The Swenson Family Meets a Parenting Education Program at the Grassroots Level.

A Case Study of Tonya and Greg Swenson
By Appreciable Goodfaithpoet

Tonya is a 45 year old mother of two children, ages 16 and 19. Greg is a 46 year old father of four children, ages 20, 17, 15, and 11. Tonya divorced her first husband four years ago and married Greg two weeks ago after he divorced his first wife of 23 years last year. Greg and his former wife have joint custody of their children and Tonya has sole custody of her children. Most of the children do not want to be part of this new step-family. Tonya’s family had adjusted quite well to their single parent life-style and don’t like having to share the house with a bunch of strangers. Greg’s children are still coping with their parent’s divorce and now have to deal with living with new people. Greg’s oldest child recently moved into his own apartment, rather than live with the new step family. His 17 year old child also has expressed interest in moving out. Greg believes that children should be given lots of chores and responsibility. Greg also believes that a man should be in charge of the house and that all the children should respect their father. Tonya thinks that children should be given lots of love and affection, few rules and restrictions and then things will be just fine. Tonya’s former husband is very bitter about the divorce and likes to use the children as pawns. He will tell the children bad things about their mother and ask the children about the new husband. The children are very confused about the new rules and roles in the home. They don’t know if they need to obey their new step-parent. They really don’t like their new step-siblings. Family life is very unclear and chaotic.

An assessment of parenting practices
The parenting practices in the Tonya and Greg Swenson family seem rather polarized. Greg is an authoritarian parent and Tonya is a permissive parent. For this blended family, the challenges of coming together in a positive way are compounded by the fact that this step family would have an easier time bonding if their parenting styles were reversed. Step-Fathers who are authoritarian have very difficult time interacting with their step-daughters. More fuel is added to the fire in the decision of Greg and Tonya to live in Tonya’s home after their marriage. It would ease the situation over territory if they were to move into a home that is new to all of them.
Tonya’s permissive style would be greatly improved if she were to adopt the ideas of William Doherty in his wonderful book “Taking back our Kids” which he wrote to address what he viewed as a growing confidence gap among American parents. This book describes the pendulum swing that sometimes occurs when children are determined not to repeat the mistakes of their parents. Doherty suggested that in avoiding the expectation of unquestioning obedience from their children, that many parents have become afraid to exercise any authority at all.
Greg would do well to adopt some of the qualities that Tonya shows in her parenting style. “If you suspect that your child is feeling sad, angry, or fearful, it’s helpful to try to put yourself in their shoes, to see the world from their perspective. If you find that you are mad, but you can continue to talk rationally to your child, leading to some degree of understanding, stay engaged. Tell your child what is on your mind, listen to his response, and keep talking. If, on the other hand, you find that you’re so intensely angry that you can’t think clearly, take a break from the situation and return to it later when you feel less aroused. Parents should also retreat if they feel they’re on the verge of doing or saying destructive things, such as hitting or insulting their kids. Spanking, sarcasm, threats, derogatory statements, or expressions of contempt should definitely be avoided. Rather than hitting children or lobbing hurtful comments at them, parents should take a breather, promising they’ll return to the discussion when they are calmer.” (Gottman, John “Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child” pp. 80) We can also learn from the example of other families that the blending of a family can be done in a positive and enjoyable way. “For children and adults involved in ‘blended’ families, the transition can be both challenging and rewarding. A family in rural Kansas has created friendships and connections that are extended to all of its family members. Six years ago two young girls participated in the wedding of their mother and new stepfather. Since then, the girls have helped to raise their half-brother and to support the family cattle and soybean business. The girls’ biological father (a valued parent and friend) is also an active part of the family, visiting frequently, joining celebrations, and involving girls with their paternal relatives. ‘Living here in the Flint hills country on a farm/ranch, we are involved in 4H, and all school activities. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are also a big part of our lives. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this wonderful family. I guess we forget, or just don’t think of ourselves as being ‘blended’, just a family that enjoys, works, listens, and loves each other to the fullest. The girls are lucky that they have two Dads that love and take care of them. I feel this has a great deal to do with our family doing so well together. The two dads do not compete to outdo the other or put the other down. They are both there for the girls and the girls’ needs. I think the girls enjoy having a little brother.” (Giddens, Anthony et al. “Introduction to Sociology Sixth Edition” pp. 489) “A stepfamily may be defined as a family in which at least one of the adults is a stepparent. Many who remarry become stepparents of children who regularly visit rather than live in the same household. Stepfamilies bring into being kin ties that resemble those of some traditional societies but that are new in Western countries. Children may now have two “mothers” and two “fathers” – their natural parents and their stepparents. Some stepfamilies regard all the children and close relatives from previous marriages as part of the family. If we consider that at least some of the grandparents may be part of the family as well, the result is a situation of some complexity.
“Certain particular difficulties tend to arise in step families. In the first place, there usually exists a biological parent living elsewhere whose influence over the child or children is likely to remain powerful. Cooperative relations between divorced individuals often become strained when one or both remarry. Take as an illustration the case of a woman with two children who marries a man also with two children, all six living together. If the “outside” parents demand the same times of visitation as previously, the tensions that arise from welding such a newly established family together are likely to be intense. It may prove impossible to have the new family all together on weekends.
“Stepfamilies merge children from different backgrounds, who may have varying
expectations in the family milieu. Since most stepchildren belong to two households, the possibilities of clashes of habits and outlooks are considerable. There are few established norms defining the relationships between stepparent and stepchild. Should a child call a new stepparent by name, or is “Dad” or “Mom” more appropriate? Should the stepparent play the same part in disciplining the children as the natural parent? How should a stepparent treat the new spouse of her previous partner when the children are picked up?
“Research on family-structure effects on children shows that girls experience more detrimental outcomes from stepfamily living, whereas boys demonstrate more negative outcomes from single-parent family living. The more negative effects for boys may be because single-parent family living generally means living with a mother only, and thus the male role model is absent. Girls are more likely to bond with their mothers in this type of family. A remarriage that introduces a stepfather may cause girls to feel that their close relationship with their mother is threatened. It is speculated that this is why girls living in step families experience more negative outcomes.
“Members of stepfamilies are finding their own ways of adjusting to the relatively uncharted circumstances in which they find themselves. Perhaps the most appropriate conclusion to be drawn is that while marriages are broken up by divorce, families on the whole are not. Especially when children are involved, ties persist.” (Introduction to Sociology Sixth Edition by Anthony Giddens, et al. pp. 490)

A parenting education program
William Doherty said in his book, Take Back Your Kids, that “We need to understand that today’s child-rearing problems are bigger than any individual family, that they are community problems as well, and that solutions must also come from the community level. We need to fight against the parental peer pressure that is driving us as parents to continually provide more goods and better services for our children.” Anyone who doubts the power of Grassroots Activism should read the full text of “Grassroots Activism: Mothers of East Los Angeles” by Mary Pardo pp. 467 in Readings for Sociology, Fifth edition edited by Garth Massey. This article shows how people can change their communities when they make their voices heard. This article describes how the placement of a toxic waste incinerator in a community caused women to unite, organize and educate themselves and then successfully take on big business in the political and legal arena. The group “Mothers of East Los Angeles was organized by the initiative of one woman who began speaking with her neighbors and friends about how to protect their children from the dangers that this toxic waste incinerator presented in their community.
Neighborhoods and Communities have a strong influence in the risks to which adolescents are exposed. People have studied the effect of communities in producing a tendency toward the delinquency of its young people. Sociological studies have focused on the way that neighborhoods promote or discourage deviant behavior in
young people. Many of these studies talk about the fact that if neighborhoods have a common positive identity and if they are warm toward and concerned with the safety of other people in the community, that this has a profound effect on discouraging criminal behavior. When people move around a lot and they do not know the people who live near them very well, they are less cautious about hurting the feelings of and destroying the property of their neighbors and those who share the community. These tendencies are linked to the lack of closeness that can be formed with neighbors after years of interaction and also by a disregard for the opinions and feelings of others who live in the neighborhood because of this lack of closeness and warmth. A community forms a reputation over time about the acceptability of drug use and the availability of drug use. The reputation of a community has an effect on the adolescents who are from that city or region. (Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood - third edition - a cultural approach by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett p. 435)

In some families, the parents say, "We do not talk like that in our home." This can build a family identity that is free of profanity. In a similar way communities have a similar belief system and mantra that is out among the members of the community. One might overhear someone say, "Here in our city things are very different, you can get drugs very easily and there are a very large number of people who use drugs in this City. It has always been that way and it will always be that way."
The comprehensive school experience and climate can have a strong influence on adolescents’ choices and the degree to which they participate in risky behavior. School environments can have an influence on the amount of delinquency in a community. The young people from different social classes and family backgrounds and environments are sometimes affected in a similar way by their common school climate.
Schools can also have a positive effect on young people when they have a balance between academically successful students and students who are struggling academically. When there are successful students who are committed to following the rules, they can serve as role models to the other students. These successful students set the tone for the school and it discourages misbehavior by the other students. Another important quality of successful schools is having a belief system that permeates throughout the school. Good belief systems encourage the value of learning and success in this area is rewarded. In successful schools there is a fair system of discipline and this led to low levels of delinquency among the students. (Summarized from Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood - third edition - a cultural approach by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett p. 434)

The Parenting Education program that I have designed is intended to tap in to this grassroots effort to improve communities by using the efforts of the families who are in need. The first eleven weeks of this program will be taught by people who are in their last three weeks of the program. These programs are taught in the homes of the families in the community in a cottage meeting setting. The Swenson family was invited to participate in the program by two men from their neighborhood who came to their door and invited them to participate in a program to strengthen their neighborhood. Because this program is run completely by volunteers it is always free of charge. This helps the neighborhood to improve and become more concerned with the wellbeing of the community as it strengthens individual families as well.

Lesson 1
An example of the influences of the past which I identified recently in my life was one that involved the furnace at our house. When we "turn off the furnace for the summer" it has a feeling of great and ceremonious importance and even if the temperature drops down to an uncomfortable level we do not ever turn the furnace back on in order to heat our home during exceptionally cold spring weather. However, my wife and I realized the other day, that we have newer technology in furnaces in our home than our parents had in their homes as we were growing up. Back in the time that our parents were growing up heating the home again with the furnace involved a more extensive process of lighting the furnace again with a match which could lead to being blown up. Due to technological advances during the course of our lives we can now just switch the furnace to "on" and it will light itself and heat the house even it we have "turned it off for the summer." Having realized this unproductive and uncomfortable tradition in our family we will now turn the furnace on and off whenever the house needs to be cooled or heated. That is progress!
A clergyman in our community shared a very interesting story that occurred many years ago. One of the couples in the congregation was really struggling in their marriage and they came to ask for help. The clergyman identified the main problem which originated in the fact that the husband felt that his wife was very wasteful. The main example of this, the husband said, was the fact that whenever his wife cooked a roast, she would always cut the smallest end off and throw it in the garbage. The clergyman asked the wife why she did this. The wife replied that it was what her mother had always done. In an effort to resolve the argument, the clergyman got on the phone and asked her mother why she cut off the end of the roast and threw it away. She explained that when her daughter was living at home she did not have a roasting pan that was large enough and that is why she would cut the roast and throw some of it in the garbage. This information quickly defused the situation and the couple left with a positive feeling of understanding between them.
“In pre-modern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in its middle mostly about raising children, and only in the end was about love. Few couples in fact married for love, but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life’s experiences. Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins with being in love; in its middle, it is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and in the end, it is – often – about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory.” (Introduction to Sociology Sixth Edition by Anthony Giddens, et al. pp. 476)
These two containers represent the time that we make available for our families. One container is larger and one is smaller (the smaller container will be too small to even hold one gumball) if we use this larger container and place the gumballs into the container first and then shake the rice down into the spaces, there will be room for everything. The gumballs represent the good things we can receive from our families such as acceptance, love, companionship and fulfillment. If we place the rice into the container first there is no amount of shaking that will make the gumballs fit as well.
The rice represents common daily tasks. The moral of the story is that we must choose good priorities so that we can keep all of the gumballs. Or, in other words, making time in our lives for each other and then choosing good priorities in using that time will ensure that we will build and maintain positive relationships with each other. This example shows the emphasis that we need to have a sufficient quantity of time if we are to have quality time as well.
Lesson 2
“Research indicates that children often suffer a period of marked emotional anxiety after the separation of their parents. Almost all children experienced intense emotional disturbance at the time of the divorce. Preschool age children were confused and frightened, tending to blame themselves for the separation. Older children were better able to understand their parents’ motives for divorce but frequently worried about its effects on their future and expressed sharp feelings of anger. Children tend to bring memories and feelings of their parents’ divorce into their own romantic relationships. Almost all felt that they had suffered in some way from their parents’ mistakes. It is not surprising that most of them shared a hope for something their parents had failed to achieve – a good, committed marriage based on love and faithfulness. Nearly half of children who go through their parents divorce enter adulthood as worried, underachieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women. Although many of them got married themselves, the legacy of their parents’ divorce lived with them. Those who appeared to manage the best were often helped by supportive relationships with one or both parents. (Introduction to Sociology Sixth Edition by Anthony Giddens, et al. pp. 487) Class members would now discuss the needs of their children and offer ideas and support.

Lesson 3
Refusal techniques are very important for parents to learn. Saying “no” is much easier when you offer alternatives. The practice setting for this lesson will be role-playing a situation when young people will be asking if they can go to Mexico for spring break and drink alcohol and engage in risky sexual activity. Your task as the parent is to practice saying, “No.”
In his book, William Doherty said, “My local newspaper has been running a series on alcohol and teens. Kids in earlier generations drank alcohol, often to excess. The difference now, as documented in the newspaper articles, is that parents supply the keg of beer, the house or hotel room, and the funds to enjoy a Mexican frolic of booze and sex during spring break. Most parents who were interviewed were reluctant to let their children go on a Mexican spring break this year, but were unable to say ‘no’: ‘It’s all kids talk about for months beforehand and months after. You don’t want her to be the only kid at lunch not going. How sad would that be?’ This kind of insecure, confused parenting that can’t say ‘no’ ends up handing over a child to the peer culture.”
Mr. Doherty continues, “A college student whose parents had not let her go to Cancun during high school is now glad her parents insisted on a different kind of spring break. Her trip would have centered only on drinking, she said. ‘I cried for a day, but I got over it. I never would have been able to handle this…’ You sometimes have to withstand your kids’ anger and tears in order to deserve gratitude at a later age.”
The final part of this lesson is a role play where parents take turns listening to their children (played by other adults) deeply in order to discover what is really at the root of their concerns.

Gottman, John “Raising and Emotionally Intelligent Child” pp. 80

Giddens, Anthony et al. “Introduction to Sociology Sixth Edition” pp. 489, 490

Pardo, Mary “Grassroots Activism: Mothers of East Los Angeles” pp. 467 in Readings for Sociology, Fifth edition edited by Garth Massey.

Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen “Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood - third edition - a cultural approach” pp. 434

Doherty, William “Taking back our Kids”

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