Parents who are dealing with issues such as violence, substance abuse, and food or financial insecurity often feel blamed, shamed, and judged by society. Even well-meaning initiatives designed to help them often focus solely on the problems and challenges they are facing, as if that were the whole of their story.
But a new group of community-based parenting programs are acknowledging the host of strengths and wisdom inherent in these parents. These programs help parents recognize what they are doing well, trust their own expertise, honor their resilience, and witness how much their love means to their children.
Three organizations supported by the GGSC’s Raising Caring, Courageous Kids initiative have been working to help parents recognize their individual parenting strengths, promote positive connections with their children, and enhance their ability to raise caring, resilient children. Participating in these programs often leads parents—as well as kids—to begin strengthening their sense of purpose in the world and articulating their goals and dreams for the future.
Resilient parenting at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota
Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS) works with families to create stability and success at home. LSS assists parents involved, or at risk of involvement, with the child welfare system.
After listening to parents’ concerns and needs, they created the online “Resilient Parenting” program—a blended learning experience with a combination of online units, face-to-face meetings, and interactive learning activities. The program promotes character strengths such as purpose, gratitude, forgiveness, and love. For example, mindfulness activities might involve breathing, yoga, or visualization breaks that parents can try.
Woven into the program were stories voiced by real parents going through similar experiences. Hearing from other parents offered hope and helped participants trust their own parenting decisions. It also helped create what Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, calls a “growth mindset,” in that parents in the program came to believe their basic abilities could be further developed through work and dedication.
Heather Kamia, director of metro youth and family services at LSS, says they created a parenting program that met parents in their community “where they are.” “It needed to build off the assumption that all parents were the experts on their child. That they had insights and experiences to share,” she said. “To develop a productive partnership with parents, we also had to acknowledge [that] the systems they may have experienced before left many of them lacking confidence in this ability.”
According to Andrea Hussong, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this kind of strength-based partnership was essential. “It’s important to partner with parents around the knowledge that is already there and help them break down the barriers getting in the way of them acting on that knowledge,” she shared.
Making the program virtual allowed parents to learn at their own pace and in a safe space. “Parents spoke about feeling respected. They felt the content could be truly valuable to any parent—not just system-engaged families,” Kamia said. LSS’s culturally responsive programming, which acknowledges how systemic racism and lack of access to needs such as child care, wages, and essential technology can affect a parent’s confidence in raising their child, helped parents trust their own wisdom and positioned them to be able to positively guide their children to do the same.
Inspiring grace and resilience at UCAN
Chicago’s non-profit organization UCAN strives to build strong youth and families through education and empowerment. They developed the “Inspiring Grace” program for young parents between 18 and 20 years old living in areas of Chicago with high levels of violence, family and community trauma, and a lack of resources, including education and jobs.
Once a week for six weeks, parents took part in dinner, discussion, and activities focused on building resilience and enhancing parenting skills. Activities included planting seeds to represent forgiveness, marking stones with aspects of their lives they wanted to keep or let go of, mindfulness through guided imagery, practicing self-kindness by speaking into a mirror, and (the most popular activity) creating vision boards. Parents wrote down thoughts about their life’s purpose and who they wanted to become and crafted those thoughts onto decorative vision boards that they presented to the group.
One vision was to “buy one of the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood for my son so he always has a place to live,” another to “teach my kids about what love is.”
Creating the vision boards allowed parents to see themselves in a better light and envision their possible legacies, and even led to increased happiness. “These exercises led to aha moments, in which parents could say, ‘Yes, I do this. Yes, I do have a sense of purpose. Yes, I do help people. Yes, I do show love!,” said program co-leader Karrie Mills.
Velma McBride Murry, professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University and a scientific advisor to UCAN, says for these parents, “the consequences of adverse childhood experiences are long-standing, and effects can be transmitted across generations, often observed in ways in which parents interact with and raise their own children.” She explained the program was designed to disrupt the spillover effects of trauma on families through love, forgiveness, and purpose.
Mills says it was essential to ensure that any trauma these parents endured did not obscure their ability to recognize their parenting potential. They were encouraged to acknowledge the things they were doing regularly that helped other people, and that showed their ability to love.
Murry says residing in a home where parents are supportive and affectionate creates a sense of self-worth, self-acceptance, and self-love in children. Having this internal confidence can serve as a protective factor for children, reducing their reliance on peers as a source of validation. She adds that these protective processes are critical when young people live in communities with increased likelihood of exposure to violence.
Citywise: Mentoring and more
Citywise specializes in one-on-one, school- and community-based mentoring programs for 8–12 year olds living in low-income, urban areas of the United Kingdom. Their goal is to develop character strengths in youth, including resilience, self-control, good judgment, and fairness.
To achieve greater success with the children, program leaders recognized the importance of involving parents, as well. To help determine what services to offer parents, “they started with listening, hearing what it is that people are looking for, what they are trying to achieve with their own parenting,” according to Hussong.
The program evolved over time to include parents attending and participating in mentoring sessions, receiving regular communications about the child’s mentoring experiences, and getting tips and suggestions for activities that families could do together.
Hana Bútorová, Citywise Glasgow director, says, “A lot of the time, the parents of the kids we worked with were only ever contacted if something was wrong or if something was happening that was challenging. So, we just started contacting them frequently with the great things, with quotes from mentors who told us something about how great the child is today…inviting the parents to celebrate the progress of their child.”
Perhaps most importantly, they created informal ways for families to interact, such as “Family Fun Days” and family game and craft clubs. Those interactions allowed parents and caregivers to reflect upon key curriculum areas such as self-control and identifying emotions—things they may not have learned much about when they were younger. “I think that was the biggest benefit of the program—just creating space for them to start to more explicitly address [those] things,” Bútorová adds.
Participating in the family activities allowed character growth in the children (and sometimes the adults!) to happen naturally. For example, board games allowed parents and kids to discuss concepts such as taking turns, the need for patience, and honesty. Citywise’s research found that children who participated in family activities achieved the greatest level of character-building.
It was especially meaningful for some parents to hear from advisors that their children wanted to participate because they had loving and engaged parents present (not just because of the games or snacks). When a parent had a “realization of their value as a parent to their child…it gave a sense that their love is doing something important here,” Bútorová said. For parents living difficult lives, this recognition offered a renewed sense of purpose.
Lessons for parents
For all parents, these community programs offer ample lessons. One important concept they encourage is rejecting the idea of having to be “the perfect parent” before trying to raise children in a meaningful way. What parent hasn’t felt this pressure? But there is no such thing as a perfect parent! Children learn resilience when they have the opportunity to watch their parents make mistakes and bounce back.
Realizing that there are no perfect parents means that we’re all “works in progress.” As these organizations demonstrate, being an active “work in progress” is beneficial to children. Modeling self-reflection, discovering and drawing from inner parenting strengths, and working alongside children to develop character strengths together can be a bonding and enriching family experience.
Another important lesson is to not be afraid to ask for and embrace help from those around you. Doing so is an act of courage, not weakness. When parents have a community of support and opportunities to uncover their strengths, they can better develop a nurturing environment for their children.
Hussong says experts are learning that there is no one big secret to parenting; parents may need a variety of tools and habits to establish an environment most beneficial to their children’s unique needs. “It’s not just modeling or just the communication that you use or just the types of activities and things you do with your child, or the way you respond to them when they’re struggling or when they’re doing well in demonstrating positive character and virtues,” she says. “It’s all of those things.”