A New Language for Parenting

Lessons in positive parenting may help Mexican immigrants adjust to American child rearing – but first, health officials have to get them in the door

In a spare multipurpose room, a handful of Latino parents gaze at Mario Guerrero as if he held the answers to success, translated. 

They've gathered at the Burbank Housing Project on this Wednesday for an adults-only version of back to school.  Subject: Parenting in a new world.  

Developed at Queensland University in Australia, Triple P is a positive parenting program, designed to strengthen bonds and reduce child abuse by encouraging praise and open communication within families.

In April of 2010, First 5 Sonoma County, a nonprofit organization sponsoring early childhood initiatives, started offering Triple P training for free, ultimately training over 300 service providers, hailing from non-profit, government and for-profit agencies specializing in family health.

In the next month, they're ramping up the program, starting an advertising and social media campaign to promote their Triple P network and to help lift the mental health stigma throughout the county, said Carol Ewart, First Five’s Health Information Specialist, who administers the Triple P program.

Community officials are also beginning to suspect that strong parenting may be the route out of generational poverty; a mindset popularized by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Childrens’ Zone, an education system designed to lift the entirety of Harlem’s youth into the middle class – starting by teaching parents how to parent.

Canada’s system’s been lauded in a book, a movie and most recently, by policy makers: In 2010 the Obama administration distributed $10 million in grants to community organizations to found their own version of Canada’s ‘cradle to college’ model.

But, amending Triple P, a method created by an Austrailian professor, which has largely been tested in white and African American communities in South Carolina, for Sonoma County’s Latino population – most of whom immigrated recently and hail from the most rural communities in Mexico – raises a different set of cultural issues.

To teach ‘Triple P” to Latino immigrants, Guerrero first took a class for educators, then translated the provided lecture slides to Spanish, then simplified them to a 3rd grade reading level, and then, finally, abandoned the slides altogether, when he realized most of his students couldn’t read quickly enough to follow along.

But according to Guerrero, Triple P may serve a more crucial purpose for the newly immigrated Mexican population within Sonoma County, whom officials say need the help.

Guerrero, who runs the Sonoma County Community Intervention Program, which connects at risk Latinos with government services, says that parenting classes are also an easy in for health officials to discuss tricky topics – like domestic and sexual abuse and mental illness – with populations of recent immigrants, who, though they might be bearing similar issues, will usually shun the taboo-ridden field.

 “When I say, ‘I have a class for parents,’ they get very excited; it’s very close to them,” said Guerrero. “If you say I have a workshop on depression, that just doesn’t work.”

Currently, Guerrero offers Triple P twice a year at community centers and Latino organizations in Petaluma, Sonoma and Santa Rosa, targeting newly immigrated parents, who may need the help more than their American peers.

“You learn about parenting from your mom, from your neighbors from the people in your community and here they are separated from that – lost,” said Gabriel Sánchez-Navarro, a program assistant at Nuestra Voz, a Latino community organizing group which hosts the Sonoma seminar. But this community needs the anti-violence stance of parenting education to help adjust to American life and combat what Sánchez-Navarro calls ‘the machismo”.

“‘Stand up; be a man; do it,’ that was my father’s mantra,” he recalls.  The father-knows-best mentality is taken to its extreme in rural communities, says Sánchez-Navarro, where men expect obedience from their offspring with no explanation: “They raise little adults rather than children.”

Match that stoic attitude with American ‘helicopter’ parenting and you’ve got one word: trouble; a traditional Mexican parent sees praise as an indulgence, and is more likely to feel insecure than combative in a parent teacher conference.

“Language, confidence, status – there are a lot of fears [that kids face].  In our culture, we worry if we show affection they’ll be spoiled,” he said.

“Here we tell them if you project confidence to your children they’ll respond – at school or with friends – in a very positive way.”

The positivity is particularly needed in Sonoma County, where Latino students struggle behind their peers. About 4.4 percent of Latino students drop out of high school each year– the highest drop out rate of any ethnic group in the County – and only 7 percent of Latinos hold any degree past high school.

Despite the statistics, and just three sessions into the parenting program, Fernanda Flores, a bright-eyed 39-year-old, feels optimistic about her daughter’s prospects after the training which she says has changed her family interactions. 

”We used to just come in from school and watch TV; now they come in and they have to eat their dinner and then do their homework,” said Flores, clutching her 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, who came along because Flores didn’t have childcare.

“Is bribery alright?” one mother asks Guerrero, as long as she’s using it to improve her daughter’s schoolwork. Answer: Not really. “Make the child feel useful and they’ll behave without it,” Guerrero advises.

For a class that’s supposed to be about strengthening families, Guerrero’s had a tough time garnering regular attendance. Sometimes two-dozen parents show; other times, like today, just a handful.

And, it’s a tough sell getting dads to show up.

But, Gustavo Yanez, 34, the lone father in the room, said he finds himself fielding questions from other confused parents, who now look to him as an expert since he signed up for the class.

Recently, a friend asked Yanez for advice on coping with a rebellious daughter.  His advice: “talk to her more,” “understand her better,” – language lifted from the Triple P handbook.

The Triple P training relies on this kind of parroting to produce the community-wide results that the program claims to deliver, beyond the reach of an individual.

In Guerrero’s classroom, he encourages them to spread the gospel: “Tell them what changes you’re making. Give examples,” he tells Yanez.

It hits at the heart of what Guerrero’s teaching: namely, actions influence more than words.

So when Mariella Oliveros, 29, tells Guerrero of her regular pleas with her husband to listen better to their 10-year-old daughter, Guerrero turns the tables back to her.

“If you make the changes in the way you treat your daughter, your husband will notice and it will affect his behavior,” he responds.  

Though Guerrero is enthusiastic about his students’ progress, he’s discouraged by the limited attendance at the seminars; despite weeks of advertising, hundreds of flyers and even door-to-door house calls, Nuestra Voz’s session attracted, at most, a dozen families.

 Starting in the spring, he’s changing strategy: partnering with six Catholic churches across Sonoma County, hoping that endorsements from a faith-based organization will help recent immigrants to value the class. (In Sonoma, he’ll teach next at St. Francis Solano in March.)

 “Traditionally we do children’s therapy, but we know the better way is to do preventive work – teach the parent and teach the couple. If the couple is doing well, the children will see that and they will do well,” he said.

“They need to recognize when their kids are doing good things, good effort and recognize it in a personal way,” he said.

To sign up for a Triple P training session contact First 5 Sonoma County. To sign up for one of  Guerrero's sessions, contact Sonoma County Mental Health

Elora December 02, 2011 at 03:38 PM
Parenting is always a challenging job. To move to a new culture and to be dealing with the changes in your own daily life would be somewhat daunting in and of itself. This program teaches parenting skills, but also seems to provide support, for parents raising children in the new culture. Interesting to learn about it.
Dee Baucher December 02, 2011 at 08:30 PM
Parenting skills and support are important for all young families. It is disturbing that we have abandoned our own young non-Hispanic families, although we apparently have abundant resources for "immigrants". The needs of non-Hispanic families should not be overshadowed by the massive influx of immigrants, although this is clearly what this article implies.
dclaire December 02, 2011 at 08:51 PM
A well-written piece covering a promising parent education model, but I had to cringe at the introductory sentence, "Lessons in positive parenting may help Mexican immigrants adjust to American child rearing – but first, health officials have to get them in the door." My experiences as a children's social worker for LA County, paired with my graduate work on American child abuse prevention models, taught me that "American child rearing" is nothing to brag about. Child abuse, neglect, and exploitation is rampant in this country, far out-pacing that found in most advanced countries. Also, the Triple P parenting program is not American in origin. As the article states, it hails from Australia. My point is this: Parenting is so challenging. Most of us could use some help, at least from time to time, to best address the barrage of issues arising as children mature. I guess I would prefer language that does not appear to rank one culture's parenting style over another when the real issue, as I see it, is supporting all families in ways that promote healthy outcomes for kids, their parents, and the community as a whole, as Mario Guerrero's program seems bent on doing. Kudos to Guerrero & First Five Sonoma County!
Dorothy December 02, 2011 at 09:51 PM
My mother was a first generation American, who had to cross the "barrier" to American culture for her family. First generation children have one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. While parenting is always a challenge, it is more so for new immigrants who themselves are trying to adjust to a new culture and to maintain their traditional family values. While the Triple P program was developed in Australia, its positive approach could only be helpful. I did not see this article as one that criticized the culture of the Mexican immigrants and was surprised by the above comments. I saw the article as one that recognized the fact that they fact more challenges simply because like my grandparents, they have one foot in the old world and one foot in the new world. Helping them is helping the future. Thanks Patch for having a feature on this special program.
Elora December 02, 2011 at 10:00 PM
I am one of those first generation children. My father immigrated to the US at age 18. He always had a strong immigrant identiy and felt insecure because of it. While he loved his children, his parenting was austere and not American at all in style. While some of this may have been purely due to his culture, some of it was due to his challenges in adjusting to his new life in the US--a challenge that should not be minimized. While all parents face challenges, immigrant parents face one additional one--the challenge of their own adjustment to their life in the "new world". I cannot understand any reason to object to helping our immigrant families face some of their extra challenges. Their children may be the lawyers (my sister) and health care workers (me) of the future.
Richard December 02, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Interesting to learn how many of us are first and second generation Americans. That is what makes this article and the Triple P program that is being offered by Mario Guerrero so important to our entire Sonoma community. Rather than being a critique of the immigrant community, the program and the article recognize that immigrants may face many unique challenges due to the enormous changes in their lives. They come to find the American dream and for some they make that move for the good of their children. My friend's (continued below)
Richard December 02, 2011 at 10:56 PM
(continuation) parents moved from another country to the US for their 10 year old son. The father, a professor in his homeland, had his first job as a bicycle deliveryman for a restaurant. The family went from a small but comfortable home to a one room apartment. Try to imagine that kind of strain on a person and how that might affect their parenting as well as other aspects of their life. In my friend's case, the father became the strictest model of a traditional parent that he could, and my friend suffered many beatings growing up. The father was so afraid that if he bent at all, his son would somehow not turn out all right A program such as Triple P might help such immigrants to deal with some of the issues that they face which are above and beyond the usual parenting issues. The fact that it has worked in Australia and with a variety of Americans makes it hopeful that it might help some of our Sonoma immigrant families. While Guerrero is running a program for immigrant families, if anyone is interested in other programs, just click on the First 5 "link" in the article, and you can see that First 5 has a great many parenting programs in addition to the one in the article. Thanks to Patch for highlighting this unique program which might make things a little better for some of our immigrant neighbors. As for my friend, despite being terrified of his father while growing up, he went to an Ivy League college on scholarship and is a successful professional.
Irene Morgan December 06, 2011 at 03:12 PM
Interesting program. I agree that when we help the parents, we help the children who are the next generation. While First 5 has many programs, this one is unique because it targets our immigrant population on whom our Sonoma economy depends in part. Thanks for the article Partch.


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