makes her look so Mary Poppins.

A contract couldn't be ironed out with Fox, so Pieters left the on-camera work to nannies Deb, Stella and Yvonne. Instead, she launched her own parent-consulting business, Child Minded, last summer. It's an expansion of in-home consulting work she had done on occasion in the past.

Pieters joins the growing ranks of parent coaches and parent consultants who offer advice through e-mail, over the phone, in an office, or standing right next to moms and dads who are frustrated by their children's behavior.

For fees that start at $95 an hour, she provides hands-on advice to families in Orange and Los Angeles counties.

So far, Pieters has about a dozen clients, including Thomas, who also happens to be her landlord. Pieters also gets referrals from a South Bay therapist. She believes her effectiveness lies in objective observations of parents struggling with potty training, sleep habits, eating, temper tantrums, disorganization and sibling rivalry.

"I think it's because I'm not so emotionally attached to the children," says Pieters, who doesn't have children of her own. "Not because I don't have a heart; I love them to death. But I can kind of see the woods from the trees."

Parents are increasingly willing to seek that kind of objective expertise from someone who won't make them feel guilty or inadequate - as their own parents might.

"I think that today's parents more than any other generation are aware that they are the architects of a human being's life and they feel inadequate to do the job, so they're looking for outside help," says Sandy Spurgeon McDaniel, who's been teaching parenting skills in Orange County through her Parenting SOS for more than 25 years.

McDaniel says that when she gave talks about parenting 10 years ago, maybe 30 people might show up. These days, she gets close to 200 people.

More than that, her schedule is booked with parents who come to her office for guidance on issues that range from something as simple as how to play with their children to the complexities of discipline.

"You teach most by what you model, and you learn most by what is modeled," she says. "I think parents really want to do better."

Thomas, the mother of two young boys, found that parenting books didn't provide enough answers.

"Maybe I'm not quite doing what the book says or I'm not being consistent," says Thomas, who works for a software company and counts among her favorite parenting books the "What to Expect" series by Heidi Murkoff and Arlene Eisenberg, and "The Girlfriends' Guide to Toddlers" by Vicki Iovine.

"And the books don't tell you there are delaying tactics kids will use."

Even talking to her children's pediatrician, whom she says she calls monthly, seems too removed for Thomas, whose older boy, Jayden, is 5 and in kindergarten.

"That's an intellectual activity. I may tell my pediatrician I do A, B and C. But Sharon is here. She sees that I actually do A, B, C, D, F, G and maybe even H."

Thomas first sought Pieters' help three years ago. She had Pieters come to her home in Irvine to organize a home office converted into a nursery for Logan and to help ease Jayden into being a big brother and having to share.

Pieters helped Thomas establish a routine after the baby was born, and came back later when Thomas couldn't get Logan to fall asleep by himself after a bout with night terrors.

Logan had gotten used to his mom lying down beside him, and would scream if he woke up and she wasn't there. As time wore on, Thomas says, she couldn't tell if the screams were still from the night terrors or just a way to keep her there.

One night of observation, and Pieters could tell right away that Logan was over his night terrors because his crying was more whiny than hysterical, she says. It took two nights of showing Thomas how to calm Logan but not give in before he would settle down by himself.

"It becomes almost like an addiction when a child is sleeping with a parent," Pieters says. And the parents have a tough time realizing that their children's cries and screams will subside.

"I've had mothers crying. I had one mother push past me and walk back down the corridor and say that's enough. I told her, 'OK, but the crying is going to stop, give it another minute.' (The mother) said later she was so embarrassed.

"It's like having someone there to hold their hand and say, 'Here's how you do it.'"

Parent coaches and consultants fill a need for parents whose child-rearing issues aren't serious enough to send them to a therapist. Or, as with Pieters, they might provide help dealing with day-to-day behavior in the homes of families who are seeing a therapist.

Nancy Maloney, a licensed marriage, family, child counselor with Bay Area Counseling Center in Redondo Beach, has referred Pieters to five couples that she has counseled in the past year.

"For me, it's just another tool that families can choose to use if they are in psychotherapy," Maloney says. "They get to address the pathological issues in psychotherapy, and then the practical issues with a layperson who is trained to do that."

Finding a coach with the right expertise can help a family remedy misbehavior more quickly than with traditional counseling, Maloney says.

Even before nanny TV shows became such a hit, former school district administrator and university professor Gloria DeGaetano established the Parent Coaching Institute in Bellevue, Wash., to train parent coaches.

"Parents with toddlers don't really want to take their children to a psychologist," DeGaetano says. "This is not psychology, just basic fundamental parenting tools that they haven't used or never heard about."

Her 5-year-old program involves 12-18 months of college-level courses, DeGaetano says, and is only open to people with at least two years' experience working with children and/or parents. Many come from education or counseling backgrounds.

DeGaetano saw a need for relevant, continuing parent support in an age of information overload, media influence and other issues that previous generations never faced. She looked to the corporate world and executive coaching for her model.

"I said, 'Parents are the CEOs for their families, and they deserve this type of coaching.'"

The coaches not only serve as nonjudgmental sounding boards, she says, but provide the kind of expertise and cutting-edge research that modern-day parents often seek.

The institute so far has trained 32 graduates. Another 45 are in the pipeline, to become parent coaches who work with families for a minimum of 12 weeks. Sessions take place over the phone or in an office - without the children around.

DeGaetano prefers to coach parents outside of the children's presence because she believes families alter their behavior around strangers. She measures her success by long-term, positive change.

McDaniel's office hours are booked with parents who seek help after hearing one of her talks. Their hearts are in the right place, but they don't know how to apply what they've learned, she says.

"I can teach them how to handle whatever is happening now, but also how to handle whatever is coming next. You don't just teach how to do things. You teach how to think about it."

For Pieters, being in the home allows her to observe the family dynamics and see how everyone in the household interacts.

"A lot of the time, a mom is telling me on the phone what's going on, but by the time I've observed them during the day, I can see a totally different problem."

The morning of the doctor's appointment, Pieters and Thomas were working on Logan's potty training. With much clapping and cheering from Pieters and his mom, Logan earned a "Use Potty" magnet to place on the responsibilities chart Pieters created for the boys.

The resistant toddler in him came out when he needed to put his shorts back on. Thomas says she turned to Pieters mainly for reassurance.

"I didn't know if it would be too extreme to tell him that," she says of giving a time-out warning. "If she wasn't here, I would have done something, but I wanted her advice."