Raising kids is hard work. The St. Tammany Parish Parenting Center in Covington helps parents from all backgrounds face those challenges and take pride in the role they play in their children’s lives, and it’s also a place to socialize and find camaraderie.
On a recent weekday evening toys were scattered across the carpet and children played while parents filed in after work to support each other and learn how to be the best parents they can be.
Director Lori Cage has worked at the Parenting Center for 15 years and said the organization's goal is to help caretakers of children — whether that’s the parents, grandparents, adopted parents or foster parents — make healthy choices and feel good about their role as caretakers.
“We pretty much cover everything from diapers to divorce,” said Cage. Psychologists, social workers and pediatricians volunteer to teach classes on topics such as CPR, car seat safety, breastfeeding and potty training.The center also hosts support groups and does outreach. Cage says last year it reached 28,000 parents in the region through special events and classes.
Sonya Fay Willie is currently attending a 16-week course called Nurturing Skills. She has two small children, a four-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy, but she left them with dad for the night. She said learning about infant safety and CPR skills made her a more confident new mom.
“It’s been very encouraging and empowering because kids don’t come with instruction manuals,” said Willie. “Most of the time when we have children we think about our own parents and what they did and how we swore we would never do that, but in any given situation most people resort to what they know.”
That’s what social worker Lisa Donze-Jacob talked about at the Nurturing Skills class, where a handful of parents sat around a table and discussed discipline and table manners.
“We’ve kind of gotten away from the ‘you have to clean your plate,’ thing because it’s about control — and we have so many young people that come up with eating disorders and whatnot later on, that I never encourage that,” explained Donze-Jacob. She encouraged the parents to offer choices with clear consequences and rewards, rather than forcing their kids to clear their plates.
“Don’t use food as a threat or a reward, really. Well I mean, we all use ice cream as a reward, but not ‘You have to eat everything in order to get your ice cream,’” said Donze-Jacob.
This particular class focuses on communication, positive discipline and self-worth.
Willie said she’s enjoying the opportunity to develop family rules and guidelines, and picks up her homework from volunteer Melissa Dickerson after class.
“The family participates as a whole, it’s not just the parents participating and saying ‘This is it.’ Everybody gets to have their input on what the rules of the house are and the parents even get to abide by the rules as well,” explained Dickerson.
Willie joked, “I’m sure one of her first rules will be about when we get to have ice cream, because that’s really important to her right now.”
The center is run by St. Tammany Parish Hospital and serves people from all backgrounds. Some pay a small fee to attend while others are court-ordered. But the main goal is to serve everyone, not just parents with problems.
Cage explained, “Some people have a misconception that we’re going to tell you how to parent, that you’re doing something wrong or something right or what have you, and that’s really not what it’s about. It’s about giving you tools for your parenting tool chest, because all children are so different — and even the same child, something that works today may not work tomorrow.”
Part of that is simply through modeling healthy behavior. Most of the volunteers are parents who got involved through attending classes, and now aim to model positive interaction.
Cage said, “I think one of the most powerful things that we do is just to have a center where people can come, with their families, with their kids, and talk to other parents and find out that we’re all in the same boat.”
For Willie, that’s been really important. She’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer and doesn’t know how long she has left with her children. She wants to make sure she and her husband are doing the best they can.
“Knowing that my husband might be raising my children without me made it especially important that we both be on the same page, and that they get a good solid foundation from both of us while I’m here,” said Willie.
But she says, not matter what your situation, parenting is hard and everyone could use a little support.
Support for Northshore Focus comes from the Northshore Community Foundation.