By Leslie Crawford
As parents, we're expected to be experts. From the moment we laid eyes on our newborn babies — so perfect, so innocent — we vowed to be ever-patient, loving, and devoted. We follow through, too, doing our homework, devouring parenting books, magazines, and (ahem) websites. But then, all our best intentions are undone in untenable trigger moments: on "happy" family vacations when backseat whining morphs mom into Medusa; when frantically hunting for missing homework and bellowing, "You're making me late for work again!" or during the pre-dinner witching hour when kid crankiness reaches its nails-on-the-chalkboard peak. "Help!" we silently scream during those darkest of parenting moments, followed by: "Isn't there someone out there who can tell me what to do!?"
Why yes, there is. Enter the parent coach, a modern invention that is slowly gaining a foothold with a generation of overtaxed parents desperate to do a better job. Parenting in the 21st century means that — sprinkled amongst those joyful moments that come with raising a new human being – you will face an unimaginable smorgasbord of pitfalls. Sure, you might have taken birthing classes, but after that, from toddler tantrums to adolescent attitude, it's up to you to be a pro at parenting.
So, what exactly does a parent coach do? Act as your very own 24-hour personal parent trainer who rubs your shoulders and gives you a pep talk whenever you endure a tough bout of back talk? ("Go, Mom, go! You can win this round. Remember: Gentle but firm!") Or does she march into your home à la TV's Supernanny, take a prim white glove to your family’s dirty laundry, scold your ill-behaved children — and ineffectual parenting — and send you to your naughty corner?
Neither, according to Gloria DeGaetano, founder of the Parent Coaching Institute (PCI). Parent coach graduates don’t blithely ladle out advice or admonishments. As with a career or life coach, a parent coach assesses her clients' strengths and challenges. This is not therapy, stresses DeGaetano. Instead, the coach's goal is to help moms and dads minimize the difficulties and maximize the joy of parenting. "Parents are the experts on their own children," says DeGaetano, who explains her coaches — just like athletic coaches – are there to help parents improve their game. "Our coaching helps parents be more authentic. So instead of screaming, they say, 'I feel like screaming.'"
When DeGaetano founded PCI in 1999, she says she recognized a gaping need that wasn't being filled: a lot of stressed parents seeking solutions. “They want something better for their family, but they didn't know how to get it," she explains. While PCI has a specific approach to parent coaching — best described as an informed, gentle guide — there are many different kinds of coaches out there. A "gentle guide" coach might listen to parents describe their day and ask questions to identify pain points. For example, to the mom who transformed into a screaming meanie in the car, DeGaetano says that instead of doling out quick, facile advice ("Pull over and take a breath"), a coach would help her client focus on the singular goal they are both working toward: becoming the kind of mom she wants to be. ("What do you want to be when you're driving?")
Another approach coaches take is to offer specific solutions to solve prickly problems parents face regularly, including how to avoid power struggles, manage sibling fights, lay down firm boundaries, or stay connected with a recalcitrant teen. Coaches also prove valuable, says DeGaetano, with a myriad of school issues like getting kids to do their homework without drama and being an effective advocate with your child's teacher and school. A good coach also helps parents create a plan so they're not winging it from moment to moment but instead deftly navigating the often dizzying 18-year roller-coaster ride.
PCI's certified coaches — all of whom complete a one-year training and have experience as parent or child therapists or educators — do initial interviews with clients and have them fill out a questionnaire in order to assess their parenting styles. A coach may or may not do a home visit, but most coaching takes place over the phone — a practicality, says DeGaetano, for time-crunched parents. Some will offer unlimited email access so that parents get a timely response to a sudden problem.
Coaching usually runs anywhere from $75 to $125 per hour; depending on a parent’s needs, 8 to 12 one-hour sessions typically does the trick. (PCI, a nonprofit, offers pro bono help to families who can't afford a coach.) To make sure they stay on track, or to bolster skills when new challenges arise, some parents return for an occasional parenting tune-up for months, and even years, following their initial coaching sessions. In the moment (and by the hour), it's an expensive form of help. Pricier, say, than a mother’s helper or a little extra babysitting. But then again, this is skill-building time, not a break.
Every coach interviewed for this article says that critics of parent coaches echo a familiar refrain: "A parent coach? Our parents didn't need a coach!" After all, long before the word "parenting" ever existed, moms and dads were just plain old parents, no fancy-smancy training required. In previous generations, the very idea of asking — and paying — a stranger for advice would have been as preposterous as saying to your child, "Honey, I'm sorry you're so angry we have to leave your play date. I can give you fifteen more minutes…okay?"
But, argues Kerrie LaRosa, a Bay Area parent coach who is also a licensed clinical social worker, "Our parents also didn’t go the gym. They didn't have house cleaners. They didn’t utilize counseling services and didn’t go to the doctor as much. There are a lot of services we use now to make life easier." Besides, LaRosa points out, today's parents "have these busy and complicated lives" made no easier by the fact that so many families have two working parents, live far away from relatives, and are struggling to parent wisely while trying to keep at bay the relentless influence of pop culture and the media.
With an increasing number of parent coaches offering their services, PCI's DeGaetanosuggests that moms and dads look for coaches with extensive professional training and experience. "It's important to look at the person's credentials and do your research," says DeGaeto, whose parent coaches all have backgrounds working with children and families, including social workers, counselors, community health workers, and child care directors.
Adele Faber, co-author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (among other breakthrough parenting tomes) — and who could arguably be described as the mother of all parent coaches — encourages parents to be cautious when inviting an "expert" to provide parenting guidance. "I'm loathe to say go ahead [with a parent coach] until you know something about this person's basic belief," says Faber, who notes that parenting is an intensely personal matter. She advises that along with asking for references, first get a sense about the person's approach and make sure that it will mesh well with yours. And if you find your very own Mary Poppins? "If you're lucky enough to get a good coach," Faber says, "that could be something special."
Ryan and Tia Ribary weren't looking for a parent coach. Like most fledgling parents, they were experiencing sleep and other toddler-induced challenges with 18-month-old Rowan. "Like a lot of parents," says Ryan, "we wanted to be great parents but kept finding we were butting our heads against the wall." Tia adds that because she and Ryan "weren't exactly sure of the 'best' way to respond to a situation, it was easy to waver or not act on something, which created inconsistency and arguments. There are so many parenting tips out there, as well [our] different backgrounds [as] parents…We found that we questioned ourselves about the right way to handle things and were not always in agreement, either." They shared their parenting war stories with a friend who knew a parent coach based in their home town of Vancouver, WA.
Tia explains that her initial response was, "'Wow, is there seriously someone like that out there?!" Despite some ambivalence, they were willing to give it a try. To kick it off, coach Sheila Wenger conducted an initial home visit, had them complete the multi-page questionnaire, and write a family mission statement that Ryan and Tia would heed whenever a domestic kerfuffle threatened to undermine their family's happiness.
Wenger, a longtime high school teacher before becoming a PCI-certified coach, says her work is so satisfying because coaching brings about tangible, lasting improvements. "Parent coaching is designed to be a true transformation," Wenger says. "Because the changes are so positive and impactful, the parents have a natural motivation not to go back to how it was. [It gets to the point] where they say, 'Gosh, I'll just never do that again.'"
After more than a year of regular consultations, the Ribarys say that thanks to Wenger — according to them a veritable mom-and-pop miracle worker — they are a family transformed, evidenced by the fact, attests Ryan, that Rowan, now four and a half, to date has had only one 30-second tantrum, which Ryan and Tia knew how to put the kibosh on instantly.
"I'd love to say we're amazing parents," Ryan says. "But honestly I have to say that [because of Wenger] we're well-prepared." Parent coaching, "simply makes your life easier. It gets Mom and Dad on the same page. It's made our marriage better and cut down on stress of family life," he says.
"The biggest advantage to us has been a much happier home," agrees Tia, who notes that there's simply more family harmony: Rowan knows the rules and she and Ryan are clear on how to enforce them. "It has given me way more confidence as a parent," adds Tia. "Each time I have a session, I think, 'Why on earth would someone not do this?'"
True, close-to-perfect parenting doesn't come cheaply, but Ryan insists it's been worth every penny. "People routinely say to me, 'It costs this, it costs that.' I tell them that beyond all the investing we have done for college and retirement planning, this is the best investment we've ever made." And it’s one Ryan believes will stand him in good stead as Rowan grows into the creature that can be the undoing of even the most stalwart parents: a teen. "Well, I hope it will," he says with only the faint hint of a nervous laugh.