Raising Kids: It Takes An Association

If being a parent in the 1990s is a tough assignment, an organization in the nation's capital is trying to make the work a little easier.

The Parents' Council of Washington is an education association for 28,000 parents and helps them to connect with each other and trade tips about raising their children. Supported by 58 dues-paying independent schools, the council features 12 Catholic schools, who receive some additional services beyond those the Archdiocese of Washington provides for them.

Parents' positive response to the Council indicates that it is meeting an important need. Indeed, the organization could serve as a model for other groups of private school parents around the country. As Council co-president Elly Frieder says, many families need additional resources to gain a better understanding of their children and their schools. What's more, since students today have the opportunity for peer relationships well beyond their own neighborhoods, parents can also benefit from relating to each other on a wider, regional basis.

Through regular meetings, a newsletter, and other means of communication, the Parents' Council brings parents together to help each other set standards, know their children better, and understand what is “normal,” particularly during adolescence. The group also provides guidelines for parents to form peer groups in the schools.

“It's comforting to know that your teen-aged son who shuts himself in his room isn't abnormal. That's what teenaged boys do,” said Karen Zill, president of the Parents' Association of St. Anselm's Abbey School in northeast Washington, and the mother of two boys. She serves as a school representative on the Parents' Council for the Benedictine school for boys.

Through its meetings and its 175-page book, Parent to Parent: Raising Children in Washington, the group offers a mixture of time-honored advice about raising children, mixed with a contemporary understanding of children's psychology, and the importance of respecting differences in children.

A Parents' Council-sponsored lecture in February by Peter Cobb, president of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools, addressed “Raising Moral Children.” Cobb encouraged attendees to give examples of the values they wanted to instill in their children.

Beyond basic values such as honesty and hard work, respect for one's body, nature, and animals appeared on the list, which had more than two dozen items.

The Parents' Council, he said, acts as a resource for parents without claiming to have any exclusive answers to the problems families face, a resident of Rockville, Md. Nonetheless, parents at meetings can find others who share their values.

“It's easier to pick up on who has similar values,” at meetings, said Frieder, whose 15-year old daughter attends Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac, Md., an all-girls Catholic school. Her 20-year old son attends Jesuit-run Loyola College in Baltimore.

The ambitious organization also has a World Wide Web site at www.capaccess.org/parentscouncil and recently published a revised issue of its flagship book.

Published late last year, Parent to Parent recently sold out its first printing of 7,500 before the organization authorized a second print run of 5,000, according to Council co-president Elizabeth Hayes.

The book gives parents advice on how to define and maintain standards in raising their children, and it helps them to detect warning signs for typical problems in children, as well as how to recover after they or their children make serious mistakes.

As any good Christian would need to do, parents must be prepared to stand alone at times.

“Be prepared for the fact that your family's values may conflict radically with those of your children's friends, even parents you have known and respected for many years,” the book says.

Subjects covered in it include “Beach Week,” “Cheating and Honor Codes,” “Dating: Twos & Groups,” “Eating Healthy & Harmful” and “Alone & Latchkey.” The chapters are short and are cross-referenced to related subjects in the book as well as to other publications and organizations that can provide further assistance.

The book advises parents to maintain an optimistic attitude about their children's development. It also encourages them to apologize for their mistakes, which helps children understand that they can learn from their errors.

“Love is everything,” the book says. “Every time we kiss or hug our children, we give them the love they need to feel strong and important. Unconditional love from parents is the basis of the ‘self-esteem’ we hear so much about. Our children should feel they can depend on us—even if they have done something we don't approve of. We can love our child and hate the behavior.”

The Council helps to reinforce the message that “we're working on behalf of the children, on the same track,” Zill said.

Founded in 1964, the Council included secondary schools for many years and grew primarily through word of mouth among school administrators and parents. During the last two years, primary schools have also joined the Parents' Council. Parents of elementary school children want to get more involved, Hayes said.

Recent Catholic elementary schools that have joined include Blessed Sacrament in northwest Washington, and Little Flower and The Woods Academy, both in Bethesda, Md. Overall, eight schools have joined the fold during the past 18 months, Hayes said.

Many Catholic parents would disagree with the Parents' Council book's idea that “there are no ‘right’ answers, only possibilities to choose from.” The book passed muster with the principal of one Catholic school, however, who bought copies for all school's parents, after asking Frieder about its contents and taking a look at the book, she said.

Although the Parents'Council regularly attracts 200-300 parents to its meetings, 90% of attendees are mothers, said Hayes. Fathers tend to take more interest in meetings about college admissions or sports, she said.

The organization's board is all-women, but they would prefer to have men involved, she said.

Involvement in parents organizations is “another way to find out what's going on” at the school, said Zill. “My sons don't say a lot. I learn more of what's going on [through the Council], and it can be an opener for conversation.”

Through greater interaction with their peers, parents can also learn that their children's claims—that all their friends have later curfews or can attend beach week unsupervised—are not necessarily true.

William Murray writes from Kensington, Md.